Darlington, Dawsonville, and the danger of NASCAR's nostalgia

The Bill Elliott exhibit at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. (via Yahoo Sports)

DAWSONVILLE, Ga.—There’s racing history embedded in the hills 40 miles north of Atlanta, tales of moonshiners and bootleggers and race-car drivers intertwining until it’s impossible to tell where the illegality ends and the stardom begins. This is NASCAR’s Nile River, the land where the sport’s history began.

Darlington Raceway lies directly due east of Dawsonville, about 300 miles and one state border away. The site of this weekend’s Bojangles Southern 500, it’s another living testament to the past – the track’s got a distinctive egg shape because it was routed around a minnow pond when it was built back in 1948.

One quiet and one festive, Dawsonville and Darlington are two key exhibits in a case that’s growing more tricky for NASCAR by the day. How do you bring in new, younger fans, blank slates with no connection to the sport’s history, when you’ve got a loud, entrenched segment focused firmly on the supposedly better days of the past?

Dawsonville, Awesome Bill’s calm hometown

You know Dawsonville’s role in NASCAR’s origin story, and if you don’t, here’s the short version: decades ago up in the north Georgia hills, Prohibition-era entrepreneurs whipped up moonshine outside the watchful eye of the law. But the moonshiners needed distribution, and that’s where drivers came in. Reckless, thrill-seeking, borderline insane, these drivers would whip down mountain roads carrying enough product to get them locked away for years.

Drivers needed something to do when they weren’t running shine, hence weekend dirt-track racing. They needed ever-more-sophisticated setups to elude Johnny Law, hence the creation of the first crew chiefs. And they established themselves as bona fide outlaws, hence the rep of driver-as-hellion that exists – if only faintly, now – to this day.

Bootleggers put Dawsonville on the map. But it took another, decidedly more law-abiding fellow to put it into the history books. Bill Elliott, a local redheaded good ol’ boy with an accent as wide as the Talladega frontstretch, rolled into NASCAR in the 1980s as the angel to Dale Earnhardt’s devil, a genial, aw-shucks fella who just happened to wheel a Ford faster than anyone, ever.

NASCAR’s most popular driver for 16 straight years, Elliott saw his career slowly coast to a stop in the 2000s. Yet, inexplicably, he got back in the car in 2018, running an Xfinity race last weekend at Road America for GMS Racing. Elliott owns one of the best nicknames in racing – Awesome Bill from Dawsonville – so what better place to go watch the man run his first race in a decade than his hometown?

Around Dawsonville, Elliott is everywhere, both literally and metaphorically. To hear locals tell it, he stops by every restaurant, visits every store, waves at every lady and shakes the hand of every man. His face and his cars are omnipresent, too, yellowing newspaper clippings and dusty die-casts all over town. The Elliott family even has its own wing in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, a spectacular little endeavor that shares a roof with City Hall and – remember where we are – an Elliott-branded moonshine outlet.

The Hall of Fame is a magnificent, sprawling look at racing’s deep Georgia roots. Inductees include Red Byron, the famed driver/owner/mechanic who helped create NASCAR; Tim Flock, who used to drive with a monkey named Jocko in his car; Lloyd Seay, a phenomenally talented moonshine runner shot to death in an argument; and the man with the greatest name in NASCAR history, Gober Sosebee. It’s thorough, it’s fascinating, and on this beautiful summer Saturday, it’s completely empty.

Fair enough. Who wants to be inside a museum on such a lovely day? So I head half a mile up Highway 53 to Bill Elliott Street – see what I mean? – to the famous Dawsonville Pool Room, the tile-and-barstools burger shack that’s the unofficial First Church of Bill Elliott.

Welcome to the Dawsonville Pool Room. (via Yahoo Sports)

I came here expecting a line out the door, Elliott fans in No. 9 regalia, a street-party celebration. Instead, there’s one older fellow in a blaze-orange baseball cap watching the television. (As I learn later, this Elliott fan has ridden his motorcycle 150 miles, from Travelers’ Rest, South Carolina, to the Pool Room.) There’s a grease-and-dirt-coated gent taking an intense interest in his phone. The waitresses and cooks outnumber the patrons, and as the race wears on, the families that come in have much more interest in the fries than the racing.

