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New season, new discussions. Join your favorite Yahoo Sports NASCAR pals, Jay Busbee and Nick Bromberg, as we discuss the big issue of the day: Dale Earnhardt. Also discussed: Colonial Williamsburg, Kyle Busch and Elvis. Let’s go!
BUSBEE: Today in grim NASCAR news: the Kannapolis Intimidators, a minor-league baseball team that plays in the very town that spawned the Earnhardt legacy, a team named for the great Dale Senior his own bad self, will be changing its team name for the 2020 season.
Granted, minor-league baseball teams change names almost as fast as NASCAR races change presenting sponsors. Even so, this feels a little different, for a reason tucked into the team’s explanation: the changing demographics of Kannapolis. Nick, I ask you: if freaking Kannapolis, North Carolina is shifting away from racing, isn’t that a dire sign indeed?
BROMBERG: I don’t think so at all. When Dale Earnhardt bought a share of the Intimidators in 2000, the population of Kannapolis was 36,000. Based on 2017 population data, the city has grown by a third to over 48,000 people. And it’s even more diverse than the state of North Carolina is itself. The city is in the midst of a downtown revitalization project and the Intimidators’ 2020 move to its new downtown ballpark is a significant aspect of that project.
As Kannapolis has grown, it’s also drawn from areas that are outside North Carolina. Approximately a third of the city’s population is from outside the state and the median age is younger than the state’s. There are a lot of people in the city who have never seen Dale Earnhardt race a car but have seen the team’s minor league baseball team play a game. The team deserves its own identity if it wants to go that direction. I think we can start getting worried about Kannapolis’ embrace of its most famous citizen if the city makes a move to get rid of the Dale Trail.
BUSBEE: Unsolicited plug: the Dale Trail is the best, a must-travel if you’re a NASCAR fan and find yourself on Interstate 85. But that kind of gets to my point: for an ever-growing demographic, the Dale Trail is going to be the equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg, a tour through a long-gone past.
Think of it this way: a kid born on the day Dale won the Daytona 500 will be able to enjoy a legal beer at this year’s Great American Race. One of Earnhardt’s final great moments happened more than two decades ago. The new generation NASCAR now covets has no meaningful memories of Earnhardt behind a wheel. Change happens, I get that, but man, thinking where this sport was in 1998, it’s tough to imagine a time when anyone wouldn’t know the Gospel of Earnhardt.
Honestly, I’m not sure I really have a point here, other than it’s tough to see something so important to so many people drift away. Natural, normal, but still tough.
So what now? Can NASCAR fill that 3-shaped hole in its fans’ lives?
BROMBERG: If NASCAR knew how to do that, the hole would already be filled with a solid substance. Since Jeffrey Earnhardt doesn’t have a ride for the 2019 Daytona 500, Feb. 17 will be the first Daytona 500 since 1978 without a driver named Earnhardt in the field.
Maybe that’s the way it needs to be. Just like the Intimidators may be looking for a clean way to rebrand themselves as Kannapolis rebrands itself — Teresa Earnhardt still owns the rights to the nickname “Intimidators,” despite Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s sale of its portion of the team in 2004 — NASCAR needs that Earnhardtless stability itself. Football fans don’t watch the NFL because Joe Montana and Brett Favre were great quarterbacks. They watch because Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are great quarterbacks.
The past has an odd stranglehold on NASCAR. And I think that’s playing a role here. There’s likely not an insignificant portion of the NASCAR fan population upset about the baseball team’s Wednesday decision to change nicknames that had no idea the Intimidators existed the day before. And if you want to be cynical, that may not actually be a bad PR strategy. The Intimidators may be currently the most famous Class A baseball team in the country.
BUSBEE: The Rocket City Trash Pandas would like a word, sir.
It’d be interesting to see how Dale Earnhardt would fare in 2019 America, not just as a person but as a (deep sigh) brand. The badass cut-from-granite mustachioed white male hero isn’t an image that’s #trending these days. And while Big E kept his politics close to the vest, he occasionally aired opinions that would’ve set off both sides of the aisle. In a way, he’s not unlike Elvis, another 20th-century American icon whose star has slowly but inexorably dimmed in the years since his death.
Teresa Earnhardt doesn’t seem inclined to re-brand Dale for the 21st century, and that’s probably a good thing. I agree with you, the sport can’t grow if it’s got one foot (tire?) in the past. But man, it’d be a hell of a thing if some 15-year-old kid driving dirt tracks today were to bring that Earnhardt attitude, charisma and talent to the track in 2025, wouldn’t it?
BROMBERG: I can already envision the ad campaigns that would ensue, though NASCAR already has a guy who has a championship, wins a ton of races, drives aggressively, is polarizing and doesn’t care what people think about him. His name is Kyle Busch. But that probably won’t go over well for the segment of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans who are still salty over what happened on the track between Busch and Junior at Richmond in 2008.
It’ll probably take Earnhardt fans a lot less time to get over the Intimidators name change.
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