Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Special E and NASCAR

I found out this week I was a bigger Dale Earnhardt fan than a NASCAR fan. I guess a lot of people found out the same thing. I was talking about it with my long time friend and co-worker Kevin on Tuesday (Kevin is one of the biggest Dale fans anywhere). He’s always said Dale and I shared the same personality. I usually took it as a compliment, laughed and didn’t think about it. This week, Kevin really zeroed in on it, saying two similar aspects were very apparent. One, people who knew Dale, liked him. People who didn’t know him, didn’t know what to make of him. Two, he had a willingness to act like a jerk, as a last resort, to get the job done. When all else failed, he’d take over and bang his way through to the front.

He seemed to validate that attitude for a lot of people. His success showed that it was OK to believe you were right. Somewhat Machiavellian, but effective, as long as nobody got hurt.

So what is NASCAR going to do with people like me now that Dale’s gone? They can’t just invent another Earnhardt. Dale, Jr. is a young driver with a good car, but he’s a completely different personality than his father. Many fans will just transfer their allegiance from the “3” to the “8.” Others won’t be able to do that. Dale Jr. is 26 years old; his father was 49 when he died. NASCAR’s fan base is closer to 49 than it is to 26. So they have to make the sport itself the attraction.

Since it’s inception, NASCAR has been a sport built on personalities. Petty, Yarborough, Roberts, Allison. All personalities who reminded people of themselves. Dale Earnhardt might have been the last of those individual personalities. Willing to speak his mind, Dale never worried about sponsor relations, political correctness or what people thought. He had his fans, and he had his detractors. He was what he was.

Most other drivers have fallen lockstep into the corporate world of niceness. They’re homogenized so as to not make anybody mad. There’s nothing the matter with that with all the money at stake, but it’s not going to draw fans to the sport in the traditional way. The competition itself has to be the reason to watch.

With constant changes in the rules, NASCAR is trying to keep that balance between safety and competitiveness. Keeping the drivers alive should now be the clear focus of the NASCAR officials in a very public way. Nine deaths in the last ten years are starting to make even the diehards wonder.

I’ll be watching the races on Sundays. I used to check who won if I was out. I now realize I was just checking to see if Dale had won. Now I don’t know what I’ll be checking for. Maybe NASCAR will have an answer for that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


As the two cars he owned flashed past the checkered flag in the 43rd Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt’s life had already ended. Racing inches apart in a pack of cars in turn 4, Earnhardt’s Chevy was touched by Sterling Marlin, dropped down to the bottom of the track then shot up into the outside retaining wall at about 180 mph, hitting it head on.

Had anything else happened, another car touched him on the way up, Kenny Schrader hit him earlier, anything, and Dale Earnhardt might be alive. But Earnhardt’s neck took the brunt of the impact and he died instantly. When Schrader looked into the 3 car in the infield and immediately called for emergency personnel, you knew it was really bad. And when NASCAR officials and others associated with the track were mum about his condition, we feared the worst.

But when the announcement came, just before seven o’clock, there was a real sense of disbelief.

Earnhardt? Dead? Impossible!

He’s the guy who always walks away! He’s the Intimidator! But it is true and perhaps NASCAR’s greatest driver and certainly their biggest star is now gone.

The only thing that overshadows his death is his life itself. His career is nearly unmatched. Seven Winston Cup titles, 76 NASCAR victories, 34 wins at Daytona in all kinds of races, two-time American Driver of the Year. By any measure, his career stats put him among the best ever. But it was his style, his attitude that separated Earnhardt from the field, and fans loved him, or hated him for it.

As he sat in his car prior to this year’s Bud Shootout at Daytona, a reporter asked Earnhardt if he had a strategy for the race. “Get to the front,” he said slyly with a smile. “And then,” the reporter continued. “Stay there,” Earnhardt replied. That was it in a nutshell. Get to the front and stay there. Don’t be content with second if you can be first or even tenth if you can be ninth. Earnhardt brought an attitude to the track that he was going to win. Period. Anything else is less than acceptable. His fans loved it. They knew he’d do just about anything to be the winner, even bend the rules a little bit. If it meant shoving somebody out of the way, or putting them in the wall, he’d do it. Yet, Earnhardt was never accused of being a dirty driver, just aggressive. He was considered one of the safest drivers during his best years in the early ‘90’s. His style polarized the fans. There were those for Earnhardt, and then the A.B.E’s. Anybody But Earnhardt.

