Squier's message should be heard
STOWE, Vt. -- The most dramatic voice ever in NASCAR still speaks, still softly, still profoundly, but rarely around the big tracks or the networks now.
Down through the decades his words still resonate -- he dubbed the Daytona 500 "The Great American Race," he exalted rough-hewn stock car racing as "ordinary people doing extraordinary things," and he anchored NASCAR's most revolutionary event, CBS's live, full telecast of the 1979 Daytona 500.
Ken Squier at age 76 remains an understated but dynamic force, but mostly in the lovely little realm where he was born and where he'll die. Vermont is a wonderfully anachronistic society where things deeply American can flourish, while they wither elsewhere.[+] EnlargeBob Straus/Special to ESPN.comThe leaves are changing up around Ken Squier's farm in Vermont, where the sheep -- and the herding dogs -- play.
In a motor racing industry that has left its small-town short tracks to die, Squier's rustic quarter-mile oval, Thunder Road, still packs in a following that has remained loyal through generations, for more than 50 years.
In a radio industry that experts say is no longer viable, or relevant, Squier still owns and operates the four stations of Radio Vermont, which became the nerve center of the state's survival of the summer floods off Tropical Storm Irene.
"I'm in the loop when it comes to receiving information from emergency management centers and so forth," says Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. "But I was getting better information from Radio Vermont than anywhere else."
Scott, by the way, was a racer at Thunder Road long before he was a politician, and he is one of the favorites to win the storied Milk Bowl this Sunday.
I have come to see the Milk Bowl -- once in your life you gotta see the race where the winner is required to kiss a dairy cow in Victory Lane -- and to visit my friend of 35 years plus
And to ask how NASCAR might get its drama back.
Seems like all of us, from every grandstand seat and media center, and from every sofa in front of every TV set, have been asking that. I for one have searched everywhere for answers and come up short.
If there are answers, they are here, in the Green Mountains, with the man who extracted high drama from NASCAR in the first place, first on the Motor Racing Network, MRN, which he founded, and then from 1979-2000 on CBS. In rare treats, Squier still comments for Speed Channel at some major venues.
Mostly he is home now. Retired from the big time, yes. Retired, absolutely not.
Even now, he is -- "I would say actually driven," says his Australian-born wife, Elizabeth. "Driven to be active and engaged, whether it's the radio station or the symphony orchestra, or his other many things."
Squier is the outgoing chairman of the Vermont State Symphony, which he found in financial distress nine years ago but has lifted back to fiscal health.
How?[+] EnlargeBob Straus/Special to ESPN.com Longtime racing broadcaster Ken Squier and wife Elizabeth tend to the sheep on their farm in Vermont.
"He is, at the end of the day, a promoter," says Elizabeth. "I've watched him promoting classical music. I mean, one simply doesn't do that in classical music."
But this symphony has been around since 1935, when Squier's father first took him as a child, and "it was not going to go down on his watch," says his wife.
Last season the symphony sold out every performance. It is now endowed so that it will be healthy for years to come.
But Squier has a little more time now, to sit outside in the New England autumn, on the couple's 30-acre sheep farm just outside Stowe, and ponder an old friend's questions about how NASCAR might be brought out of the doldrums.
You begin with what an intelligent kid, bound for Boston University, saw -- and most of all felt -- at the short tracks of New England just after World War II.
The star Indy car drivers of the time would barnstorm into the East with their high-risk endeavor -- Ted Horn, Johnnie Parsons, Bill Holland.
"I couldn't understand how anybody could get all wound up watching guys in a baseball park scratching themselves and spitting tobacco," he said. "When the guys I admired drove down into the corner, the issue was whether they would come out alive on the other side."
That is the mystique motor racing has lost, NASCAR in particular, Squier reckons.
"This was the one sport where if you are committed to it, and play it at the highest level, you take the highest risk." And now in NASCAR, "They don't want to talk about risk.
"I think they need to rethink that. Because if you're going 200 miles an hour, g--------, it's still a risk. And now they can't do anything but tell us all how safe it is. Understand that anybody who cinches in there and gets right on the very edge of control, that's a risk."
Even now, with head restraints, soft walls and the cocoon-like current cars?
But with at least the perception that racing is no longer so dangerous, has it lost some of the magnetism that drew so many fans to live vicariously through the drivers?
"Big problem," he said. "Big problem. This guy [the driver] no longer has taken himself for two or three hours and placed himself on a level at which I don't choose to do it, but I admire him for it."
Motor racing "was that final test: are you willing to commit yourself to something where 98 or 99 percent of the population says, 'You gotta be out of your mind?'"
Squier has never subscribed to the notion that race fans come to see death and injury -- they come to see the narrow avoidance. A voracious reader, he cites a character of author Tom Robbins, "who said nobody wanted to see him fall off the mountain but everybody wanted to see him put his toes over the edge. We're intrigued by those who take risks that we would rather not take ourselves.
"Which was exactly what the racing was about."
To bring the drama back, first, "Take out a lot of that language."
That is, all the NASCAR machinations toward statistics that try to turn it into a low-risk stick and ball sport.
And then "Let it be what it is. Make sure that sincerely, when they come down the backstretch [just before a start], you ask the public to wish them good luck and Godspeed.
"You don't have to say anything more. Let the drama speak for itself."
Prerace hype is fine -- "It's marvelous to have the buildup. But you didn't need any g------ music when Karl Wallenda stepped out on that rope.
"You can have bands and do all that. But when they call 'em to the line, all the sideshow has got to go away stop the foolishness when you really get down to what the product is.
"And the product is serious stuff. It doesn't need rock 'n' roll."
The most dramatic voice ever in NASCAR is not so widely heard anymore. But you wonder if it shouldn't be heeded.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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