Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday March 12, 2013
Let’s build NASCAR’s perfect driver. What would he look like? What would he act like? What would he say?
I envision him being something like Michael Waltrip, but with a better on-track resume. He’d climb from his car after playing follow the leader for 300 laps, or after flipping, end-over-end at Daytona or Talladega and say, “That sure was fun. I have such a blast racing these cars. I want to thank Aaron’s — where you can rent or lease for only $20 — 5-Hour Energy, NAPA, Peak Antifreeze, (16 other sponsors), Sprint and most of all NASCAR.”
Follow that up with a smile and a stupid joke and you have an interview. Now, when I said NASCAR’s perfect driver, I meant the one the sport is looking for. He might not work for the rest of us.
The rest of us seem to value honesty. It’s one of our inherent flaws. Last Sunday, in a refreshing turn from the usual monotony of driver interviews, Denny Hamlin made some off-the-cuff remarks mildly criticizing the new Generation 6 car. By NASCAR’s reaction, you would have thought a North Korean criticized the country’s nuclear missile program.
Hamlin was fined $25,000 for stating that the car needed some work — fans at home already knew this criticism before the interview.
Had Hamlin been NASCAR’s perfect driver, he would’ve immediately issued an apology, said something great about the car and the racing, and paid the fine. Lesson learned, right? Not so much. He said he wouldn’t pay.
“Ultimately, I’m not OK with it,” Hamlin said. “This is the most upset and angry I’ve been in a really, really long time about anything … anything that relates to NASCAR. The truth is what the truth is. I don’t believe in this. I’m never going to believe in it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to pay the fine. If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don’t care at this point.”
Hamlin also said he was done talking about the racing and the car for the rest of the year. What should reporters ask you about Denny? The weather? The stock market? Housing prices?
NASCAR fined Hamlin to try and protect its public image and it did more harm than good. Now, a driver that is expected to contend for a championship is going to be extra careful every time a reporter is near. Why? Simply because Hamlin climbed from his car at Phoenix after running single-file for most of the day and said what we were all thinking. He told the truth.
Honesty clearly has no place in NASCAR these days. Instead, it’s “push the product that the governing body is pushing,” or else. Share your opinion as long as it parallels our own. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of leadership combined with an ever-changed sponsorship landscape that has drivers sounding more like robots than people.
The nice thing about Hamlin’s response last Sunday was he thought about the question being asked and let us all know how he felt, and probably even held back a little. That’s become a rarity, though.
A typical interview is more like:
Reporter: Could you describe the racing out there?
Driver: Well, the Aflac-Fastenal Ford Fusion was really fast. Jimmy Fennig did a great job setting up this car and we get great engines from Roush Fenway…
(I’m not throwing Carl Edwards under the bus. It was just an example.)
It’s an automated response. Much of that is the direct result of the demands of sponsors, who want drivers mentioning their brands each time they speak because they are pouring absurd amounts into the teams. They also don’t want their “spokespeople” saying or doing anything controversial (I’m talking about you, Kyle Busch).
And on top of all that, NASCAR is policing opinions, so drivers are even more on eggshells. The end result is fans at home don’t feel they have anyone they connect with, particularly young people and new viewers looking for a new face to follow.
According to the Sports Business Journal, NASCAR saw a 25 percent ratings drop in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic last year.
Engaging, opinionated personalities are what helped draw fans to the sport for so long. The racing wasn’t always great by any means, but fans wanted to see Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott because they weren’t only great drivers, but you didn’t know what they were going to say or do next.
Now, NASCAR is relying strictly on the racing to draw fans — and last time I checked, it was losing that battle. It’s not that the competition is bad either, but if you were a casual fan checking in for the first time, how would you decide whom to follow? Would you go by the color of the car? The sponsor on the hood? The 30-second interview in which someone talks about a bunch of sponsors and maybe mentions a racing term you are unfamiliar with?
Let’s see if any re-runs of Duck Dynasty are on. The casual fan is most likely going to lose interest pretty quick and change the channel.
So when NASCAR discourages a driver like Hamlin from sharing his opinion, we all lose. Each time NASCAR pulls Brad Keselowski, one of the most engaging personalities in the series, into the hauler, we all lose.
The pressure today’s drivers face from sponsors is bad enough, but the governing body is only making it worse. It’s creating robots, armed without feelings or opinions. Everything is just great all the time. Yay, positivity!
NASCAR’s in the process of molding the Sprint Cup field into its version of the perfect drivers. After each race, they’ll climb from the car with a big, fake smile, thanking sponsors while telling us that everything is wonderful, even when everyone watching at home knows it isn’t. That should attract fans, right?
NASCAR, be careful what you wish for.
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