I grew up in a different era of NASCAR and I’ve recently realized how much things have changed while I wasn’t paying attention. It feels as though I have awoken from a deep sleep, like in a fairy tale, and nothing is the same.
I look at my wall of autographs and I can almost feel the history behind the signatures. When I close my eyes I can remember walking up to drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Ken Schrader, Dick Trickle, Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip; getting autographs and talking to them. They treated each fan, from the first to the last, as special and you felt appreciated. I was able to chat with drivers at local tracks, I learned so much and made friends with many.
This was a time when drivers didn’t have any more money than the fans, they were just like us. That was the appeal; they didn’t see themselves as heroes, they were racers. We paid for a ticket and they thanked us by signing autographs until there were no more fans in line. Fans were the car owners, fans were the sponsors, fans were important.
The NASCAR drivers sought out the fans, anxious to get their name out there. Along with winning races, that is what brought in the sponsors. Today the situation is reversed and the drivers are pretty much owned by the sponsors and their teams. NASCAR has become so commercialized, that the blue collar sport of yesterday has been lost.
The point I am trying to make is this; the drivers were accessible. It isn’t like today where you run the risk of being trampled by 500 fans trying to get Jimmie Johnson’s autograph when he only has an hour before being rushed away by his sponsor to another event.
I experienced this firsthand last year when I had a pass for a Nationwide race and thought I would see how hard it would be to get autographs. It was a frustrating experience to say the least. I was wearing a boot that went from my foot to my knee, due to an injury. I bravely stood in the area as drivers walked by and I assumed I would be given a little room because of my foot, I was wrong. Basically I was tackled more than Tony Romo on any given Sunday and I finally gave up. I got some autographs but it took me a week to recover from the ordeal.
That is when I began to wonder how disabled fans get autographs? How do fans that can’t afford to go to a race get them? How do older fans that can’t stand in lines for hours to attend an autograph session get them? There has to be an easier way for those fans that want to meet their favorite driver but are restricted.
Then it hit me. Perhaps I can submit an envelope with a picture and a self addressed envelope with postage already paid. Maybe that is now the best way to get an autograph. I did this years ago for a little boy who was unable to write to his hero; Dale Earnhardt Sr. Earnhardt not only sent him an autograph but other items as well.
I was stunned to discover that it’s not that simple anymore. You can no longer just send in a picture or a hero card and request an autograph. Most major teams schedule driver autograph sessions or you can purchase autographed items from their stores.
Pay for an autograph? Really? Something as simple as getting an autograph shouldn’t be so hard, should it?
Autographs are as important to the sport as the fan that will stand in line for hours to obtain them. I understand that, yes, the drivers are pulled around from place to place and do the best they can, but the fans are losing out and it’s the fans who put these drivers in the cars. The fans are the heart of NASCAR and having to pay for an autograph is ludicrous. As it stands now, there is a disconnect between the drivers and their fans.
I don’t think fans feel very important to NASCAR or the drivers today. Let’s get a show of hands. How many fans feel special these days? No show of hands needed, the empty seats say it all. Look at the stands now and then look at the stands back in the days of Tim Richmond, Harry Gant and Richard Petty. Where did the fans go?
It saddens me to see those empty seats and I worry about the state of the sport in general. Fans need to feel engaged again, need to know that the sport they love will listen to them and believe that each and every one of them is important. NASCAR needs to remember that without the fans, there is no NASCAR.