NASCAR's next 30 for 30
ESPN's critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series has tackled a number of different topics in sports. From the death of Len Bias to the birth of fantasy football, the original documentaries covered virtually aspect of sport. Their lone NASCAR feature was, “Tim Richmond – To The Limit,” a film on the short life and fast times of NASCAR driver Tim Richmond. Despite its flaws, the movie did an excellent job telling the tale of a driver cut down before having the chance to find out just how good he could be. ESPN continues to release feature-length documentaries on the world of sport under the 30 for 30 umbrella which got me wondering what stories in NASCAR's recent past might make for a compelling story in a second NASCAR 30 for 30 film?
Listed below are the five stories over the past 30 years in NASCAR that I believe would make for a viable 30 for 30 project. The stories have to have taken place since September of 1979, when ESPN launched as a network. They need to be relevant (or at least of interest) to an audience beyond those who follow NASCAR on a weekly basis. Most of all, the stories must involve real emotion. The reason why the series has been so successful is that the films by and large have an emotional center that draws the viewer in no matter the sport involved.
1. NASCAR's response to the events of February 18, 2001.
There have been a number of different documentaries made on the life and death of Dale Earnhardt Sr both at ESPN and elsewhere. Yet the story of how NASCAR responded to his death is one that deserves telling as well. Earnhardt's death wasn't the only one that the series was responding to; in the year preceding Senior's accident at Daytona, NASCAR also lost Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper in various accidents.
With so many fatal wrecks in such a short period of time, NASCAR had to do something both in the short term and the long term to secure their own future. From mandating HANS devices in the cars to adding SAFER barriers at the tracks, the story of what and how hundreds of people did is an interesting one. Bits and pieces of the story are told but the overarching narrative, complete with interviews with those who made it happen, would make for an outstanding film.
2. The Polish victory lap
Alan Kulwicki was the last single car owner-driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup series championship. His 1992 run to the title was the culmination of a career spent doing things the hard way. He turned down what was then an elite ride with Junior Johnson, only to see Johnson steal the sponsor Kulwicki had lined up for himself. Coming into 1993 he seemed to be on top of the world and primed for more wins and championships.
A plane crash tragically cut his life short and left fans wondering just what might have been. Those were were there called watching the #7 hauler pull off the track at Bristol as the saddest thing they'd ever seen. One of the more poignant moments for me as a fan was watching Rusty Wallace drive Alan's patented “Polish Victory Lap” after winning the Bristol race just days after Kulwicki's death. The story of who Alan was and who he could have been is one worth telling.
Rusty Wallace pays tribute to Kulwicki
3. Wonderboy and the Intimidator
Jeff Gordon burst onto the NASCAR scene hotter than any rookie had done since Dale Earnhardt Sr won the championship in his second full Cup season. Earnhardt held off Gordon and others to win his seventh and final series championship in 1994. Earnhardt never won another championship and Gordon went on to capture three of the next four Winston Cup titles, including beating Earnhardt directly in 1995.
The story of Gordon's rapid rise to challenge and eventually unseat the wily veteran Earnhardt is one that's perfect for the 30 for 30 format. Interviews with the respective crew chiefs, team members, owners, media members and Gordon himself would make for compelling television. While five to ten minute pre-race features have touched on the subject, a 90 minute film would enable a far deeper retrospective than has ever been possible before.
4. You don't belong here (the Geoff Bodine story)
This one earns a spot out of pure bias on my part and I'll make no attempt to hide or deny that fact. Growing up, Geoff Bodine was a driver I enjoyed watching. It was his rivalry with Earnhardt that made me a NASCAR fan to begin with. Yet how he came to become one of NASCAR's biggest names in the 80's is a story that hasn't been well told. Bodine, a native of Chemung, NY, didn't exactly fit in with the Alabama Gang Southern culture that dominated NASCAR at the time. His success opened the door for other drivers who weren't “geographically desirable” to become NASCAR drivers themselves.
And as if that weren't enough, Bodine's semi-retirement included another venture into uncharted waters. After watching American bobsled racers struggle with second-rate castoff equipment from overseas, Bodine took it upon himself to build a new sled. His sled, the Bo-Dyn Bobsled, led to a resurgence in American performance in the sport (including a 2010 Olympic Gold Medal). The dynamic between the two trails Bodine forged would make for a terrific documentary film.
5. Past the point of no return (the Jeremy Mayfield story)
The story of Jeremy Mayfield is also one that fits well within the format of the 30 for 30 series. Mayfield, still under indefinite suspension by NASCAR for violating its substance abuse policy in 2009. His career was already in decline at the time of the suspension, yet Mayfield became one of NASCAR's saddest stories in the years since.
A career that once held so much promise descended into tabloid chaos. The positive test for methamphetamines was only once piece of the puzzle. Three years before the suspension, Mayfield lost his ride at Evernham Motorsports after hinting that his boss spent too much time on future wife Erin Crocker. He accused his step-mother of murdering his father, was on the losing end of a million dollar lawsuit involving a dog attack and was arrested for allegedly being at the center of a burglary ring whose proceeds went to fund a meth habit. Falls from grace are rarely so far and so hard and Mayfield's story, while tragic, is compelling.