The Southern 500 has turned into a very special race on the calendar.
2016 marks the second season of the great southern tradition’s return to Labor Day weekend. It also marks the second season of teams running “throwback” paint schemes to some of the sport’s most iconic cars throughout the years. The blast of nostalgia has allowed the race to slide right back into being one of the crown jewel events in all of racing.
For younger fans, it gives them the opportunity to learn more about the colorful history of the sport. It’s doubtful, to say the least, that most fans of the past ten years would know the name of J.D. McDuffie, nor the name of Smokey Yunick. Now, thanks to this promotion and Landon Cassill’s throwback paint scheme, J.D. McDuffie’s legacy of working harder than most on a dime in a two dollar sport will live on over twenty years after his death. Meanwhile, Casey Mears’ tribute to Smokey Yunick may inspire a fan or two to read up on the brilliant if cantankerous mechanic, who created such innovations as the modern fuel cell or a version of the modern SAFER barrier 30 years before NASCAR put SAFER into use.
For older fans, the event serves simultaneously as both a thank you and an apology from the industry. In the early-to-mid-2000’s, NASCAR tried to shred itself and its heritage as a red-headed step child of the south. Not publically or maybe even on purpose, of course. But the removal of Rockingham and cutting the Southern 500 entirely along with the introduction of the still controversial Chase format created a wedge among older, long-term fans. The sport added races in markets such as Fontana and Kansas on generic racetracks with little character. Old team owners like Junie Donlavey, Bud Moore, and Bill Melling were forced out of the sport with pennies in their pockets while legendary teams like the Wood Brothers and the Petty team struggled. The dubious roots of the sport being fueled and nurtured by moonshine were whitewashed from history. The cars became even more generic boxes, with wings added because officials thought it would attract kids who glue wings on their toy cars. Meanwhile, the drivers themselves became more corporate and less character, a problem that still manifests itself with most post-race interviews.
Eventually, around 2010, NASCAR looked at itself and started to take baby steps back to its fan base after the economic crash caused everything to go wrong in the two years before. Drivers were now infamously told to “have at it”. Wings were out and spoilers were in, eventually the box was replaced entirely with the new “Gen 6” race cars designed to look more like actual cars. Atlanta was moved to Labor Day weekend after Auto Club Speedway’s event struggled to gain much traction. The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened and would host an exhibit all about the influences of “whiskey tippers” such as Raymond Parks in the sport’s origins. And Darlington Speedway, although their one race wasn’t even considered to be moved to Labor Day, named the annual Mother’s Day weekend race the Southern 500. Even Rockingham was brought back and given a Truck race before corporate mismanagement caused the track to once again shut down.
But still, fans complain and still do complain about the sport straying from its roots. In 2015, NASCAR finally put the Southern 500 back on its traditional Labor Day weekend date and announced the first “throwback” race. Although there were some party poopers the first year (Three JGR cars and a handful of other top names such as Jeff Gordon didn’t participate), the second season of this promotion has been a huge success. An avalanche of tributes to the sport’s past, with 37 total Sprint Cup cars and a handful of XFINITY Series cars as of this writing running “throwback” schemes, serves as a true thank-you to fans, young or old, for their continued support. For older fans, it also serves as an apology for the sport losing its way and chasing uninterested fans in uninterested markets at their expense in the past decade and a half.
There are still plenty of problems in this sport. Talented drivers getting increasingly shafted for less talented drivers with bigger pockets, dwindling ratings, aero push, the XFINITY Series in general, etc. But this is a weekend to forget about all of that. This weekend is a celebration of NASCAR. The drivers are having fun, the teams are having fun, some sponsors are even returning to have fun. It’s time for the fans to have some fun.