Well…. here we are…. at the All-Star (but not yet mid-season) point of the NASCAR schedule. As the national touring divisions swing into Charlotte for a much-deserved homecoming, the collective attention of NASCAR Nation looks forward to the slams-and-bangs of this weekend’s Sprint Showdown and the Sprint All-Star Race. This no-holds-barred slugfest for big bucks is often touted as just that: a no-holds-barred slugfest for big bucks.
While this is all well and good, there’s just one inherent problem to address: the All-Star race has little relevance in the grand scheme of things regarding drivers and teams that truly meet the criteria of being “all-stars”. The issue I have with “all-star” exhibition events is that they’re usually more about the event than the all-stars deemed worthy to compete.
All-Star events – no matter what the sport – all share a common organizational structure: the fans select who they want to see, and the sport makes it happen. The popularity of an athlete tends to trump their actual on-field performance, but this is of little consequence to the event promoter and/or the league/sanctioning body in question; it’s all about putting on a good show for the fans, even if that means bending a whole bunch of philosophical principles.
Such principle-bending is nothing new. We’ve seen this kind of behavior in motorsports for over a century as savvy promoters guaranteed big ticket sales by guaranteeing good shows for their paying customers. Regular readers of my columns will know that I often attribute most of what we see in racing circa 2012 to the actions of motorsports pioneers like Barney Oldfield (the legendary driver) and Will Pickens (Oldfield’s legendary press agent). Despite a lackluster record as a true championship contender (Oldfield’s best Indianapolis 500 runs were fifth-place finishes in 1914 and 1916), Barney was able to draw huge crowds based on his larger-than-life persona and his oh-so-quotable comments to an eagerly-awaiting press corps poised with pencils in hand.
A good story outdoes a good race every time. This is what the reporters of today have sought with each not-enough-passing/not-enough-cautions event on the Sprint Cup calendar. Sometimes a journalist has to dig deep in order to find a nugget of media gold. What makes an all-star event so attractive to its intended/assumed audience is that such stories don’t have to be found…. they can be made.
Hand-crafted narratives date back to the afore-mentioned era of Barney Oldfield and friends, who helped fill grandstands across America by posing and posturing and pontificating about their feuds with other drivers. A not-so-nice example of such a feud was Oldfield’s on-going rivalry with Ralph De Palma, who was born in Italy, emigrated to America, and whose racing success tended to give America’s “Speed King” fits.
De Palma had legitimate reason to consider Oldfield a rival; in 1914, De Palma lost a highly competitive ride with the Mercer Automobile Company to Oldfield. Even though Oldfield’s Mercer was more powerful than the Mercedes that De Palma wound up driving, De Palma used his “Gray Ghost” to capture that year’s United States driving title. During the course of his career, Ralph De Palma won about 2000 races, four consecutive AAA dirt track championships (1908 through 1911), and the 1915 Indy 500 – a record that Oldfield could never touch, no matter how many times he tried (although Oldfield did defeat De Palma in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup race in California, which likely cost De Palma his Mercer deal).
To put the De Palma/Oldfield narrative in a more contemporary context, recall the rivalry between Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards in 2010, or the back-and-forth between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards last season. Those athletes near the top of their sport often capitalize on their nearly-continuous contact with the media. This is part of why they’re seen as being so popular – because they’re a consistent presence before the eyes of their audience.
Where Barney Oldfield shined was in front of reporters who were looking for a good story. Whenever his rivalry with Ralph De Palma was getting the best of him, Oldfield would take advantage of the media to vent his anger. On more than one occasion did Oldfield refer to De Palma as a “spaghetti-bender” during chats with reporters, knowing full-well that the comment would make it into print for all (especially De Palma) to see.
De Palma, to his credit, would respond to Oldfield’s ethnocentric slurs by taking the high road. This usually resulted in De Palma thrashing Oldfield in their next race, a loss that would only make Barney more livid with his comments the next time out. While the drivers challenged each other at every event, the press made sure to weave stories depicting Oldfield (the son of a Civil War veteran and boy of the Midwest) locked in mortal combat with De Palma (the Italian immigrant who turned a lackluster bicycle-racing career into a mastery of “American” technology). This narrative not only established the folklore of these two legendary drivers, but it helped pack the fairgrounds whenever the races came to town.