People “connected” with Earnhardt. He was a son of the South, and made no excuses for it. He made NASCAR fans proud to be NASCAR fans. You couldn’t go five feet at a race and not see something with the famous “3” on it.

It would be hard to overstate the loss NASCAR has suffered with Earnhardt’s death. The most famous driver, still at the top of his game, gone. Killed on the biggest stage in the sport at the beginning of what NASCAR had hoped to be their biggest year ever. For all the talk about restrictor plates, aerodynamic packages, new sponsors and the new television contract, there is no getting around the risk inherent in the sport. We’re just reminded of that too often.

The safety of the drivers, the safety of the fans and the competitive nature of the racing are NASCAR’s biggest concerns. Finding the right balance between the three is a delicate juggling act. Yes, the Daytona 500 was as competitive as ever, but at what price? Were the drivers involved in the wreck on lap 174 just lucky to walk away? One accident, nineteen cars.

Last year’s three NASCAR deaths and now Earnhardt’s have all been attributed to trauma to the base of the driver’s skull. Would wearing the HANS device, designed to keep the head in place during an accident, have saved those drivers? His voice cracking, the trauma surgeon at Daytona speculated he didn’t think so yesterday at the track.

Dale’s death will make NASCAR take an even closer look at driver safety, especially on the high-speed, super speedways.

When a NASCAR driver is killed, the sport usually takes care of itself. It’s a part of the game, they tell themselves. Because the popularity is so personality driven, the fans take it hard. Drivers spend hours with the sponsors, fans and media to fulfill one of the primary functions of NASCAR itself: promote the product. Even though there are “teams” in NASCAR, the only faces recognizable are the ones behind the wheel. Earnhardt’s was the most recognizable face. He was the face of NASCAR.

As a reporter, I covered Earnhardt’s entire career. From his first appearance in 1979 to his final race at Daytona. I liked Dale. I was even an Earnhardt fan. He could be short with the media, but usually only after a failure in a race that didn’t make sense to him. His approach to the sport appealed to me. He was meticulous in his preparation and interested in one thing: winning. After his victory at Daytona in 1998 I have never seen a competitor that happy. No post-game locker room celebrations at the Super Bowl or the World Series matched the mixture of joy, relief and accomplishment Earnhardt displayed that evening. Like most fans, I checked on Dale’s position at every race. At Daytona I noted who’s leading and: Where’s Dale? He was my favorite driver. And one of my favorite people in all of sports.

And I’ll miss him.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bright Lights, Big NASCAR

I was walking through the NASCAR Winston Cup Garage when a familiar voice called out, “hey boy, where you been?” I turned and saw Cale Yarborough headed in my direction, big smile on his face and his hand extended.

The year was 1981. I had been working in Charleston, S.C. for three years and moved to Jacksonville in the spring. This was before everybody was wired with cable, and way before satellite television was all the rage. Cale lived in Sardis, S.C., northwest of Charleston and had a huge antenna on his garage so he could get Charleston television. Turns out, he watched my station for news all the time.

“I moved to Jacksonville,” I answered.
“Well, it’s great to see you,” Cale said as he patted me on the back.

Boy, have things changed. It seems like a million years ago, but NASCAR has moved into the big time. NASCAR used to be the easiest sport to cover. The garage area was uncluttered, just a few writers and very few television cameras. No fans, no sponsors. The drivers were eager to talk, eager to give their sponsors publicity.

NASCAR didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, so they created their own. Magazines, newsletters, their own radio network, all devoted to NASCAR, fulltime. There wasn’t a lot of money in the sport, and actually only a few teams had a chance to win. They had the money to do the testing, to buy the best parts and to have the right guys on their team.

I can remember sitting in the garage with Dale Earnhardt and saying “what’d you learn out there today.” “I learned we don’t have enough car to win,” Dale snapped back, and then smiled. All of that has changed.

Since cable television discovered NASCAR and began showing every race, the sport has exploded. The garage is packed now, dozens of writers and television crews with fans and sponsors granted access by NASCAR as well. Because they never needed it in the past, NASCAR never developed a public relations arm. The drivers sought you out.

Now, with drivers running in the other direction every time they see a reporter with a notepad or microphone (unless it has a network insignia on it), the relationship between the competitors and the media is beginning to be like every other sport: a bit frosty. Each team is beginning to hire their own pr staff, ensuring their driver and his sponsors will get airtime.

From a regional sport to the big time, NASCAR has made the transition with purpose. They’ve prepared to take the national stage bit by bit. Going to Indianapolis, promoting their own Daytona 500 as the “Super Bowl of Racing,” even holding their year-end banquet in New York, they’ve taken cautious steps before stepping into the spotlight across the country.

