I love to hear Willie Nelson sing, and when he does "Yesterday's Wine" it touches the heart and puts my mind to rambling-rambling back to the early days of stock car racing.

It is a comforting thought, however, when I realize I was there, growing up with the sport, spending time with its people, its heroes, getting to know them and becoming friends with pioneers such as Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Junior Johnson and Jim Paschal. The list continues back to the days of Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Glen Wood, Joe Weatherly, and even Big Bill France.

Those who follow racing and can't say the same have missed something special, a part of Americana that will not circle this way again.

The era of racing I'm talking about is gone forever. It's gone like that part of country music that will not return. You don't hear the voices of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings as often as you did years back. Yes, I know, they are gone forever, but that's not the only reason you don't hear them. You don't hear Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, or even the old Possum, George Jones, on the radio much anymore, either.

The reason is you can forget dusty old boots and worn-out jeans; country music stars are a young, fashionable crowd these days. Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, and Shania Twain will soon be running out of stage room for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Rickiejoleen, Catherine Britt, Kasey Chambers, Adam Harvey, and Candi Carpenter.

What has happened in Nashville has happened in racing. It is nothing all that new. It happened to us when we were growing up, and we just didn't realize it.

Young cater to the young. It is happening in music. It is happening in racing. It is happening in the business world. Look at the clothing industry, for example.

In the process of this evolution, NASCAR and sponsors of corporate America have stolen the character of drivers. There are no characters, and racing has lost its character.

Even the front office of NASCAR is made up of the younger generation. Brian France, the CEO of NASCAR, hasn't begun to color his hair or wear flashy shirts and colorful suits to help hide his age. He doesn't even hang gold around his neck.

So when you hear that old guy climbing out of a pickup truck say he doesn't like racing anymore, that these young kids are not as good at the wheel as the old crowd was, and that they don't race as hard, then help him with his cane and turn up his hearing aid. He is probably wearing it because of standing too close to the exhaust pipes on Curtis Turner's Ford while somebody was setting timing on the engine.

Personally, I don't believe there will ever be two drivers better than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but how do you judge race drivers? Perhaps I should be saying that I admire Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt more than any two drivers. Well, I don't know about that either. Do I admire their driving ability, or what? There are certain things I admire about a lot of drivers I have known. As a friend, I don't know of any I admire more than Terry Labonte.

I guess the bottom line is that we should be allowed to believe whatever we want to about all-star athletes.

I have never been crazy about seeing cars go around in circles, so I think what bothers me most is I miss the remarkably fantastic stories told by most of the old-timers in the sport. They told their stories so well. When Jimmy Spencer tells a story, it is exquisitely done.

There were stories about anything and everything, some things you wouldn't believe. They told a lot of stories about their early days racing, and a lot of stories about each other. "The girl over by the fence kept waving and yelling for me to come over there," David Pearson said, "so I walked over. As I got closer I noticed the expression on her face changed. When she could see the name on my uniform, she yelled out, 'You are not the David Pearson I was out with last night.' "

"You know how nervous Freddie Lorenzen is," Richard Petty began. "Well, Dale (Inman, crewchief) and I found this gearbox. We polished it up and slipped it under our car at Bristol before qualifying. We made sure Freddie was watching, and Dale set the gearbox out from under the car. We left it for a few minutes. Sure enough, Freddie came by and dropped down on one knee and copied the numbers off the box. I would love to have seen his face when he found out the gearbox was from a '38 Ford."

In days gone by, drivers were always available to tell these stories. There wasn't that much media. Practically all the drivers knew all the media by name, and the back of a truck or a stack of tires made a good office or den. You could talk for hours.

Today, there is so much media that drivers hide in holes to escape the rush.

Today's drivers are ostentatious with their uniforms and big buses, yet they are stylish.

Before big sponsors there was no dress code, and often people would confuse crewmen with drivers.

Yes, racing has changed and, just like country music and most other things, will continue to go through changes.

"Aging with time, like yesterday's wine."