A NASCAR-loving pal and I were chatting the other day about the drastic changes the Cup Series has undergone during the decades from when we first started following it more than 50 years ago.
We agreed that some star drivers of the past probably couldn’t get rides nowadays for the sorriest of reasons.
They wouldn’t project the image that sponsors demand.
“To get a top seat with a strong team in this era a guy has to have leading man looks and good grammar,” said my friend. “Driving talent doesn’t count nearly as much as it once did.”
It’s true, as former great promoter Humpy Wheeler contends in a YouTube video this week.
Think the drawling mountaineers Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott would have much of a chance now?
Those two immediately spring foremost to mind for me.
Why, in 1956-57 Johnson even served an 11-month stretch in federal prison for moonshining activities. After being released Junior continued his driving career and eventually won 50 races, including the 1960 Daytona 500. He gained legendary status for his full-bore racing style, earning the nickname “The Wilkes County Wild Man.”
After retiring from the cockpit following the ’66 season, Johnson became a team owner. His drivers won 132 races. Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip captured three championships each in Johnson-fielded cars.
Junior was pardoned for his white liquor conviction on Dec. 26, 1986 by President Ronald Reagan and received the decree in person at the White House. Johnson became an inaugural inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
Hire a driver who spent time in the pen? Present-day sponsors and many team owners wouldn’t think of it, debt-paid-to-society be damned.
Elliott is a sure-bet future hall inductee as well.
“Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” won 44 times, mostly on superspeedways. In 1985 Elliott swept the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and Southern 500 at Darlington to pocket a $1 million bonus, adding another monicker, “Million Dollar Bill.”
He sped to 55 poles, including the fastest NASCAR lap ever recorded, an astonishing 212.809 mph at Talladega in 1987. He won the Cup Series crown in ’88.
When lanky Bill first became a Cup competitor in 1976 he had a shock of wild red hair that made him look something like Carrot Top. His grammar admittedly wasn’t the greatest.
Elliott drove cars fielded by his father George until Michigan industrialist Harry Melling defied what’s the trend today and became his owner-sponsor in 1982.
The fortunate foresight of Melling led to astounding achievements, including a record 16 Most Popular Driver Awards for Elliott.
Elliott and wife Cindy are grooming their promising teenage son Chase for a Cup career someday. He’s already a NASCAR winner in the K&N Pro Series East.
Other champions who wouldn’t have much of a chance today include Bobby Isaac, Herb Thomas and Joe Weatherly.
Isaac was known for a short fuse that led to fights. Thomas, although a good guy, was a country-sort-of-fellow. Weatherly was a hard-drinking hell-raiser with a face scarred from wrecks in motorcycle racing.
Neither of the three would convey the desired image now demanded, especially on TV.
Difficult as it is be to believe, the late Dale Earnhardt might even have a tough time breaking the barriers of today. He developed a somewhat rough image during his early years of racing in weekly short track events across the Carolinas.
Former team owner Rod Osterlund gave Earnhardt a chance in 1979. Earnhardt won the Cup championship in ’80 and then added six more titles with image-be-damned, in-the-know owner Richard Childress to tie Richard Petty’s record of seven. Dale became a widely-followed legend, winning 76 races before losing his life in a last lap crash in the Daytona 500 of 2001.
Even after Earnhardt had won that first title and 19 races at least one very major sponsor spurned him.
Junior Johnson wanted to hire Earnhardt in ’87 to replace Waltrip, who was leaving to join Hendrick Motorsports.
“But the people with my biggest backer, Budweiser, said no,” Johnson has revealed. “They wanted no part of Dale Earnhardt.”
It’s a bit of irony that Budweiser later paid Earnhardt millions of dollars to sponsor his son, Dale, Jr.
My pal and I concluded our conversation by wondering this:
How many drivers with the potential of Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Bobby Isaac, Junior Johnson, Herb Thomas and Joe Weatherly are out there, yearning for a chance that likely never will come?