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Changes in Attitudes
   by Steve Samples
Compare Old to the New

Jimmy Buffet first brought our attention to it. Muhammed Ali popularized it. And a host of would be winners on the Winston Cup circuit remind us of it every Sunday. Attitudes change, for better or worse. Sometimes drastically. A perfect example is the world of sports. And more specifically Winston Cup racing, where 42 also-rans broaden the definition of success every time they strap into a 200 mile per hour race car.

To understand this phenomenon one must take a page or two from history. So let's roll back the hands of time for a moment to 1962, and enter a place called Daytona International Speedway. In February of that year stock car racing's second greatest driver, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was in the midst of one of auto racing's most dominant performances. He had just won the pole position for the Daytona 500, as well as his preliminary 100 mile qualifying race, and was set to win the 500 as well. He would return in July to win the Firecracker 250, completing a rare NASCAR track sweep. But times were
different then. There were no carburetor restrictor plates rendering all cars "equal." There were no endorsement deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there was a concept of winning that is seldom seen in the year 2001. In the era of Fireball Roberts, drivers made their living winning races, and in many cases when a driver didn't win his family didn't eat. Literally. In fact the late Bobby Isaac once proclaimed that when he won his first race he was so hungry he ordered food at the same drive-in twice, because he was embarrassed to order so much at a single time. You see in 1962 there was nobility in winning, and shame in defeat. Things were black and white. One driver wins. The rest lose.

Fast forward to 2001. Ever hear an interview with a driver who just finished fourth? It sounds like he is accepting an Academy Award. But why not. Fourth place money today is big. Very big. In fact it is so big that five top five finishes without a single win can get a driver a better ride for the following season, a big money sponsorship, and a two hundred thousand dollar endorsement contract. But do those things make him a winner?

Let's go back to 1962 again, and look at the 49 drivers who competed in, but did not win, the Daytona 500. There was Richard Petty and his father Lee in Plymouths. Ned Jarrett and Rex White in Chevrolets. Buck and Buddy Baker in Chryslers. Fred Lorenzen and Nelson Stacy in Fords, and a host of Pontiac Packers including Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Bob Welborn, Jack Smith, and many others. All quality chauffeurs, but all in cars which turned the track at speeds of 154-161 miles per hour. Fireball won the pole at 162.In today's world they would have spent the week before the race crying. The rules are not fair. Roberts is faster than the rest of us. The Pontiacs have a horsepower advantage over the Chevrolets. The box back Fords are aerodynamically inferior. The Chryslers are too heavy. The Plymonths can't draft. But people in that era had a different approach to life's problems. Oh they complained privately to be sure, but their public persona was much different. You see each and every driver in the field felt an obligation to win the race. Not attempt to win the race, but win the race. And failure to do so, regardless of the reason, was still failure.

The case is best exemplified by stock car racing's greatest driver, Fred Lorenzen. Only 27, and in his second year with Holman-Moody, the "Golden Boy" was not a typical kid learning to compete and working his way up. He was an accomplished driver who had won the USAC stock car championship just a few years earlier, competing against the likes of Ralph Moody, and "Tiger" Tom Pistone. He had defeated the legendary Curtis Turner the year before at Darlington in a wild fight for the checkered flag, and he had not come to Daytona to lose. Only a few days before the race an aggressive sports writer ask the young Lorenzen if he seriously felt his Ford could outrun the powerful Pontiacs? Miffed that anyone would suggest that "Fearless Freddie" was going to be beaten, he responded brashly, "We may not out run 'em, but we'll outlast 'em." Unsatisfied with the answer the writer pressed on. "Yeah, but how are you going to get to the front?" With a challenging stare and a poker face the blonde kid from Illinois answered. "I'm gonna catch me a fast one and ride her till she sweats." When the race started he did just that. Moving from a starting position of 35th, the Golden Boy moved methodically into the top five, hitching a ride with any Pontiac he could outmaneuver in the turns. As the race progressed his HM Ford suffered a malfunctioning fuel pump, but he kept after the Pontiacs and finished fifth.
Many believe that if the fuel pump functioned correctly he would have finished second. But when the race ended Fred Lorenzen was not happy. He apologized to his backers, and committed to victories when the short tracks and handling tracks would be run in the coming weeks. True to his word those victories would come, and he would defeat the faster Pontiacs several times before the season ended.

But how would today's stars have handled that situation? Just look at the newspaper quotes every week. When a driver is even three miles off the pace he goes to the press---and cries. The rules are unfair. I can't compete. This car has no chance to win. And when he finishes fifth in the Daytona 500? Bring out the champagne. I want to thank my mother, my father, my car owner, my pit crew, my favorite teacher Mrs. Simpson who taught me how to read. We got a TOP FIVE!!! How many times have you heard that? Disgusting.

Perhaps part of the problem is the manner in which Winston Cup points are distributed. There is far to little emphasis on winning, and far to much emphasis on finishing. A perfect example is the 2001 Winston Cup points race. On Jeff Gordon is going to win, as I predicted in this column months ago. But look at the most underrated category of comparison in auto racing, driver earnings. And take a peak at the top winners for the season. Had Jeff Gordon been awarded the proper number of points for winning races, which should be triple the second place finishers points, he would have wrapped up the title a month ago.

Sadly the point system in Winston Cup is a reflection of today's culture. We are a feel good society. A society which wants to make everyone a champion, so no ones "feelings" are hurt. We put teams in the NBA playoffs with .500 records. We have 32 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament that struggle to play competitively for a half, before being blown out by an opponent they shouldn't be playing. We have junior weight classes in boxing, and an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies. In fact there are so many "champions" under this system it's hard to find a librarian who doesn't hold a "world" title.

Isn't it time to return to sanity? People who win should be happy. People who lose should be trying to figure out what they did wrong. And we should recognize the fact that one event produces one winner, regardless of the sport. In the meantime, stay away from the fourth place finisher at Daytona. You might get soaked in champagne as he celebrates a losing effort.

Author Steve Samples has been a student of stockcar racing for more than five decades. His writing blends recollections from NASCAR's past with the promise of it's future. When not watching racing, he is a Senior Account Representative for 3M/Unitek Corp. He is also an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, and an ex-Marine Vietnam veteran.

Copyright 1999-2005 FireballRoberts.com by Roland Via. All rights reserved.  Revised: 05/07/12 20:55:46 -0400.
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