A few years ago, the Speed Channel aired some episodes of an old, largely forgotten TV series called Car and Track, which featured new car road tests and coverage of motor sports, especially NASCAR racing. It was a fascinating bit of late-sixties/early-seventies nostalgia, but it never found a sizable audience — or a consistent time slot — and the series disappeared.
Last year, the network repackaged some of the old Car and Track episodes as Back in the Day, hosted by Nextel Cup fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Now the road tests are gone, and only the old NASCAR coverage remains. Some disgruntled viewers would say that’s symbolic of the Speed Channel as a whole, which has become much more NASCAR-centric since it was taken over by Fox in 2001. Dale Jr. introduces each episode and occasionally comments on the vintage racing action, which is also “enhanced” with Pop-Up Video-style factoids about the tracks, drivers, and pop culture of the era.
The old racing footage is fantastic – a reminder of an age when NASCAR was still a niche sport outside of the Deep South. (One 1975 event at Darlington Raceway was called the ‘Rebel 500′.) The stock cars really were stock cars back then, with Torinos, Chevelles, and Chargers featuring production bodies and engines that weren’t too far removed from the V8s you could purchase for street use.
I’m not a big NASCAR fan — Formula One is my racing series of choice — but I loved seeing Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and the late Benny Parsons at the peak of their careers. The old stuff is great. The new stuff? Not so much. The on-screen factoids — accompanied by annoying sound effects — are only occasionally interesting (I’ll admit, I didn’t know STP stood for “Scientifically Treated Petroleum”) and always distracting.
Dale Jr. seems likable enough. This is not surprising since modern NASCAR drivers have to be as good in front of the camera as behind the wheel, but he really doesn’t add much to the show except for his famous name. Because the racing footage is so good, I can recommend Back in the Day to any auto racing enthusiast, but I wish they’d left the old episodes of Car and Track alone.