The Frontstretch: Too Vanilla Or Too Obnoxious? Where's the Middle Ground? by Amy Henderson -- Friday June 12, 2009

Go to site navigation Go to article

Too Vanilla Or Too Obnoxious? Where's the Middle Ground?

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 12, 2009


It isn’t easy to please race fans. That becomes evident in any discussion about drivers. One guy isn’t talented enough, and if he has a family name with a racing history, well then, by gum, he’d better live up to it or else! The next is too talented, apparently, because he wins too much, whatever that means. It’s a sport, winning is kind of the point… But I digress.

Then there is the constant back-and-forth about the driver who, for whatever reason, is perceived as “boring” and the one who is an “obnoxious jerk.” Mr. Vanilla toes the company line. He rarely has a harsh word to say about anyone, even when he has every right or reason. He is very conscious of what he says, is soft spoken, and always thanks his fans, crew, and sponsors with a smile on his face, even though he’d probably like to throttle a few of them right now. You can quote him before he says anything, because you’ve heard it all before. A lot. The fans hate him.

Meanwhile, Mr. O. Jerk doesn’t toe any line and is likely to put his toe through something if things don’t go his way. When they do go his way, he is Mr. Congeniality, full of thanks for his crew and fans. When they don’t he morphs into a surly, snarling monster. Then he either takes his toys and goes home, refusing to talk to anyone, or snarls and snaps and is generally rude to anyone within a hundred foot radius. He’s unpredictable, but people are afraid of what he’ll do next. The fans hate him.

It seems that, in today’s NASCAR, most drivers are lumped into one of these categories.

Matt Kenseth is boring.

Tony Stewart is an obnoxious jerk.

Jimmie Johnson is boring. And he wins too much, too.

Kyle Busch is an obnoxious jerk. And he wins too much.

So say race fans. Of course, many of the ones who enjoy calling Kenseth or Johnson boring think Stewart and Busch are great for the sport. And the ones who think Stewart and Busch are jerks favor the quieter Kenseth or Johnson.

The question is whether there’s anyone at all who would satisfy the fans. Where is the happy medium? And what kind of driver does today’s NASCAR need to have and to promote?

This is not really an easy question, nor are there easy answers. NASCAR, as sanctioning body, has recently said that they want to encourage more personality. But a caveat here: sponsors don’t always like drivers who throw temper tantrums like footballs in public. Last week at Nashville, when Kyle Busch played rock star and destroyed the race trophy guitar, the representatives for race sponsor Federated Auto Parts walked out of victory lane in disgust. That’s not something that you really want to risk in a poor economy-if a race sponsor leaves, that can mean smaller purses and less revenue for already struggling tracks.

On the other hand, if drivers show little or no emotion, it seems like they just don’t care about the fans or the sport in general. So, what gives?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is approachable and friendly to the fans and media alike. His humble and outgoing personality help make him a perennial fan favorite.

There are a few drivers who seem both humble and outgoing. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. comes immediately to mind. He’s approachable and friendly to the media, which comes across to the fans, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind-but unless you are both his crew chief and related to him, he isn’t disrespectful or obnoxious. At least some of his popularity is due to his personality.

There are some others who, if they ever got the coverage that the big names get, would fit the bill. Casey Mears comes to mind, as does A.J. Allmendinger. Both are friendly and outgoing with a healthy sense of humor to boot. But they don’t generate the reaction that they would if they were contending for championships, either.

Which might also be a part of the problem. If Mears or Allmendinger won at the rate of Johnson or Busch, they would probably both be immensely popular. At least until they won too much. Perhaps part of the perceived problem is that the drivers in the spotlight for winning are those polarizing personalities. Johnson heads the list when fans speak of the “vanilla” drivers, but the self-conscious Johnson isn’t alone—he’s joined in his corner by Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman, to name a few. The hot-headed Busch has fewer drivers to carry the “obnoxious” torch, but Stewart and Carl Edwards have their moments, and brother Kurt has had to work hard to get off the naughty list.

It’s also hard for the average fan to see beyond the cameras. Johnson had a radio show a couple of years ago and was open and often hilarious-obviously much more comfortable without a TV camera on him. Kenseth and Newman both have a dry sense of humor and can be funny as all get out-but those moments are spontaneous, not made for television, and rarely come across on camera because on-camera moments are rehearsed and ingrained. Bad boy Stewart has a soft spot for kids and animals, donating huge amounts of money for various causes and doting on his own animals. Edwards donates trophies to various individuals for various reasons. But because both have a temper, and because the TV cameras love nothing more than to get in someone’s face in a heated moment, perception becomes distorted over time. But perception can rapidly become reality, and a few TV clips can cement a driver’s reputation, for better or for worse.

With many of today’s top drivers being, on the surface, polar opposites, it’s not really a shock that fans polarize around them. What is too bad is that there are happy mediums-mediocre drivers who are outgoing and honest, and the sides of both “boring” and “obnoxious” drivers that the fans just don’t see. Everybody has their preferences, of course. It’s no secret that I tend to have more respect for someone who is polite and gracious, even if that is sometimes at the expense of showing more of themselves, but I know fans who would take obnoxious over plain-Jane, simply because it’s different.

