Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Sunday October 13, 2013
Racing just isn’t compelling anymore.
Increasingly, that’s the buzz across America. The races are predictable; the drivers are nothing but corporate shills; the Chase is contrived. There’s nothing left to fuel the passion that once electrified the crowds at the tracks, drawing people toward their television sets. The intangibles which made the sport great are long gone.
I call B.S.
A lack of storylines is not the problem in NASCAR. Neither is a lack of action on the racetrack. What we had, during the sport’s peak years is still there; it’s just well hidden. Our current problem, instead is that nobody’s telling the tales or sharing the action. And that is, at least in part, because nobody’s listening.
There are plenty of stories throughout the NASCAR garage. There’s a champion driver, a future Hall of Famer, whose first Cup race was marred by the death of one of his closest friends. You have two race teams who scrapped and clawed, from the bottom of the sport until someone saw their commitment and realized their value. There’s an owner who pays tribute to his roots every chance he gets. You have a team with just six employees looking for a place — and taking one proudly — amongst the powerhouse teams. These stories and a hundred more are out there, just waiting to be told.
On the track, while the action at the front of the field might be predictable, a hundred other races are playing out. There’s a title contender refusing to give up and driving for every position he can get, dozens of laps behind the field with a wounded car. In the pack, there’s a single-car team, fighting lap after lap to make a pass for 10th place because they take pride in being the best amongst their peers on the track. There’s a David vs. Goliath story, on-track fighting for survival just based on the parts and pieces they have versus everyone else. For Charlotte, they’re outfitting their race car with used brake rotors at a track that’s notoriously hard on brakes, just so they can afford to show up – outrunning a few teams with better resources by sheer skill and determination.
In the glitz-and-glam world that NASCAR has become, is there no longer room for these stories? Increasingly, the mainstream media overlooks the best ones. But it’s not entirely their fault. There are a number of fans who don’t want to hear about them, especially if they’re not top drivers or teams, used to running in the top 5 or 10 every week. Many, it seems would rather see only the best the sport has to offer. And while there are some great people on that side of the garage, who have worked incredibly hard for the success they do have, they are just a small slice of the pie that is NASCAR.
The Sprint Cup garage has two sides at each track. Garage stalls are assigned according to owner points, with the reigning champion always in the first parking spot and garage bay. Usually, about 20 teams can fit on the front side of the garage, the top ones in order, while the rest line up on the other side. At some tracks, the lowliest teams work out of their haulers because there isn’t enough room to fit their equipment.
A walk through the garage area is a study in contrast. On the side where the top teams set up shop, fans lucky enough to procure hot passes are everywhere, sharing real estate with reporters, television crews and sponsor bigwigs. Walking through this side is colorful and exciting. There are some good people here, for sure, if you have the chance to talk with them; they are buried in the masses of people pushing for their time.
And then… there’s the backside. Walk around the corner, and the crowd is gone. A few fans straggle through, and some media lurk about, but it is, for the most part much quieter, more relaxed. Drivers in street clothes frequently go unrecognized. Those fans who do “figure it out,” looking for autographs often get them easily from several drivers. Again, there are many good people, easily accessible who can and will speak freely with those perusing the area. They’ll chat and share stories, past and present about a sport they’ve dedicated their life to. And the stories they tell… are compelling. They make you want to root for them.
Yes, the big teams have star appeal, as fans know their personalities and backgrounds via numerous features and specials. For those on top, their histories have been pounded into fans’ heads so every detail, every moment has already been revealed for years. The smaller teams don’t have that exposure; that means you often have to find out those stories for yourself.
But finding them out is worth every second.
These people are the ones closest to the sport’s roots, the days when anyone with a fast car and a brave driver could — and often did — show up and compete. They bring everything they have to the track, and sometimes they don’t have much but passion to their name. It’s the very same passion some accuse the bigger teams of having lost along the way. They have learned to fight for everything they can get; nobody accuses these guys of having handouts. They remember and pay tribute to their own roots, along with the roots of the sport. They’re humbled and grateful just to be a thread in the NASCAR tapestry.
