The history of racing (and other sports, too) seems remarkably simple.
It is both black and white. In an age where information is available to everyone, everything is in front of us.
Sports are a unique part of our history because they can be broken down into numbers. Stats and box scores fill the sports pages with clear accounts of what happened on a given day, in a given season, in a given race. In racing, it’s easy, to say the least, to start a debate about who was the best of a given era because, well, the numbers are right in front of us.
A couple here and there are contended for, but for the most part, it’s all a neat little package and, in many ways, accurate.
We’ve all heard the old phrase about lies, damn lies, and statistics. And to some extent, statistics can be manipulated to fit rhetoric. It’s easy to say that Richard Petty was a better driver than Jeff Gordon, because Petty has 200 Cup wins to Gordon’s 93.
But what’s not taken into account here is that the two raced in completely different eras in NASCAR. And, except for one race in which Petty probably held out too long and Gordon was the most inexperienced rookie, they didn’t race each other.
And that’s where the numbers get fuzzy.
The numbers are absolutely important: at some point, for example, we have to be able to say whether or not a driver was among the greats enshrined in a Hall of Fame, and statistics are a big problem in that regard.
But what about the things that the stats don’t take into account?
There is no count of the number of races a driver ran for an underfunded team who just didn’t have the team to pull off the best results. There’s no way to quantify the “could haves” when a driver was on his way to a higher finish when he was eliminated by someone else’s mistake or mechanical failure.
I played this on the Big 6 this week, but it’s not a simple song.
NASCAR history is still quite young, young enough that some of the people who remember the early days are still around and can still tell the stories. Ask some of them who the best drivers were and some of the answers may surprise you, because they’re not always the biggest names.
And yes, opinion is subjective, but there is still a lot of weight in the opinion of someone who has been in the sport for decades.
But fewer and fewer of those people are around to ask with each passing year. Still, there are plenty of people who have watched enough drivers to figure things out. Some of those people are professionals, but others are veteran fans who have attended dozens of races, practices and qualifying sessions.
Of course, everyone’s definition of talent will be slightly different. Some will say that talent on some tracks, like super speeds, isn’t talent at all, but that’s not true.
Not all drivers feel comfortable drafting, especially in the massive car packages those races feature today. Some very good super speedsters don’t have the wins to prove it, but they were (and still are) the drivers everyone wanted to work with. Listen to a young driver’s scanner and see who the crew chief tells them to follow; that’s a pretty good indication.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to actually see the drivers on television broadcasts. The angles are not correct and the announcers color what we see and hear.
Stats will always represent achievements. They can tell a story, but not in the way that someone who has seen it all can.
So how do you keep much of the sport from fading into the ether?
It falls to us. Watch drivers at all levels, from local fan action to the highest levels of NASCAR, and pay close attention to what they do. Look at the winners and backmarkers, and pay attention to the drivers that locals and veteran observers are watching.
Look for what the numbers can’t tell you: the smooth consistency lap after lap, the controlled aggression (or not), how and when that driver makes his moves. After a while, you see it. you only know
All we can do to prevent parts of the sport from fading into the past is to take care of it. Listen to anyone who has been a part of this, look, really look, at the drivers, the race cars, and then tell the next generation of fans what you heard and saw.
Numbers represent all time, and they are important. But the rest, the “You’re not going to believe this, but…” moments, belong only to us, and to time. We will not always agree on what we see, but it is not necessary. We just have to watch it, share it and hear what others have to say.
And then live forever.
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