To #3 or not to #3 – that is the question

Hmmm… this one seems to be generating a significant amount of traffic.

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The black #3 of Dale Earnhardt – The Intimidator – remains the most recognisable livery in NASCAR. Alongside Richard Petty’s powder blue #43 it’s one of the enduring icons of top-flight stock car racing and, to millions of people, it has been frozen in time since Earnhardt Sr. met his end at the 2001 Daytona 500.

Now the Richard Childress Racing outfit, with whom Earnhardt and the #3 are inextricably bound, plans to bring that iconic number back to NASCAR’s top level with its young charger, Austin Dillon. This is sparking a LOT of debate among fans. Although many people would be happy to see it back, there’s a vocal lobby – presumably those who have been standing up with three fingers aloft on Lap 3 at the Daytona 500 each and every year.

Outside the USA we don’t tend to sentimentalise numbers. There’s never been any fuss about who carries the #2 in Formula One, despite the virtual canonisation of Ayrton Senna since his death. Or the #19 in sports car racing, carried to his doom by the most electrifying driver of his kind, Stefan Bellof.

Outside NASCAR only the #27 in Formula One has really held – or rather grown – in resonance, since the death of its most famous driver, Gilles Villeneuve. And these days that’s a redundant number in a field of 24 cars, so it’s no longer an issue. In NASCAR, however, the numbers are franchises in themselves. The champion driver doesn’t win the honour of carrying #1. He wins a lot of money and his number becomes better known – and more valuable.

There’s been a widespread misunderstanding that the #3 belongs to Richard Childress Racing and that the team has held the number in some sort of shrine to The Intimidator at the back of the workshop. It doesn’t and it hasn’t.

Teams lease their numbers from NASCAR for a set fee each year. Following the death of Dale Earnhardt, RCR chose not to retain the #3 – putting #29 on the Goodwrench Chevy when it returned in 2001, the number which its driver, Kevin Harvick, has retained ever since (often with a small ‘tribute 3’ next to the large race number).

Yet the #3 has not been silent since February 2001. Far from it. Dale Earnhardt Jr ran the number on his Nationwide cars until 2002. Items carrying #3 outsell virtually all the currently active numbers in terms of NASCAR merchandise and, in 2010, RCR and NASCAR gave the fans exactly what they wanted when Dale Earnhardt Jr climbed aboard an Impala carrying blue and yellow Wrangler sponsorship (as his father’s often did, alongside the black Goodwrench car) and the #3. And won. At Daytona.

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Part of me thinks that this was a toe-in-the-water. A chance to test the public, give the #3 some good vibrations and open the path for a full-time return. Which has now come. Richard Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, has shown a hefty amount of talent, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series and running at the front of the Nationwide Series – at the wheel of the RCR #3.

ImageDillon has now taken his first win in the Nationwide series and looks set to become a regular in the top league before long – and it’s pretty much a given that he will bring the #3 back up with him. And so the debate goes on: should #3 be brought back or finally retired out of respect for The Intimidator?

Personally, I’d say that RCR is a business and that Earnhardt’s chosen legacy would be the ongoing success of the team that supported him. In what remain hard times for racing, NASCAR teams only thrive if they can grow. RCR has the #27, #29 and #31 but has lost the #33 through the shortage of funds available these days.

A bright young talent at the wheel of the iconic #3 might well do good things for RCR – and in turn for the popularity – and profitability – of NASCAR. Sometimes, race fans, sentiment needs to be saved for when we can afford it.

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Do you remember the first time?

So when did it all start for you, this mission to stay abreast of what was happening in the wide and wonderful world of NASCAR? Although I remember clips of Richard Petty being snuck in between the women’s lacrosse and Belgian barrel jumping on ITV World of Sport as a kid, for me Race 1 came while struggling with insomnia in the summer of 2004.

Somehow I happened to watch the one hour highlights of the Winn Dixie 250 Busch Series race from Daytona’s mid-summer weekend – and from the get-go I was hooked. First of all there was the amazing sight of top name drivers competing in the ‘lesser’ class – like Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher hopping out of their cars to go and have a crack in GP2.

Then there was the theatre – from Darrell Waltrip’s bananas commentary to the effect that Dale Earnhardt Jr had on the massive summer crowd. In a car sponsored by KFC! Everything being played out before my weary, disbelieving eyes was infectious.And then came what you see above.

As Ricky Bobby would later say: That. Just. Happened. Among the 14 potential winners, Jason Leffler punted Michael Waltrip out of the lead before sending Dale Jr up to ride the wall very close to where his father died 3 years earlier…

After this clip ends and the lucky winner Mike Wallace had thanked everyone a few more times, the interviewer went and found a rueful looking Junior and asked – with some trepidation – for his thoughts.

The answer was: “Did you ever get so mad you didn’t care if you won the fight or not?”

At that point the deal was done: I was a NASCAR fan.

How about you?

Hello world!

Well here’s a place in which, like Ted Danson’s bar in Cheers, everybody is likely to know everyone else’s name. Why? Because it’s a place where NASCAR’s overseas fanbase can come and keep in touch with the latest comings and goings of the biggest motor sport show in the USA. And, let’s face it, that puts us in the minority… even among our fellow motor sport fans.

On all points of the globe we are well served by a mix of world, regional and national championships across two wheels and four. From Scandinavia to Australasia we have a wealth of oval, drag and circuit racing competitions and the wonders of rally and raid – so why should anyone care about the curious world of NASCAR?

What is there of interest to the outside world in this strange, insular community where Jesus is a sponsor, the technology has been carbon dated to the mid-Cretaceous period and turning any way but left is a distinct oddity?

This is a series which can’t race in the rain, doesn’t look to the Far East for new revenue streams and would be something of a political hot potato south of the Mediterranean. It’s all-American and, based on the dismal failure of previous attempts to export it, likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

And yet it’s also spectacular. From the bare knuckle brawling around the half mile of Bristol to the 200mph race around a razor’s edge at Las Vegas and Talladega and of course the spectacle of the marquee races at Daytona, you’re guaranteed a show the like of which you’ll struggle to find anywhere else in motor sport. It’s a show that has vaulted the perimeter fence and taken NASCAR onto almost every supermarket aisle, high street store and movie theatre in North America.

Part of that show is a cast of characters the like of which all too few sports around the world can match: bringing life, colour, humour and controversy to flesh out the action on the track. In fact there are times when it can seem like Hollywood watered the whole thing down for Days of Thunder, Talladega Nights and even Stroker Ace.

And yet behind all the showbiz you can and do find the same depth of on-track strategy and heady boardroom politics for which the best international series are so well known. It’s just that, unlike Formula 1 for instance, there’s a refreshing amount of other stuff to talk about.

So welcome aboard… or rather: ‘Boogity! Boogity! Boogity! Let’s go racin’ boys!’