Except for NASCAR, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year for Sports TV Viewers

Photo by Nat Gilliam
(Nat Gilliam photo)

By RAHN ADAMS

If you’re a sports fan, you must be in heaven this weekend. All three major American spectator sports—baseball, football and basketball—are underway right now. Even if you can’t attend in person, you can watch the games on TV without too much trouble.

Meanwhile, if you’re an old NASCAR Winston Cup fan like me—one who doesn’t have access to all the sports channels on cable or satellite TV, that is—you may as well be sitting out in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, in a Field of Dreams sort of way. “Is this heaven?” the ghost of Dale Earnhardt might ask as he plops down into my recliner.

No,” I’d say. “It’s pure hell. We don’t have cable.”

Holidays of thunder in the Gilliam household
Holidays of thunder in the Gilliam household

Then we might turn on my old TV, first to see the Carolina Panthers find some way to win Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium and then to watch the Cubs tally their first World Series win that night at Wrigley Field, with both games on Fox. The previous Friday night, Dale and I might have watched the Cavs and the Warriors win NBA road games on ESPN. I do have basic Sling TV on Roku.

Timberley and little brother Tony
Timberley and little brother Tony

That’s the main reason I no longer consider myself a current fan of NASCAR, what was once billed as America’s fastest-growing spectator sport. It was also seen as the working-class Southern male’s favorite pastime other than bass fishing and deer hunting, at least on every Sunday except Mother’s Day from February to November.

Earnhardt, Childress and team
Earnhardt, Childress and team

Maybe I’m not the average Southern TV viewer—I mean, I’ve never watched an episode of Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo—but once Fox’s contract to carry what are now called NASCAR Sprint Cup races ends partway through the season, I can’t seem to find them on the tube, partly because they’re on channels that I don’t get. I also have trouble finding the races on the radio these days. Boogity, boogity, boogity, consarnit.

Photo by Nat Gilliam
(Nat Gilliam photo)

And that hurts, ’cause me and Dale, we go way back—well, back to the Southern 500 at Darlington in September 1991, anyways. Aw, shoot. Even though Handsome Harry Gant from Taylorsville won the dang race, the first of four straight wins for the Skoal Bandit that fall. Well, fudge.

(from left) Dale Jr., Kerry and Kelley Earnhardt
(from left) Dale Jr., Kerry and Kelley Earnhardt

I came to stockcar racing late, becoming a fan when my father-in-law, Nat Gilliam, started working with Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing team around 1990 as the Western Steer/Mom ‘n’ Pop’s marketing liaison. WSMP was a sponsor of Earnhardt’s “GM Goodwrench Chevrolet” Winston Cup and Busch Series cars. At various times from the late-1980s to mid-1990s, the company also sponsored rides in various NASCAR series events for Morgan Shepherd, Neil Bonnett and all three Earnhardt children, Kerry, Kelley and Dale Jr.

Neil Bonnett (Nat Gilliam photo)
Neil Bonnett (Nat Gilliam photo)

Basically, Nat followed Earnhardt’s team around the Winston Cup circuit, took pictures at races and promotional events, and kept the fridges in the team’s garage and haulers packed with Mom ‘n’ Pop’s ham and steak biscuits. He also carried a trunk load of Earnhardt caps, T-shirts, posters, scale-model cars and other collectibles for fans at all the events where Earnhardt or his show cars appeared.

Collectible car (Rahn Adams photo)
Collectible car (Rahn Adams photo)

I’m sure Nat had additional duties, but those were the main jobs that Timberley and I saw him perform when we’d meet him at the Darlington and Rockingham races, and once at the Daytona 500. We were living on the North Carolina coast at the time, Nat, in Conover, and so our race outings were extra special because they also were family reunions.

Dale filming Western Steer TV spot (Nat Gilliam photo)
Dale filming Western Steer TV spot (Nat Gilliam photo)

When the Winston Cup Series went to the other Southern tracks—Charlotte, North Wilkesboro, Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, Atlanta and Talladega—and, of course, to faraway places like Indianapolis, Dover, Michigan, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Sonoma and Phoenix, we stayed home and either watched the races on over-the-air TV or listened on radio.

