Michigan fans’ NASCAR passion running on fumes

Gregg Krupa
DetroitNews-Unknown
From left, Nino Phillips of Mt. Clemens, Jonathan Rangel and his father, George Rangel, both of Columbus Township, and Rick Sheppard of Mt. Clemens talk about NASCAR racing at Gus' Coney Island in Mt. Clemens.

Mount Clemens — They care a lot about racing, and there is no better place for them than Gus’ on Wednesday evenings.

After the county and city workers leave downtown and some nightlife begins to stir, about 12 to 15 fellas, sometimes more, gather in the back of the Coney Island restaurant on North Main Street.

They talk until after sunlight fades about where racing is good around the state, who is doing what in which car, and how it all used to be.

Often enough, they discuss why NASCAR is the way it is now, and why it should be different.

Coffee flows. When energy ebbs, coneys, fries and pop are ordered.

As the plates of food arrive, no one argues against the most recent assertion: Often enough, racing is way more fun to watch at the local tracks, like Tri-City Motor Speedway, the Auto City Speedway or the Flat Rock Speedway, than in the big show.

And if devoted racing fans and participants believe that, it may help explain the volume of empty seats at NASCAR race tracks and generally declining television ratings.

“I don’t find it very entertaining, just playing follow the leader,” said Nino Phillips, of Mount Clemens, echoing an off-stated complaint about uncompetitive racing.

“They need to get back to the basics.

“I’ve been watching it for over 30 years; big fan, at one time,” said Phillips, who also has worked in pit crews and as a transport driver for races at local tracks. “I used to go to a lot of races, Bristol and Michigan, back when it was fun. Now I just think that it’s so commercial.

“They’ve taken the fun out of it, just being that the cost of everything is so high. You used to be able to take a family down there and have a good old time, and spend the weekend down there “But they kept putting the prices higher and higher on the tickets, and the hotels would go and follow.

“It took the family out of the sport. I still watch it,” said Phillips, whose father was a driver. “Not as much as I used to. I never missed a Sunday race in the past. I didn’t even cut the lawn. I’d definitely watch every race. Now, I just tape them and I’ll maybe watch the last 20, 30 laps.”

‘Not really interesting’

People in his area know about racing.

Folks can name a garage up the road that once competed in Winston Cup and another down the way that made parts for cars in the Indianapolis 500s of the 1960s. Less than a mile east is the site of the former Mount Clemens Race Track. From 1951 to 1986, a couple thousand to several thousand fans used to gather and watch stocks and other classes of racing.

Jonathan Rangel, left, and his father, George Rangel, both of Columbus Township, are fans of racing, but have their issues with the NASCAR brand.

When it comes to NASCAR these days, one of the fellas asserts, even young Jonathan Rangel, who is here with his dad on this particular evening, there’s a better show in kart racing on local dirt ovals.

“We’re out there racing hard,” George Rangel, of Columbus Township said, about his 15-year-old son and his carting competitors. “They put on a good show for the fans.

“And they’re not necessarily taking each other out, or spinning each other out. But they’re pulling moves on each other, and everything.”

The experienced NASCAR fan often talks of missing hotly competitive races, like the long, lap-after-lap duels back in the day between Richard Petty and David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby or Donnie Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

Rangel, who has raced for 28 years, and Phillips outline a complaint familiar in the room. They say the meticulous, high-tech enforcement of excruciatingly-detailed NASCAR rules seems to have sucked the creativity, some of the art of racing, out of the sport.

And that in a sport now so ridden with science, engineering and technology that the uniformity of the cars homogenizes competitive performance to the point that only a mistake in the pits or bad luck timing a caution flag does much to impact the racing order.

“We try and outduel somebody, maybe with our knowledge of the set-up,” Rangel said of their karting and other local racing. “I don’t think their even allowed to try something different in NASCAR that’s not approved.

“So, it kind of takes the ingenuity out of a guy who thinks he might have something on everybody else.”

Those observations among inveterate fans suggest NASCAR has problems beyond attracting younger ones. But the younger age groups desired by broadcasters and sponsors re looking the other way, too.

“It’s not really interesting,” said Jonathan Rangel, the teenaged kart driver, who also drives in street stock races, including last weekend at the Owosso Speedway, in Ovid, and the Arthur Raceway, in Reese.

“They’re all just line-by-line. They’re not really rubbing or getting into each other, like what everyone else does that races.”

Rangel said he does not watch NASCAR.

“YouTube, a couple of times,” he said. “It just doesn’t really catch my eye.”

Jimmy Gullett, of Mount Clemens, who still runs cars at Flat Rock, presides over Wednesdays at Gus’s Coney Island, which sits in an area where people know racing.

A garage up the road that once competed in Winston Cup, and another down the way that made parts for cars in the Indianapolis 500s.

A half-mile east is the old site of the Mount Clemens Race Track. From 1951 to 1986, a couple-to-several thousand fans would gather to watch stocks and other classes of races.

Rick Sheppard of Mt. Clemens has raced in American Race Car Association contests, including at Daytona, and still helps his son run in late model races at local tracks.

“We’re racing all the time,” he said, of a family that has run Sheppard Motor Sales, on Gratiot, for 35 years.

He not only longs for racing more interesting to see, he recalls when he had his piece of it. In the better days of NASCAR 20 years ago, a guy from one of the competitive garages around Macomb County might just get lucky enough to hit the big time with a car.

“Well, an example. George is trying to make it. He’s trying to run several cars in different divisions all over the place,” Sheppard said. “And you know, the way it used to be, people in this restaurant would get behind him, try to help him make it.

“The way they’ve got it structured now, even if we had a car out of his restaurant, supposedly it’s like $3,800, now, just to get the chassis inspected, each time.

“Licensing fees are $10,000, $20,000, even if you have the equipment.”

No ‘magic answer’

The Keselowski family of Rochester Hills was that way, and Bob and those folks gave NASCAR its only Michigan-born cup champion.

The late Benny Parsons, who moved to Detroit from North Carolina after high school, drove cabs and worked at a gas station when a truck towing a car to race a local track southeastern Michigan pulled in.

Invited to come along, Parsons ended up driving the car in his first race that night when the driver failed to show.

Racing used to be more like that, even at the highest levels.

“Those teams all kind of disappeared, just for cost,” Phillips said.

“I would make it more cost effective for the fans. I would make it more cost effective for the racers, so some of the small teams could get in.”

As for just watching NASCAR, Phillips wonders, when he will ever see anyone storm back from 18th to win a race, with four laps left, like Dale Earnhardt did at Talladega in 2000.

“When was the last time someone’s come from way in the back on the last few laps to win a race? It hasn’t happened,” he said “Five years ago, they started experimenting with all the wings and so forth, to get it back the way it was. I wish I had the magic answer.”

The Wednesday night fellas do not cotton much to another recent change by NASCAR, the switch to sectored competition, with the stages within races.

“We’re experienced hardcore racers, and all that stage stuff doesn’t seem to fit our old-school way,” Sheppard said.

“Toughness is also in your head, and they kind of lose that now. It’s just short sprint.

“Like when Bobby Allison went in a 500, he was so mentally strong and so physical, also. We’ve kind of loss all of that.”

MIS WEEKEND

Friday

5:05 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, qualifying, NBCSN.

Saturday

9:30 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, qualifying.

1 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200, FS1

Sunday

3 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400, NBCSN

Tickets: mispeedway.com