Just how much do Nascar drivers deserve privacy? After all, they do make millions of dollars, and put their faces on TV every week. They go to events and sign autographs, and appear in commercials for their sponsors. Should drivers be accessible to everyone, all the time?
Years ago, it was common for drivers and fans to intermingle in the infield before and after races. Richard Petty is famous for signing autographs, sometimes for hours, until the last fan had left with the King's signature on something. Those days obviously are long gone, but Nascar remains the only major sport in the world that gives fans major access to their favorite drivers.
I watched something interesting on Sunday's TNT broadcast of the race at New Hampshire. Patrick Carpentier was walking through the infield, and he passed several fans. Some of the fans looked at Patrick with a faint flicker of recognition, but walked on by. Patrick was looking into almost every face he passed, with a big smile on his face. Patrick had his Sharpie pen in his hand, like virtually every driver does, but no one was asking for his autograph. I imagine a lot of other drivers would envy Patrick's relative anonymity.
Imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr., walking through any place, especially at a race track, and the people walking by ignoring him. Imagine that happening for Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, or even Jason Keller. People recognize their faces, and they react with excitement. Often it's not even a driver that they like, but just the fact that they drive for Nascar often creates chaos in public places. Nascar is a very public forum. We see drivers succeed and we see them fail. It's like one giant soap opera played out weekly on TV and in the news.
I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago. I happened to be in Charlotte in December. In other words, it was the off season in Nascar. I was sitting in a restaurant enjoying dinner, and I looked up and saw Jeff Burton and his wife Kim walk by. I heard a few people say "Hey, Jeff!" I watched with fascination while the pair were seated at a table near me. Jeff smiled and waved, but no one rushed over to ask for his autograph. During his meal, Jeff talked to a few people casually at the tables around him, but there was no swarm for autographs, nor was there a crush of fans that gathered around the table. I found this fascinating. Jeff Burton is a major driver in the Cup series, and has won a lot of races. At first, I kept thinking he would be swarmed, but then it dawned on me that there was no race in Charlotte that weekend, and mostly it was just locals in the restaurant. They accepted Jeff as a local celebrity, but they left him alone to enjoy dinner with his wife. Jeff was in his adopted home town, and Charlotte, being a fairly urban place these days, apparently is willing to give some of the home town stars some space.
Had that have been Dale Jr. and a date, I doubt the same restraint would have been shown by the other diners. That's the price of super stardom, I suppose. I personally don't think that Dale Jr. ever set out to be a super star. Part of his stardom is his easy going personality, his laid back way of talking, and his good looks. Part of it is because of his name and who his daddy was. One of Dale Jr.'s first jobs was changing oil in the service department at his father's dealership, Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet, in Newton, NC. Dale Jr. has since said that he has more than once been afraid that the racing thing just wouldn't work. The most recent time was probably after his father died. Dale Jr. thought his sponsors would leave him, and that he would forever be a nobody without his dad. How wrong that self degradation turned out to be!
Dale Jr. seems to be a rather shy person, but he's learned to handle the media with grace and class. He now understands that it's part of his job. I was once at an autograph signing at the Greenville-Pickens Upstate fair, near Easley, South Carolina Within view was the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, where Ralph and Dale once raced. Dale Jr. was scheduled to be there that day for about and hour and a half, followed by Kevin Harvick. I didn't actually get anything signed that day, but a close friend of mine did. When Dale Jr. arrived, he walked by me, about 2 feet away. He was smiling, nodding to everyone, saying things like "Hey, good to see you."
I watched him his entire autograph session, from about 20 feet away. He had a smile for every fan, but he had learned to sign autographs quickly and keep the line moving. To a few, he spoke a word or two. I saw him shake a 4 year old's hand when it was offered to him.
Late in the session, the announcement came that Kevin Harvick was not going to be able to make it to the event, because weather in North Carolina had his plane grounded. A few minutes later, it was announced that Dale Jr. had graciously agreed to stay and sign more autographs since Kevin couldn't be there.
I don't know how many times Dale Jr. signed his name that day, but he made thousands of fans very, very happy. There were a lot of people decked out in 29 gear, and they were obviously disappointed when Kevin couldn't make it, but they lined up and got some Harvick diecasts and tee-shirts and hats autographed by Dale Jr. To this day, I wonder how many of those Harvick fans are now Dale Jr. fans.
Today, Dale Jr. lives on a large parcel of land, a little ways outside of Mooresville, NC. He's got his toys, his go-cart track, his mini golf course, even his own replica western town. Does he live like that because he's arrogant? No. He lives like that because that's the only way he can have anything approaching a normal life. Let's face it. If Dale Jr. lived on 109 Elm Lane, the press would be camped out in his yard every day and night, just waiting to report on whether he emptied the garbage or not, whether he raked leaves or cut his grass, whether or not he went to bed or not. The price of celebrity, wanted or unwanted, has not made life easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff Gordon maintains an apartment in Manhattan, and probably uses it often, because New York City is probably one of the few places on earth that he can walk up and down the street without being mobbed by adoring fans.
Think about it. Most of us wish to achieve fame, fortune, or maybe both. If you were swarmed with autograph seekers one time for some feat you had accomplished, you'd probably be both flattered and very happy. Maybe even twice or even three times.
But imagine every time you went out in public you got swarmed by adoring fans. You love your fans, but maybe you just want to sit down and have a quiet dinner with your spouse or your family. Maybe you want to walk into a 7-11 and buy a soft drink. Would you really want to spend and hour in a convenience store signing autographs every time you wanted a Mountain Dew?
How would you like to have people in the news reporting your choice of meals in a restaurant or even your bathroom habits and schedule? I'm not kidding. If you read any news at all about Nascar, you know it pretty much gets this detailed.
Drivers are people just like you and me. We all have our wants and desires. Drivers with families naturally don't want reporters talking to their kids, and for the most part, that desire is met with respect from the media. Wives seem to be somewhat fair game, but I doubt that a lot of them enjoy all the media attention as well. With a growing sport like Nascar, it seems to be a necessary evil though. As the sport grows, so does the celebrity status of the drivers and their families.
I say give them their space. When drivers agree to sign autographs, then show up, stand in line, wait your turn, and then get out of the way. If a driver has to leave before he's signed an autograph for you, don't jump on the Internet and say what a jerk that guy is. Drivers make a lot of appearances and sometimes more fans show up than they have time for. Don't blame the driver for that. Drivers often have very tight schedules.
Nascar fans, with the advent of new technology on the Internet, it's become easier than ever to find out where your driver is at any particular moment. Please, don't climb fences, attempt to embrace your favorite driver, or anything else out of the rules of polite society. Drivers are people too, and please, give them your respect, even when you meet them personally.