Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A fan's point of view of Nascar racing

I've been a racing fan since the early 1970's, and I've watched Nascar and open wheel racing.  Back in the early '70's, there was not much racing on TV except for the Indy 500, and an occasional open wheel race over seas.  ABC's Wide World of Sports would sometimes show some Nascar highlights, but there was not that much racing on television back in those days.  In February, 1979, all that changed, when the Daytona 500 was carried live on TV, and the great fight broke out after the race that is still familiar to this day for Nascar fans.  With the cable revolution, Nascar became available for more and more viewers.  

In just a few years, Nascar became a venue that was familiar to people from all over the country, not just in the Southeast, where the sport began.  Petty was winning races, but not as many as he did back in the early part of his career.  The King was starting to show some age, and there were a lot of hot drivers out there challenging Richard for the crown.  Waltrip, Yarborough, Allison, Pearson, Parsons, Rudd, Labonte, Bodine, Earnhardt.  Yes, Earnhardt.  1979 was Dale Earnhardt's first full season in Nascar, and he won Rookie of the Year.  In 1980, Earnhardt went on to win the championship, the Winston Cup, and is still the only driver to accomplish that incredible feat.  

The 1980's saw moderate growth in fans for the sport.  In the 1990's, the sport exploded.  A young driver named Jeff Gordon began winning everything there was to win, and Dale Earnhardt basically invented the modern business of sports marketing, selling tee shirts, hats, diecasts, and every other imaginable collectable.  By the end of the 1990's decade, Nascar had become a huge sport, with tons of money being exchanged.  In 2000, another Earnhardt came along, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his easy manner and party style garnered him lots of fans from the very beginning.  In many of the fan's minds, a dynasty was born, with Dale Jr. driving for the company that his old man started, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.  Drivers no longer drove to the track in their cars, or hauled their race cars behind their pickup trucks as they had in the 1970's.  Drivers now flew by private jets, the cars were hauled by professional truck drivers in high tech 18 wheelers to the tracks.  The drivers didn't stay in cheap motels anymore near the track.  They stayed in comfortable motor coaches in the infield at the track.  Nascar was booming.  This is business, baby!

In 2001, Nascar and the broadcasting networks made their moves.  FOX and NBC bought the rights to broadcast the races, paying multiple millions of dollars for the right to broadcast the races.  FOX hired veteran driver Darrell Waltrip, and crew chiefs Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond to provide color for the races.  NBC hired Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach for the same reasons.  This was the big show now, and Nascar was destined to become America's most watched sport.

The 2001 Daytona 500 was huge even for FOX, and everyone was ready to see racing on prime time TV.  Bill Elliot started on the pole, and many people were watching Dale and Dale Jr., the Master of Restrictor Plate Racing and his son, and DEI did very well, with DEI driver Michael Waltrip winning his first race ever in the Winston Cup, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him to victory.  But on that last lap of the Daytona 500, history was made, and the sport changed forever.  Dale Earnhardt hit the Turn 4 wall slightly off center, and died instantly.  Driver Kenny Schrader was involved in the accident, and stopped down in the infield near Dale's car.  Kenny was worried about his old friend, and jumped out of his car to check on Dale.  Kenny looked in the window of the GM Goodwrench Chevy, and turned away, shocked.  Kenny had lost a good friend, and the Nascar world had just lost it's biggest hero.

In the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's death, Nascar implemented numerous safety requirements.  New inspections of seat belts, new crash bars, and the requirement that all drivers wear head and neck restraint devices.  Nascar soon began thinking about softer walls, and the end result was the SAFER barrier, a little bit of a cushion between the car and the hard concrete wall.  For some reason, the safety craze didn't really hit Nascar until Dale Earnhardt died, even though the year before, drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty had died of similar injuries.  Dale Earnhardt's death was the event that forced Nascar to change, though.  Within a year, Nascar became much safer.  Unfortunately, the measures that Nascar took were much like shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped.  The damage was done, and Nascar was changed forever.

In the years following Dale Earnhardt's death, Nascar changed the system around.  They implemented the Free Pass, or what is commonly called the Lucky Dog pass, for the first car one lap down.  Nascar implemented the Chase for the Cup, which still has many mixed reviews among fans.  The actual racing became more orchestrated, or more of a pageant.  Networks covering the sport spent more time on the nuts and bolts of racing, and talking up the current favorites than they did actually showing the racing, the true racing on the track.  A leader leading by 3 seconds is exciting for the fans of that particular race car driver, but what about the cars mired back in the pack?  That's actually where the majority of the racing occurs, but many of the TV networks don't show much of that these days.

When I go to my local short track, Anderson (SC) Motor Speedway,   I can pick and choose which driver to watch.  If watching the leader gets boring, I can just go back through the pack and pick the particular battle I want to watch.  TV doesn't give you that option, and I can sympathize with the TV crews, because some of them are not really race fans, and think we just want to see the leader or the booth's favorite driver drive endless circles around the track by himself.  Racing is about competition, and they all compete at some point, but having a camera follow lap after lap of a driver who's just keeping time and not really racing anyone is just plain boring.

Today's racing world is all about money, and that's not likely to change soon.  Nascar today is all about packing in the most fans, selling the most tee shirts, making the best TV ratings.  Nascar today has not much in common with the racing of the past, where the drivers raced, and the cameras covered the action.  Nascar today is all about the money, and the racing is a by product, it would seem.

If you want to see what racing is really all about, go to your local short track and watch the people with names you probably don't know do what they do best:  Race.

I wish Nascar would get back to racing.  If they don't, one of these days, people will be comparing stock car racing to the WWE. 

Oh what?  Really?  Guess what, they already are.

Message to Nascar:  Do what you do best.  Go racing again.  In my opinion, IRL broadcasts are much better than the current overhyped Nascar broadcasts.  In IRL, you can actually see the racing happen on the track, not the drama of a Kyle Busch blowing his top after doing something stupid.  I mean, we want to see it all, but really, why waste time with Kyle when you know he's going to say something stupid when you could be showing racing on the track?

Maybe Nascar should change it's name.  What used to be the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing has become the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Marketing.  

NASCAM.  Kinda has a ring to it, don't you think?

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