So what kind of driver should NASCAR promote to the masses? The answer is both simple and complex. NASCAR needs to promote all of their drivers. The problem is, television wants to promote winners and those already popular-there is little interest in actually making anybody popular. Which is too bad-there’s something for everyone in NASCAR, but you wouldn’t know it lately.

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

06/12/2009 07:42 AM

Well! I got suckered into reading this column allright, turns out as yet just another “Dale Jr.” column!

Your “There are a few drivers who seem both humble and outgoing. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. comes immediately to mind.”! HUH?

This could REALLY be truthfull if you stated “Jr. just doesn’t give a crap”, therefore he is an easy interview as he does not have the competitive spirit that elicits emotions!

06/12/2009 08:02 AM

NASCAR is best off with a little bit of everything. I like Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson just fine. I doubt either of them are truly like what most fans’ perception of them is. TV blows all of that out of proportion. Jimmie hates losing too.

As far as promoting all the drivers, be careful what you wish for. I do think TV should be paying attention to everyone and TNT is best for that, but I don’t want them telling me who to root for. They already tell me who to vote for for President.

Good read Amy.

06/12/2009 09:25 AM

I would like to get to know all the drivers, but unfortunately that won’t happen. I’m just as interested as to what Juan Pablo has to say as to Jimmie Johnson. Wake up broadcasters! we’re never going to get to meet the new drivers or the ones that have been around for years unless you all start interviewing them too!

06/12/2009 09:30 AM

Thank goodness for drivers like Kyle Busch. While a lot of racing fans may not like his antics, I love it. He’s not my favorite driver, but he’s a rare commidity in nas$car. Someone who doesn’t have the personality of a fencepost. WE NEED a few colorful drivers in the top series. nas$car doesn’t seem to get this.

Joe in Pittsburgh
06/12/2009 10:42 AM

I have just 2 words for you— Mark Martin. By darned the guy isnt a vanilla corporate shill and used to be feisty at times and even humorous whether being wrecked or done blown up or winning. How he isnt the most popular driver out there is beyond me. we need more of guys like him IMO. Respectful,a winner,but not afraid to give an opinion when needed.

Robert Eastman
06/12/2009 10:49 AM

The one driver that’s earned most everyone’s admiration is Mark Martin. His high standards of personal conduct on and off the track and his infectious enthusiasm for racing has won him acclaim and popularity among fans and competitors alike!

06/12/2009 11:56 AM

Boy, the old time drivers really had it pretty good. All they had to do after a race was help load the equipment, & head home. Unless someone is a complete jerk, drivers should be judged on what they can do in the car, but then I suppose selling your soul to corporate America. Has it’s price.

Shayne Flaherty
06/12/2009 12:35 PM

Drivers don’t have time for “personalities”. They’re busy being sponsor robots. Once they get the script, just press the “replay” button. Drivers are busy drinking Coke Zero. Drivers don’t want to upset NA$CAR brass either. How can we expect drivers to have a personality? NA$CAR doesn’t want it. Those guys with character are long gone. Welcome to the new NA$CAR.

Joe W.
06/12/2009 01:13 PM

I think this topic is a little overdone in the media. We as fans are going to pick who we like based on several criteria. Everyone’s is different. Some people want winners only and some always cheer the underdog. I personally like Kennseth and Stewart. I also like Jeff Gordon and Edwards. They all have there good side and they are all winners. I think Jimmie Johnson has a lot more personality than he shows on camera but maybe he is just guarded until the proper opportunity. I think he has been much less vanilla lately. Yes he often toes the company line but I think that we have always counted civility a plus in this society. The drivers I don’t like are on a short list. I never liked Kyle Busch and never will. His antics are just not interesting to me. I have really enjoyed the last couple of cup races where he has been a non factor. Look I made a comment without even mentioning Dale Jr. Oh wait I guess I just blew that one. LOL

06/12/2009 05:21 PM

My problem with the vanilla drivers is the media and their fans all act like these drivers wear the white cowboy hat and do no wrong. I have seen Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both use their bumper to push someone out of the way, I have no real problem with this as I was a DALE Sr. fan and am now a Kyle Busch fan. But when the media acts like Jeff and Jimmie (to name only a few)did nothing wrong,but Dale Sr., Robby Gordon or Kyle should be fined, for the same type of driving, really gets me going.

Michael T.
06/13/2009 06:54 PM

I don’t care if fans want to vote for the “good guy” or the “bad guy.” What I find annoying is when people stack their “favorites” 10 to 15 deep. To me it’s like betting on red or black. When you have 20% to 30% of the field on your list as “your driver,” at least one of them is bound to finish near the front.

I’ve always been an underdog fan and I stick with them. I may not get to celebrate very often and I take a lot of flack from the “popular drivers’ fans,” but on that elusive week where my guy gets a top 10, top 5 or even a win, it’s so much sweeter. You can’t savor success without experiencing failure.

06/14/2009 06:22 PM

If I have a chose between vanilla drivers and that first class a-hole Kyle Busch, I will take vanilla every time over that jerk butt.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.