So what’s the mythic narrative of choice circa 2012? For last year’s Sprint All-Star weekend, the idea was to dress the drivers involved like gunfighters and have them snarl for the cameras. This imagery seemed clichéd even back in the late 1970’s when Winston used a similar campaign to promote the championship rivalry between Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. There’s nothing like a six-shooter and a scowl to sell tickets to a stock car race. The strategy at work here was (and still is) to market NASCAR racing through popular mediums in order to make the sport appear to be something more than it already was. This was true during the earliest days of the business, when familiar names meant more than new-fangled machines.
Even though Barney Oldfield garnered more press attention than Ralph De Palma through his penchant for bluster and braggadocio, both men clearly profited from the coverage. One can only guess what the careers of Oldfield and De Palma would have been like had there been this medium we call “social media” a century ago. De Palma’s Facebook page would be peppered with “likes”, while Oldfield would be tweeting non-stop as the next race date drew closer. Race fans would have played a significant role in the sport back then, as they do in today’s wireless climate of laptops and “smartphones”.
And so here we are: just mere days away from the all-star events of this weekend at Charlotte. The Sprint Showdown will feature 22 entries and two chances at making the big race; the third spot will go – as it always does – to the No. 88 car and the ever-present, vote-toting lobby of Junior Nation. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a build-up to the Sprint All-Star Race, but herein lies the issue so often seen when a sport decides to honor its best – the decision regarding who’s an “all-star” rests with the fans, their access to technology, and their willingness to embrace the democratic process. So many all-star games are based on the power of the popular vote – a decision that’s often driven more by the athlete’s persona or image than by their actual playing ability or success.
Take the current, almost four-year victory slump of the afore-mentioned no. 88 Chevrolet. The sheer power of Dale Junior’s popularity far outweighs his recent on-track accomplishments. It is commonly believed that success and popularity go hand-in-hand (everyone loves a winner), but that’s not always the case. I’ll go out on the proverbial limb here and predict right now that Dale Jr. will win the “fans’ choice” portion of the Sprint Showdown. The no. 88 team will make the big show because they’re the no. 88 team, regardless of the fact that they’ve gone 0-for-140+ races.
Granted, the Sprint All-Star Race follows rather specific criteria for establishing the starting field. According to details published on Jayski’s Silly Season site “The eligibility standards for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race remain the same: Race winners from either the 2011 or 2012 season through May 12 or any past champions of the all-star event or NASCAR Sprint Cup Series over the previous 10 years are eligible for the race.”
Okay, that sounds reasonable, but what relevance do “past champions” from a decade ago have on an event deemed an all-star race in 2012? Is this not an extension of the whole “popularity contest” mindset we see in voting for your favorite driver so they make the lineup?
Why should a Terry Labonte or a Bill Elliott be eligible when drivers running on a regular basis right now – drivers like Martin Truex, Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, and Joey Logano – have to either 1) race their way into the big show or 2) pray that their fan base can push them in through their exploitation of the popular vote? Not that there’s a problem with the Sprint Fan Vote component of the all-star process, but does it not equate excellence with acceptance?
Perhaps a bigger issue rests with the format of all-star events themselves. As far as exhibitions go – showcases for popular and (hopefully) competitive athletes – the emphasis is more on the show than the sport. Consider the long and storied history of NASCAR’s all-star weekends. Fan voting is just one innovation that’s been added over the years (even though “all-star” type races in NASCAR date back to the old “Race of Champions” events held at Daytona back in the early 1960’s); recent adjustments to the all-star format have been added and/or dropped according to TV ratings and fan interest (am I losing my mind, or was there not a “wheel of fortune” used to determine the inversion of a starting grid one year?). Hence the power of popular opinion: give the fans what they want – customer satisfaction guaranteed.
Here’s the official word regarding this weekend’s all-star race, courtesy of my pal Jayski:
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race set for Saturday, May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (SPEED, 7 pm/et), will consist of four 20-lap segments, concluding with a 10-lap sprint and a $1 million payout to the race winner. This year’s format will place a higher premium for drivers who win one of the four segments, however, as the winners of the first four segments will move to the front of the field and line up 1-4 prior to the field coming to pit road for the final mandatory pit stop. When the drivers come down pit road, crew chiefs will have to decide on their best pit strategy, as multiple scenarios will unfold. The team that makes the best call, combined with the optimum performance on pit road, is likely to be in the driver’s seat for the final 10 laps of competition. Wherever the drivers are positioned as they come off pit road after that pit stop is where they will line up to start the final 10-lap segment.
I’m not sure what the racing on Saturday will be like, but I know a good story when I see one. And if I don’t see one, I’ll create one…
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