NMPA’s Heyday May Have Passed, But Its Importance And Influence
On Jan. 22 at the National Motorsports Press Association’s convention in Concord, N.C., Tony Stewart was named the winner of the NMPA’s Richard Petty Driver of the Year Award.
It came as no surprise, really. Stewart is the 20l1 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who earned a series-leading five victories, all during the Chase, and had a season record that included 19 top-10 finishes, nine of them among the top five.
It was the third time the NMPA had named Stewart as the driver of the year, an honor it has bestowed since 1969. He also received the award in 2002 and 2005, which were also championship seasons.
“It’s an honor to have earned the 2011 NMPA Richard Petty Driver of the Year award,” Stewart said in a statement. “Everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing took the opportunity we had of being in the Chase and made the most of it.
“We took each race one at a time and never quit. It made all the difference. The award is theirs as much as mine.”
Those are appropriate sentiments, through which Stewart indicated that a driver wins nothing on his own and that those who help him should be acknowledged.
It would have been very nice if Stewart had been at the convention to deliver them personally. He wasn’t.
He couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict.
Now, lest anyone think I am about to chastise Stewart for not spending a little over an hour at the NMPA convention, I most certainly am not.
I have no doubt he had a scheduling conflict. He’s not the first NMPA Driver of the Year to be prevented from receiving his award in person and he certainly won’t be the last.
The NASCAR of today makes more demands on a driver’s time, I think, than ever.
The burgeoning growth of the sport in recent years has brought with it more national attention – media, corporate and otherwise – that the once relatively “free” time competitors had during any offseason was plentiful.
No longer. Drivers have to do everything from shoot television commercials to honor personal appearance commitments – which sometimes means to compete in races of all types – and satisfy the sanctioning body’s promotional requirements.
The NASCAR Preview, held a day before the NMPA convention, which offered thousands of fans to get driver autographs, is a good example of the latter. At least fifty drivers were in attendance.
This is beneficial for the sport, and, yes, the drivers and more importantly, the fans.
So if the man named the NMPA’s Richard Petty Driver of the Year can’t accept the award in person, well, that’s understandable.
However, there was a time when any driver so honored wouldn’t think of not being in attendance, no matter the location of the NMPA’s convention.
I think there are two primary reasons for this.
First, it was a much simpler era. Driver presence wasn’t nearly as highly demanded, so they weren’t pulled in all directions.
Second, the number of honors a driver could receive weren’t as numerous they are today – there is more than one driver of the year award, for example.
The NMPA, which began humbly as the Southern Motorsports Press Association in the 1960’s, was the only organization that selected the top NASCAR driver of the season. And while the award is certainly prestigious today it was more so yesterday, when it stood alone.
It must be said that the NMPA was different, also. In the stock car racing world its influence was greater because it attracted virtually all of the top motorsports journalists, even several well beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, in a smaller NASCAR environment.
An example of this is the convention itself. There was a time when it lasted three days and attendance was huge. It received vast support from companies financially involved in racing. Sponsorships for its functions weren’t difficult to attain.
It was staged in far-flung locales – among them vacation destinations like Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Companies set up vendor booths with, among other things, products that catered to the media.
Those same companies provided the meals and, at times, entertainment. And, if you can believe this, some NASCAR team owners even chipped in.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: In the late 1970’s, the NMPA’s three-day session was held in Myrtle Beach.
A couple of the hotel’s meeting halls were filled with vendors of all sorts. Busch Beer flew Hoyt Axton and his band in from Las Vegas to provide a night’s rowdy entertainment.
Cale Yarborough, named the driver of the year, came to the convention one day before – yes, before - he was to receive the honor and spent time mingling, chatting and laughing with members.
Winston brought drag racing great Kenny Bernstein to the convention, not only to promote its participation in the sport, but also to give Bernstein an idea of what NASCAR was all about.
To this day the now retired Bernstein talks about that visit.
None of this has been part of the NMPA for years. As said, times, and the NASCAR environment, have changed.
Things today may be on a much smaller scale for the NMPA but its importance hasn’t dwindled a bit.
It continues to strive to support NASCAR, its competitors and fans and, most important, to maintain journalistic professionalism.
I think fans should know that.
The NMPA must be doing something right. After all these years, among its members are many, many of the best in the business.
I have no doubt that, although you might not have realized it, over time you have read, heard and seen all of them.