This isn’t a knock on Dawsonville in general or the Pool Room in particular. It’s classic Americana – the Bully Burger, with ketchup, pickle, and mustardy slaw, is a must-have, and the beer-battered fries are tiny artery-clogging slices of heaven. It’s also a hot day out, and Elliott is starting the race in 23rd. (He’ll go on to finish 20th, winning – as he joked – his age bracket.)

Plus, as Gordon Pirkle Jr., son of the Pool Room’s owner, tells me, the place was jammed when Elliott’s son Chase won a couple weeks before, and old-timers sounded the Pool Room’s siren in celebration:

That may be so. But the fact remains that on this day, with the town’s patron saint behind the wheel for the first time in nine years … nobody’s out watching?

It’s both wrong and irresponsible to project an entire sport’s woes onto one afternoon at one tiny North Georgia burger joint. But you can’t help but look at those yellowed newspaper clippings, that faded decades-old memorabilia from races almost no one remembers, and wonder: how long is this sustainable? How do you get out from under your history and break new ground when history casts such a long shadow?

Austin Dillon’s 2018 Darlington Intimidator throwback. (Getty)

How much more can Darlington throw it back?

Of course, you’ve always got the option of making a U-turn right back into your history, and this is where Darlington comes into the picture. Once again, this weekend will see the latest iteration of NASCAR’s “Turn Back The Clock” race, when drivers will run in old-school paint schemes, honoring the sport’s history at the site of one of its most famous tracks. It’s an exceptional event, a living family album and one that’s guaranteed to make any old-school NASCAR fan grin in appreciation.

I was there for the first “Turn Back The Clock,” back in 2015, and – even though I was reporting on a different kind of turning back – I can tell you this: if you’re a NASCAR fan, you’ve got to make the trip to Darlington for one of these weekends. The old paint schemes are nostalgia given life … and speed. It’s one hell of a thrill watching the Grey Ghost paint scheme, or Ricky Craven’s old early-2000s Tide colors, or even the old “Days of Thunder” Mello Yello take the green flag. And you’d have to have a heart of stone not to appreciate the fact that Denny Hamlin’s running this year in a car that looks exactly like the one he ran as a kid.

If you’re in the know, nostalgia is flat-out fun, bypassing your rational mind with a shot of pure endorphin to your heart and soul. Memories of better days – or days you believe are better, anyway – blossom in your mind when you wrap yourself up in the warm blanket of the past.

But what if you’ve got no connection to NASCAR’s history? What if, by age or by circumstance, you don’t know Smokey Yunick from Smokey the Bear? If you’re an outsider, a newcomer, an event like Darlington – or a continued emphasis on the past – has to feel somewhat like going to the reunion of a high school you didn’t attend.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the Darlington weekend. No, that ought to continue for as long as there are cars to throw back to. It’s when the series moves on from Darlington, when you’re convinced that everything was better in the good old days, when that warm blanket starts to smother you, that the problems begin. Consider this: NASCAR fans once spat on a reckless-but-winning driver as a disgrace to the sport, someone who couldn’t hold the steering wheel of the legends before him. Kyle Busch in 2008? Nope, Dale Earnhardt in 1980.

And consider that one of NASCAR’s finest eras featured an iconic trio of a stone-cold badass, a genuinely nice guy who could win anywhere, and a fast talker who ticked off the world every time he opened his mouth … and then consider that the mid-‘80s run of Earnhardt/Elliott/Darrell Waltrip has an exact 2018 parallel with Kevin Harvick/Martin Truex Jr./Kyle Busch today. (Hell, throw in Rusty Wallace/Brad Keselowski if you like.) Right here, right now, today could be someone’s golden era in NASCAR – if we’ll let it be.

They’ll run races in Darlington for as long as they run NASCAR, and someday we’ll start seeing throwbacks to the “old-school” Jimmie Johnson Lowe’s 48 and the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Mountain Dew 88. In Dawsonville, the Elliott cars will always be there, and there’ll always be an audience for the old stories. But before too much longer, the tales of Bill Elliott and the men he raced against will be like the tales of the moonshiners today – legends handed down through generations.

What’s the answer? How do we balance reverence for the past while keeping eyes on the future? If we’re telling the same stories year after year, where’s the room for new ones? Like you, like NASCAR, I’ve got plenty of ideas but no definite answers. But it’s clear this isn’t a sustainable model; at some point, you need new blood in the stands as well as the cars.

And the last thing any NASCAR fan wants is for this sport to end up becoming what its critics say it is: just running around in circles.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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