The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Thursday October 7, 2010
In the last decade and a half or so, inspired by the likes of “Big Brother” and “Survivor” (the grand daddies, if you will, of the genre) reality TV has exploded into the national conscience. As time has passed and different formats mined, a lot of what passes for reality TV now is about as inspiring as a bag of wet dog excrement, as nutritious as getting your food out of a garbage can. Take, for example, Jersey Shore – a show I’ll admit I watch from time to time, but then feel extraordinarily guilty after, for wasting my life. My point is most reality TV is schlock – with MTV’s smash hit show definitely one that plumbs the depths.
BET’s Changing Lanes is, then, a refreshing change. The show is anything but schlock and is, in fact, an absolutely compelling look at the hard grind and immense struggle that it takes to become a top-level Sprint Cup driver. What makes this particular look so interesting is that it features minorities and women – both of whom are traditionally underrepresented in NASCAR. The prize, when all is said and done, is a spot on Max Siegel’s Revolution Racing Team.
Just in case you’re not aware who Max Siegel is (and I feel that if you’re reading this, you probably do), he’s the former music industry mogul who turned to stock car racing and for awhile sat as President of Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated before turning his attention, amongst other initiatives, to the diversity program. “I wanted to see more opportunities created in NASCAR for people of color, especially on the competition side,” said Siegel of the show. And that, on the early evidence, is something the man has done.
The first episode kicks things off at NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine with 30 drivers competing for ten spots on the “show” itself. Right from the start, Changing Lanes is a gritty, down home look into just exactly what it takes to pass those kinds of tests – a real eye-opener as to the multifarious issues and demands these young racers face just to take a single step up the greasy, treacherous ladder to Sprint Cup fame. As Siegel notes: “Every week, there’s a lot of competition, on-track performance, a lot of back story, and getting to know the participants. We want the audience to get to know what it takes to participate at this level.” Having watched the first four episodes that have aired already, those plotlines ring indisputably true. And in many ways, it’s what makes the show so hard to watch as well because you’re literally watching dreams, ten to fifteen years in the making, eviscerate and crumble in a matter of minutes (in some cases, mere seconds).
What the program is also intended to do is to open up the sport to a new demographic – a younger, hipper audience filled with minorities that hasn’t necessarily embraced NASCAR in the past. Said Jay Abraham, NASCAR Media Group’s chief operating officer: “This [Changing Lanes] is really about a major strategic industry initiative to expose our sport to a whole new group of fans, a diverse audience.’‘ And if a driver from the program does end up making it to the top echelon of NASCAR racing, it will be the sort of spark that might be exactly what this sport needs. One such prospect is the laconic 20-year-old, Ryan Gifford, who looks to have all the right stuff both on and off the track. As he rightly points out: “Once a few of us make it to (Cup), the next generation of kids are going to be able to look up to us and say, ‘Hey, we can do it.’” And that, folks, simply put is exactly what this show is about.
As someone who covers the sport on a week-to-week basis, I know firsthand just how much NASCAR-related broadcasting there is. The estimable SPEED Channel takes much of the burden, but truth is there is a lot of the “same kind of show” with the “same kind of features and stories,” a lot of rehashing of the issues everyone is already talking and writing about. Changing Lanes brings something different, refreshing, and a little bit out of the norm. The show’s strength is the brutal nature of how these young drivers rise and fall, fail, and succeed. So, if you’re not watching, you really should be; you won’t be disappointed, I promise.
One final point today, and I’m fully aware I should have mentioned this last week (for which, apologies) but as my dear old Gran used to say, “better late than never.” The moment I’m talking about came in the Formula One Grand Prix held on the road course under the lights in Singapore and featured Lotus Racing’s Heikki Kovalainen. The 28-year-old Finnish driver saw an oil valve break and his car become slowly engulfed in flames. Rather than heading to pit road, though, Kovalainen brought his car to a stop, calmly exited the vehicle like he was on a Sunday afternoon pleasure cruise, demanded and received a fire extinguisher through the fence and put out the fire himself. Now it’s fair to say that race car drivers are a rare breed — in some cases right on the boundary between fearless gladiators and the utterly insane – but this was a moment, I think, that proves how close these guys operate to the raggedy edge. Nice work Heikki – and check it out for yourself.
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