HARRISBURG, N.C. — Forget social media and forget the office watercooler. In our world, the best barometer to gauge what’s happening in the wide world of sports is to spend some time in the barber’s chair.
The barber I have frequented for nearly two decades is located about two miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Several of his customers are employees at nearby Hendrick Motorsports or JTG Daugherty Racing, and the walls of his shop showcase Sam Bass prints that feature Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
Despite this racing theme, rarely has the conversation during my visits involved motorsports. Topics of discussion usually include college football or basketball, with emphasis on the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Charlotte 49ers.
During my most recent haircut, we discussed the prospects of college sports returning in the fall and then, suddenly, out of the blue, my barber pivoted to NASCAR racing.
“With UFC and NASCAR back in action, I’ve been watching a lot more NASCAR racing,” he said. “Did you see that Xfinity race from the Brickyard? That was the best race I’ve seen since Dale Earnhardt was alive.”
Even though this was a few weeks after the fact, there was a tone of excitement in the barber’s voice as he talked about the tremendous battle for the lead and the amazing four-wide pass when Chase Briscoe assumed command of the July 4 race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.
Since I don’t have much hair left, my time in the chair is rather short, and both the haircut and the conversation were soon finished.
It wasn’t long before I realized that what took place when we were in the barber’s chair is what’s happening all the across the country. In a way, it’s a 10,000-foot view of the state of NASCAR racing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NASCAR officials did a terrific job of getting the sport back to the track, which caught the attention of sports fans like my barber, who hadn’t had much interest in racing during the recent past. But once sports fans had eyes on NASCAR, it was the excitement of the racing that drew them in and kept them coming back.
That’s why the quality of NASCAR’s races during the late summer and fall is more important than ever. Have more races like the Xfinity Series slobberknocker at the Brickyard and the casual sports fans who recently connected with the sport will likely stick around into 2021.
But repeatedly give them boring 500-mile races that consume more than four hours of their time, and those fans will eventually turn their interest back to the stick-and-ball sports.
— As noted in the feature story that appears elsewhere in these pages, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Justin Allgaier has an extensive open-wheel background, and he’s competed in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals each year since 2001.
“That Golden Driller has a weird gravitational pull to it that is hard to explain. Everybody wants a Driller,” Allgaier said about the unique Chili Bowl trophy. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there once or you’ve been there a thousand times, it never seems to get old and you always want to go back and fight for it even more.”
Allgaier occasionally races a dirt modified, but the Chili Bowl is the only time each year that he climbs behind the wheel of a midget.
“The biggest challenge I have with open-wheel racing, especially when you go outdoors to some of these bigger race tracks, it’s really easy to make a mistake and put yourself in a bad spot,” he explained. “Not being able to do it all the time, I can’t afford to put myself or anyone else in that predicament.
“If I’m going to run more open-wheel races at some point in the future, it will have to be on more of what I’d call a full-time basis to make sure I felt like I was ready to go out there and compete with guys that do it all the time.”