One of my friends started an effort to get James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team to commemorate Neil Bonnett’s Country Time Lemonade car at Daytona next year. The 2014 Daytona 500 will mark 20 years since Neil’s death at the track. Neil was practicing the #51 Chevrolet for Finch in hopes of making a return to the sport he loved and helped grow into a nationally recognized event. Word got around and Finch had the #1 car painted up like Neil’s #51 car just in time for the Talladega race (Neil’s home track). Many of us were excited and anxiously awaiting the broadcast to see how ESPN would commemorate Neil’s achievements. Finch even invited many family members of Neil to the track for the big event. The race was rain delayed, giving the color commentators more time to discuss Neil, Finch racing and the tribute car but they completely dropped the ball. While they did not neglect to mention the car, every comment was negative and demeaning. I found myself infuriated along with many other long time fans. This was just one more in a long line of screw ups by NASCAR, ESPN and the terrible TV coverage.
I came across this blog post today that really put it all together better than any rant ever could. The full text can be read here. The following is an excerpt from the article:
“With the exception of Dr. Jerry Punch, who offered a few brief statements of his own, everyone on the ESPN crew handled the significance of the Finch car with startling insensitivity. Yes, there was an acknowledgment that the car resembled one driven by Bonnett, but that’s where the analysis ended and the jokes began.
Nicole Briscoe, Brad Daugherty, and Rusty Wallace kept mocking the paint job, how it resembled Travis Pastrana’s “Trapper Keeper” scheme and how it was too bright to look at. Allen Bestwick was reluctant to say the car had pink on it, even though the Country Time cars were among the most prolific on the track when he was doing radio broadcasts. Shockingly, even Kurt Busch himself joined in on the fun, cracking wise about how you need a welder’s mask to look at the car, all the while wondering aloud why Finch insisted this car be kept up front at Bonnett’s home track.
But what hurt the most was ESPN’s total disregard of the man whom the car was meant to honor. Not once in qualifying or the race did we ever see Bonnett’s face, nor any vintage clips of Bonnett’s eighteen wins. There is literally no excuse for this - ESPN’s first live flag-to-flag NASCAR telecast in 1981 was one of Bonnett’s wins at Atlanta. Surely, they could have easily showed that during the three-hour rain delay.
This may strike some of you as a trivial concern, but if you think that, you’re just not seeing the big picture. Imagine if, after the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon, someone made fun of the marathon’s logo depicting a unicorn. You know why no one did that? Because it’s unspeakably inappropriate. The mere passage of time doesn’t make an off-color comment more acceptable.
More than this, what ESPN did represents a fundamental problem with today’s NASCAR - a complete and utter disregard for its history and the people who made the sport what it is. And I’m sure it’s a big reason the sport’s lost so many of its longtime fans.“
It is not in my interest to focus on the negative elements in modern NASCAR. My choice is to focus on the better parts of the sport, both past and present. But this is more than a slight to Neil, his family and longtime fans of the sport. We cannot deny the history of the sport and those who made it what it is today.