By hanging back in Sunday's race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made a statement a bit reminiscent of 1969.
Let’s take a glance at our History of Motorsports textbook – which, if it isn’t a real class, ought to be – and turn back to 1969. “Big” Bill France built the largest NASCAR oval on a couple of thousand acres of cotton fields east of Birmingham, Alabama, and stock car racing was never the same.
Decades later I was doing a story on protests surrounding the planned Texas Motorplex, Billy Meyer’s state-of-the-then-art drag strip south of Dallas in Ennis, Texas. Local residents complained that it would cause too much traffic and noise, and the pollution would hurt the crops and the cattle nearby. I called a few small towns that had race tracks nearby, and asked about the impact.
I remember calling the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Talladega, Alabama, asking whether having Talladega Superspeedway next door was a good thing or bad thing.
She answered my question with a question. “Let me ask you this,” she said. “Do you think you or anyone else would have ever heard of Talladega, Alabama, if it wasn’t for the track?” OK, a “good thing,” then.
The Professional Drivers Association, led by Richard Petty, asked France to postpone the race until Goodyear or Firestone could guarantee the tires would handle the load. France refused. His solution was to just not drive so fast. Which, to a lot of racers, wasn’t racing.
So, led by Petty – who had shredded three of the four Firestones on his car during qualifying -- the majority of the top drivers walked. The boycott did not sit well with France, who said he’d run a race anyway, and did, with a few of the top drivers like Bobby Isaac, but mostly second-tier drivers like the eventual winner, trivia question answer Richard Brickhouse.
That would never happen today. There is no Professional Drivers Association. Aside from the Michelin tire mess in Formula One at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005, where only the six Bridgestone-clad cars raced, or the original CART race that was called at Texas Motor Speedway because the track was deemed too fast, we’ve seen few walkouts.
But last Sunday, in his own way, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. boycotted Talladega Superspeedway. In a less notable, more quiet way, a lot of top drivers did, hanging near the back until late in the race because they were convinced the “Big One” was coming. And it did. Several times.
Earnhardt was near the front until his progress was impeded by a slower car, and he dropped back, finishing 26th. And explained his decision in a way only Dale Earnhardt, Jr., could – that he didn’t want to wreck a good car, that he didn’t want any more concussions, that he already had a win and is all but a lock to make the Chase.
The packs caused by the restrictor plates is the bone of contention now, as the tires were in 1969. This year, racing was often four wide, and you couldn’t hook up with a train of cars and rocket to the front like you once could. This was short-track racing on a huge superspeedway, and while it was fascinating from the stands, it was profoundly tense behind the wheel.
Drivers typically say the right things after a Talladega race, with the bolder ones admitting that perhaps restrictor plate racing is not their cup of tea. But when the cameras and microphones and notebooks are gone, plenty of drivers will tell you that whatever they do at Talladega, it isn’t racing. And it isn't fun.
Earnhardt will be back at Talladega for the second race of the season, and he’ll be back at Daytona, the other restrictor-plate track, where you kind of can race, a little. But not many drivers in NASCAR can afford to do what Mike Conway is doing in IndyCar – Conway doesn’t like the big ovals, so he contracted with team owner Ed Carpenter, who does, to just drive the street and road courses.
The purse is too good at Talladega, the audience is too big for any Sprint Cup driver to completely boycott the race there, even if they wanted to. Say what you want about Earnhardt’s decision to back off – I say it’s his way of telling NASCAR that they have some work to do on the restrictor-plate rules.