I’m reminded of three highlights from those years:

Victory Lane at the Rock
Victory Lane at the Rock

First, in the last race we attended with Nat—the 1996 Goodwrench 400 at Rockingham—we finally witnessed an Earnhardt win, and we got to stand with him in Victory Lane because no one else from WSMP had attended the race that day. I stood right next to the Intimidator and even spoke to him. Great race, Dale,” I said, acting like I stood in the winner’s circle, oh, every other Sunday, at least.

Nat and Dale
Nat and Dale

Mnczfph,” he replied. I’m sure he would have said much more, maybe even shared his secret to winning the race and being a Winston Cup champion, if the Hat Man hadn’t already been headed toward us and if a photographer hadn’t yelled out, “Hey, big guy—yeah, you—swallow the gum, will ya?”

Dale and Timberley
Dale and Timberley (Nat Gilliam photo)

Dale was nice to Timberley the couple of times we met him. According to Nat, the famous driver could be charming one day and kind of cranky the next, but that’s understandable. The same is true of most folks, I guess, even those of us who aren’t the best at what we do and don’t have all sorts of demands made on our time and attention, not to mention on our privacy. And he wouldn’t have been called the Intimidator otherwise, right?

Dale’s firesuit at state museum (Rahn Adams photo)

My second NASCAR highlight was getting to see Dale drive the Western Steer Chevrolet in a Busch Series event at little Hickory Speedway in April 1992. A slew of big-name drivers were there, including Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Labonte and a young Jeff Gordon. Even though Dale and the other Winston Cup drivers lost that race to local hero Tommy Houston, it was so much fun to watch with Timberley and Nat, like the pleasure I get now from watching a comfortable Hickory Crawdads game with friends, instead of going to the trouble of making a trip to some big city and fighting the crowds at a Major League game.

Nat's reflection in Dale's sunglasses
Nat’s reflection in Dale’s sunglasses?

Dale waved at us in the Western Steer section of the stands several times as he circled the track during that race—which could be why he didn’t win. He had even driven himself to the Hickory track in his own restored 50s-model Chevy pickup truck. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I’d pulled up to a stoplight in Hickory that day, had glanced over at the flashy old pickup in the other lane, and had spotted the Intimidator in his dark Gargoyles and black Stetson, him staring straight ahead and gripping the wheel. I mean, should you even try to stay even with a guy like that when the light turns green? Even though he was in a good mood that day? I remember his smile as he circled the track.

Garage and pit passes from the 1990s
Garage and pit passes from the 1990s

And, finally, there was the Darlington race in September 1992 when Nat had only two pit passes, and I had to stay in his van parked in that vast wasteland of an infield while he and Timberley hobnobbed on pit row with Dale, Richard “the King” Petty and all the other drivers during the pre-race introductions. This was also the Southern 500 at which then Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton served as grand marshal and was roundly booed by the largely working-class and Republican crowd of 75,000.

Timberley says she and Nat were so close to the future President as his pace car passed that they could have reached out and shaken hands with him; however, the booing was so loud that they chickened out. A newspaper report the next day said the crowd’s “boos and jeers” drowned out the engine noise on pit row. There was even a small plane flying overhead towing a banner that read: “DRAFT DODGER.”

Meanwhile, back in the van, I was checking Nat’s portable TV for a race broadcast. No, of course it wasn’t on. But I did find an NFL game on, and, yes, I did hear the booing and see the banner plane fly overhead. Long after Bill Clinton had left, Nat and Timberley returned and watched the rest of the race with me—or, rather, squinted at the small slice of asphalt between Turns 3 and 4 of the “Lady in Black” through our rain-spattered windshield until Darrell Waltrip won under caution. I didn’t sulk too much on the way home.

And that’s kind of how I feel now, with the Sprint Cup on how many different TV networks throughout the season? On any given Saturday night or Sunday afternoon from February to November—even on Mother’s Day weekend now—there’s a race happening somewhere. But I can’t watch it unless it’s on a TV channel that I can get. Maybe that’s why NASCAR’s TV ratings have dropped so low.

Hopefully, like Bill Clinton that election year, NASCAR can turn things around before the checkered flag flies on fan interest. As of right now, we’re still under yellow.