What I miss most when I watch driver interviews are real men. When I began watching NASCAR in 1990 the field was still chock full of characters that could only be referred to as “real men.”
The times have changed.
I’m not trying to malign the drivers of today; they are, as the twenty-first century defines, real men, but not in the way the drivers of yesteryear were.
My driver was Dale Earnhardt. No matter what you thought of him then or what you think now, he was indisputably a man. As comfortable with a gun hunting as he was strapped into his race car, Earnhardt could win a 500-mile race on Sunday and work on his farm on Monday.
Strong, imposing and capable, Earnhardt was a man – plain and simple.
Another driver who sticks out as a real man is Harry Gant. I recall watching him race in the early
1990s and being so impressed with his performance. When he dominated in early fall 1991, earning the nickname “Mr. September” after he won four Cup and two Busch Series races in that month, I was stricken with his matinee idol good looks, his humbleness, and his passion for carpentry.
He was 51, an older racer on the circuit, but was every bit as virile and competitive as his much younger field. Even his sponsor, Skoal, was a man’s product.
I recall a sense of excitement and pride when Labonte cinched his second championship in 1996, twelve years after his first. It was a wonderful feat that proved the Texan was not just a one-off. Also nicknamed “Ironman,” an incredibly cool moniker, for his “cool” demeanor and his string of 655 consecutive starts
that didn’t end until August 2000, Labonte, who still looks amazing, will always rank as a real man to me.
Richard Petty, with his signature festooned cowboy hat and megawatt smile, may have been long and lithe – but he is also a real man.
His career speaks volumes and is unquestionably the reason he is called “King,” but I also admire him for his values, the longevity of his marriage, and his consistency in character.
Our own Junior Johnson may be the pinnacle of real manhood. “The Last American Hero” is a cross
between anti-hero and superhero.
From running moonshine to winning races on the NASCAR circuit as a driver and then as a car owner, and now as an entrepreneur with a willingness to re-enter NASCAR for his son, Johnson is the personification of a real man.
So when I see the likes of pretty boys like Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon I find it difficult to see them
in the same light as real men of old.
When Jimmie Johnson wields tools on his Lowe’s Kobalt Tools commercials, I’m apt to think it’s the first time he’s done so. Carl Edwards spends so much time in the gym and at the track I can’t believe he has time to pursue manly obsessions.
Today’s drivers are undoubtedly talented behind the wheel, dedicated to proper nutrition and conditioning, and are polished and savvy about media. But they fall far short in the “real men” category as I personally define it.
It’s not their fault, they can’t help it. The twenty-first century has changed the definition of “real men.”
I accept that. But I’ll stick with the real men of NASCAR as I recall them in their glorious splendor.