The new television contract, the extended season and just the sheer amount of money in racing now will demand they be prepared to take the good with the bad while under the natural scrutiny the exposure will bring. Up until now, the sport has been clean. The only scandals involved on-track incidents. No talk about the drivers’ personal lives. No investigations into what they’re up to off the track. Nobody but their loyal fans cared. Not anymore.

NASCAR is huge. Are they ready?

I think so.

They take care of their core fans, catering to them at the track and on television. You can buy just about anything and everything with Dale Earnhardt’s picture on it, or the number “3”. Want to listen to Dale talk with his pit crew, his car owner and his spotter? No problem. Here’s a pair of headsets with the frequency of every driver on the track. Need to know the rpm’s in the turns? Right on your screen, the in car telemetry tells you.

They’ll be made fun of, for sure. The way they talk, the billboard advertising on the cars and drivers. But aren’t they just taking the first steps where other sports will follow? Golfers have sponsorship worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even baseball and football uniforms have the first sign of manufacturers logos on them.

New fans being exposed to the sport for the first time will learn the drivers, their numbers and their owners and crew chiefs. They’ll know something about the personalities as well. NASCAR has taken a piece of the network television pie.

They’re sitting at the table with the other “major” sports.
Will they be served the main course?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Xtreme Reaction

First of all, everybody should relax. You’d think they were going to take John Unitas out of the Hall of Fame. The reaction to the launch of the XFL rivals the outcry of when baseball went on strike. The critics have been hot, the supporters a bit tepid.

It’s not the Lindbergh crossing, it’s not a man on the moon, it’s minor league football. Yes, it was heavy on television production, heavy on scantily clad women, heavy on yelling, tight shots and hand-held cameras but it’s not as if they’re invading the planet.

There is a market for spring football in the U.S.. The USFL showed that, and would have been successful if Donald Trump hadn’t killed it off by insisting on a move to the fall to go head-to-head with the NFL. The XFL is the latest incarnation of spring football. This time it’s WWF style. Well choreographed, well scripted and regrettably, not very well played. Some good camera angles, some television innovations that the NFL will eventually adopt to make their league more “fan friendly.”

If you tuned in to the XFL for football, you were disappointed. In fact, you tuned in for all of the wrong reasons. The pre-promotion promised something different, even something better. We did get something different, but certainly nothing better than what we know as professional football.

The quality of play was just above what we might see at any college stadium on a Saturday afternoon, but light years away from the level of competition in the NFL. But that’s not what the XFL is trying to do. They’re not trying to rival the NFL. Paying up to $50,000 in salary to the players is not going to attract any player capable of playing in the fall, or in Europe, or even in the Arena League. Players are in the XFL trying to get noticed. They’ve been rejected as potential players in the NFL, but want another chance. Some might prove the scouts wrong, but most will get their thrills, playing in what they’ll call a “professional” league, and be done with it.

When the USFL was launched, there was a large outcry that it would hurt the game. Stealing players from the NFL was somehow un-American. Spring football was stupid. Nobody will watch and certainly nobody would buy a ticket. That was before they played the games. Once they started, the quality of play wasn’t bad. Future NFL stars like Reggie White, Gary Clark, Jim Kelly and Steve Young were sprinkled throughout the USFL rosters. After a few weeks, it was clear, some teams were pretty good, and others were absolutely awful.

Which team in the XFL is the Washington Federals? Which is the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars? Are any?

The league can sustain itself on hype and flash for only so long. Actual football fans won’t be back if the games are similar to the Las Vegas/New York national debut. But that’s not who the XFL is trying to attract anyway. They’re looking for the wrestling fan to add another night to his or her routine. Monday Nitro, Thursday Thunder and now Saturday XFL.

The television ratings for the debut were phenomenal, but only early on. As the game raged on, the viewing public went elsewhere. Did they just tune out? Did they go somewhere else? Those are the questions researchers will be asking to see if the game attracted an entire new audience or just the passing fancy of the traditional sports fan. It was a huge entertainment package with football in the background. Is there anything the matter with that? No, but perhaps they should call it “Fressling” or “Wrasselball” instead.

Just remember, this is a league owned by the television networks and a promoter. It’s not a league that sprouted up and the television networks decided to cover it. There’s a big difference.

The product won’t satisfy people who want to see competition.

Those looking for something else will be just fine.