Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Saturday October 13, 2012
Well, it’s certainly been an eventful week. On and off the track, it’s been many things, but boring isn’t one of them. From a wild and crazy Talladega race that sparked heated debate about restrictor plate racing, to Kurt Busch in the headlines for more than just his change of rides, to the first Cup race without an Earnhardt in the field in 33 years, the stories just keep on coming, and in the background is a Chase that’s shaping up to be a three-horse race among a brash, outspoken new threat, a five-time champion, and a once-spurned rival. No matter which side of the fence you sit on, no matter which dog you have in the fight, it’s great to have so much to think about.
I live in the Charlotte area and have spent a beautiful autumn weekend at the track. Fall is a little bittersweet; while the end of the racing season is a needed break for all, it’s also a little sad knowing that it’s almost over. I’ve been busy this weekend, but I’ve also had time to think about a lot of things, from the big stories to the smallest ones…and here is a little bit of everything.
First of all, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is doing the right thing. Really. (For more on this, see my Friday column.) We can speculate all we want about whether he should have gotten checked out sooner or if he’d have made the same decision if the planets had aligned differently in the Chase (and now it seems, we know the real reason for his lackluster start, as Earnhardt came in at, by his own admittance, less than 100%), but the bottome line is, under the circumstances that exist, he did the right thing now. Head injuries aren’t something to fool around with. The effects of concussions are cumulative, and can cause permanent brain damage. Letting an injury heal when there are no major effects is the best way to minimize future risk. Another hit, even one that wasn’t terribly hard, could have had a tragic outcome. We lost one driver named Earnhardt to a head injury. We don’t need to lose another.
Does Junior’s injury, or any other driver injury mean that the sport needs wholesale changes? Well, no. On the other side of the coin, though, this is a sport where nobody can ever get complacent about safety. Every incident should be evaluated and if there’s a way to make something safer, it should be investigated. Racing has inherent risk, there is no question about that; it will never be completely safe. But that doesn’t mean that anyone should ever stop trying. I remember after the rash of driver deaths in the early 2000’s, Ricky Craven said that someday we would look back and think about they used to hit concrete walls. And he was right. We can’t know for sure how many lives have been saved by the SAFER barrier or the HANS device. As long as it’s even just one, does it really matter?
On another note, Kurt Busch*should have been suspended for at least one race. Why? Regardless of what rule he broke at Talladega (and I counted a total of four: endangering the safety worker who was leaning into his car; driving without a helmet; failing to follow a NASCAR directive because he didn’t hear it as a result of driving without a helmet, and driving with the window net down), the fact is, he broke rules while already on probation. Earlier this year, NASCAR did suspend Busch for an incident that occurred while he was on probation, and that was the right call. Why have probation at all if drivers can violate rules while on it without real consequence (say what you will about being parked at ‘Dega, that wasn’t a real punishment. Even if the car was fixable, he’d have gained maybe a couple of points by going back out…and a couple of points isn’t any kind of punishment.
Besides, NASCAR needs to be consistent here. If a probation violation meant a suspension in June, it should mean one in October. Period. This isn’t something that should be determined by what rule was broken or why. If you want to go that route, make the suspension longer based on how big the violation was, but for someone on probation, any infraction, no matter how minor should result in at least a one-race suspension. It’s that way for people in the real world: get in trouble at work once, it’s on your record. Do it again, and you face something more serious. That’s the real world. And lest you think this is about Kurt Busch, it’s not. There are two drivers (Busch and John Wes Townley), a Cup crew chief (Slugger Labbe), a Cup car chief (Greg Smokestad of the No. 27), as well as some crew members in Cup and other series currently on probation. If any of them violates any rule, regardless of prior history, while on this current probation, they should be suspended. End of story.
I’m going to insert a totally random observation right here, because I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, every time I walk through the garage: I love the smell of the garage. I don’t know what it is, exactly, probably a mix of exhaust and various fluids. There’s a sharpness and a sweetness to it. And there is nothing else like it. It’s said that smells trigger the strongest memories and some of our deepest emotions. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop smiling when I’m working at the track.
After hearing and reading what fans have had to say this weekend, I’m thinking that there are two different categories of race fans. One group are fans of the sport as a whole, and watch the racing for the racing. While they may have a favorite driver, or at least those they prefer to others, they don’t get more wrapped up in how one person is doing than they do in the race overall. They buy souvenirs that have the NASCAR logo or a track design before they choose one driver’s merchandise. They wouldn’t leave if one driver or another had an early exit, and as long as the actions is good, they go home satisfied.
Another group is more vested in something, whether it’s a certain driver, a team or owner, or a manufacturer. I think the two groups watch the sport differently to some extent. Driver fans are generally very protective of their favorites, some to the point of never accepting any criticism at all, even if it’s valid. Some will pack up and leave if their guy crashes or has a mechanical failure. They deck river, leave the sport when their favorite retires, others may pick someone new to cheer for.
And I think that this split has a lot to do with how things are perceived. I’ll take restrictor plate racing as an example. I would venture to guess, based on my totally nonscientific observations that the fans who tend to like it lean more toward the first group. It’s certainly easier not to worry about the big wrecks if you don’t have a vested interest in who winds up in them and who escapes. As long as nobody is seriously hurt, it’s part of the game, and the close racing is exciting without the worry of what will happen later.
Perhaps not so for the driver fan, who bases his or her enjoyment of the race on how certain drivers do. Waiting for the big one isn’t appealing if you know your guy could be in it. I fall more toward this side not in that I want any one driver to win, but in that I care too much about their well-being to enjoy that brand of racing. While I do think the cars are as safe as they can be¸ I’m not complacent, and not naïve enough to think tragedy isn’t always lurking just out of sight. And from that standpoint, I can’t enjoy plate racing for what it is.
There is one other thing I’ll admit I don’t understand. It seems that many people are willing to overlook bad or irresponsible behavior because “it’s better than more vanilla drivers.” What I don’t get is why it has to be one or the other. It seems like some people think it does-if you’re not a jerk or a dirty driver, you’re bland and vanilla. Has our society gotten so used to bad behavior that we expect and even enjoy it in people? Or do too many people simply not understand subtle humor? Is a genuine, outgoing personality boring if they don’t do anything deemed bad enough? I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve seen it. Some of the drivers deemed there most boring by a huge number of fans are some of the funniest and most interesting ones I know. Maybe it’s because I don’t take anything in life too seriously, and neither do some of these guys. Maybe some fans take the drivers more seriously than others. I don’t know why, and it puzzles me. Does it have to be one extreme or the other?
Finally, one thing I’ve noticed this weekend that goes with that point. Racing is a lot more fun if you don’t take it too seriously. That doesn’t mean being less passionate about the sport or your heroes. It simply means that if you take them so seriously that you can’t step back and see the flaws that make people human, it takes away some of the enjoyment. What makes the sport so great are the people involved. And no matter how fast they drive a racecar, no matter how powerful they are behind the scenes, they do human things. They have flaws, and most of them know that. Enjoy that about the sport, see the humor in the little things, don’t be afraid to have a laugh at the expense of a racing hero…most of them are probably already laughing.
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