And the reality is, the big teams haven’t really lost the passion either. It may have been squeezed, homogenized and turned into artificial, vanilla-flavored something, because sometimes that’s what it takes to get the big sponsor dollars. But not one person in the front of the garage doesn’t care or isn’t grateful to be there. Not one hasn’t experienced the giddy highs and the emotion-crushing lows of this sport and not come out of that somehow changed.
At the end of the day, for every one of those drivers who faithfully says what he’s told by his sponsors, every week and smiles when he’d rather cry in a corner, there’s another story.
There’s the decal on the front of Jimmie Johnson’s car, the one that’s been there his entire career, though most people have never given it a second glance. The one that has the initials of a dear friend he lost in a crash, just hours after he qualified for his first Cup race. It’s been revised, tragically through the years to include the tail number of the Hendrick Motorsports plane, one that crashed into a mountainside on the way to a race in Martinsville. That accident killed ten more of Johnson’s friends. It’s on the front of the car so they cross the finish line first… not a sentiment many expect from the five-time champion.
But it’s the part of him that’s raw and real.
There’s Furniture Row Racing, a team that started with little other than dreams and did whatever they could, including running a partial schedule, to be part of the show. They won one of the sport’s most prestigious races with a relatively unknown driver, Regan Smith, and eventually made a deal to put former champ Kurt Busch in the seat. It’s a career-resurrecting move which earned them respect, a nod from Richard Childress Racing to bring a full technical alliance that has led to a Chase bid. And because RCR saw the value in that alliance, they extended the same offer to Germain Racing, a team that was parking in several races a year as recently as 2012. That team has grown and improved, with a driver that RCR once had in one of their own cars. It’s a wheelman they didn’t really want to let go, because they truly believed in his talent.
On that “other side” of the garage sits Tommy Baldwin, whose roots in NASCAR’s Modifieds run so deep that he takes every chance he can get to pay tribute to them. He’s run a Cup car decked out like Hall of Fame Modified driver Richie Evans’ machine paired with Steve Park, a one-time Modified talent himself, behind the wheel. He switched one of his Cup cars to the number 7 as soon as the number became available to pay tribute to his father, Tommy Senior, who terrorized the competition in New England in his day. Ask Baldwin anything and he’ll give an honest answer. Ask Baldwin about the Modifieds, and a light switches on inside of him.
There’s Circle Sport, one of the smallest of the small teams, whose six employees put every bit of attention to detail and every bit of pride that the big teams do into their cars. They scrounge for used parts so they can afford the new ones; it costs thousands in this sport just for the lug nuts, and so they’re doing everything they can to build a team. Landon Cassill’s three lead-lap finishes this year have been hard fought, important to this team as something to build from. They’re just a few points from gaining a spot in the standings, and the prospect is a big deal to them… though to many, it’s just 41st place.
The bottom line, in this day and age is that everybody in NASCAR still has a story to tell. The sport is built on such tales of perseverance, potential, and eventual success. But somewhere along the line, people stopped telling them. Why? Well, it’s the media’s job to bring fans what they want, and what the latest generation of fans have shown is they attach to the glitter of celebrity, not the backbone of a sport. They want to see battles on track, but then add that they don’t care about a battle for 15th, or 20th, or 28th place. They want a battle for first… or else. So the television broadcasts don’t show the backmarkers, even when they’re all the action there is to offer. Off the track, people say they want the drivers to be approachable and human, but then they say they don’t want the “fluff.” So what they get is a pre-programmed athlete, PR-polished for professionalism even though sometimes it’s that something extra that makes them human.
Want more of what has made this sport since 1948? Want a reason to root for the drivers on-track? Think racing for every position counts? Seek and listen to the new stories you find. If people start looking for what else is out there, on a diverse 43-car grid it gives the media a reason to cover each team. Without that diversity, revealed through their experiences the sport becomes bland and generic.
We must look for the real people, the ones whose lives are still untold and we’ll discover the sport is as rich as it ever was.
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