As the onslaught of summer approaches in advance of Independence Day, and as the kids require much more time and energy (of which they have a lot. As for me? Not so much….), I thought it would be a good time to clean off what used to be my desk and make sense of NASCAR as we reach the halfway point of the season.
And what an odd trip it’s been thus far. From monsoons and jet dryer explosions to driver suspensions and the return of the Prodigal Son to victory lane, the 2012 Sprint Cup season has offered its share of thrills and chills –-or has it been more green than yellow, or more parading than passing?. It depends on your frame of mind, I guess.
My frame of mind lately has been keeping order. With my daughters coming to visit from North Carolina for a few weeks and with my wife suffering from back trouble the past week, I’ve been trying to maintain home and hearth while wearing my other hats of being a professor and a writer. Writing often allows me the most by way of guilty pleasure, and NASCAR always provides plenty of material for me to explore, but sometimes the sheer volume of goings-on in the sport forces me to stop and assess what’s what and who’s who. From the events of the past several weeks, I’d say we’re at just such a point.
So, what should I write about?
People often wonder how a writer actually writes. My family seems to assume that essays simply flow brilliantly and swiftly from my fingertips after I achieve mental harmony with the universe. My students, on the other hand, usually envision the act of writing as it’s depicted in movies: the thoughtful, yet tortured soul holed up in the garret of an old house, surrounded by dusty books, faded photographs, and tragic memories. All of us writers, according to this popular stereotype, spend our lives combining internal demons (like love-gone-cold) with external demands (like a craving for our vice of choice – mine’s coffee).
I blame Robin Williams. His portrayal of Garp in The World According to Garp (1982) painted writers with a highly introspective and eccentric brush, while his portrayal of John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) changed the expectations students have of their English instructors. After twenty-plus years of teaching, I’ve never once jumped atop my desk.
The truth is, the professional writers I know are more like Williams’ TV portrayal of Mork, as on the 1980s sit-com Mork and Mindy. Our internal demons usually take a slightly manic form of writer’s block, while our external demands typically are strict publishing deadlines (the achievement of which is fueled by major doses of the vices-of-choice mentioned above). Writing is more than translating thoughts into words and recording those words in the form of a computer document; as I’ve been told by editors all around the business, “Your writing has to say something. If you’re managing that, you’re making a difference.”
I offer this advice to my students each and every semester, especially when they’re learning about argument; the emphasis is to challenge conventional thinking and open readers up to new ideas and perspectives. This is how I see my brethren who cover NASCAR Nation; the idea is to explore the “old” ways of the sport and try to be an advocate for “new” approaches to how things are done, whether through commentary and criticism or through the “beat” reporting of hard, cold facts.
That said, I looked at my cluttered desk the other day and saw stacks of notes – paper “seeds” intended to grow into future columns and essays. As I pawed and sorted through the debris, I threw a caution flag for myself; no “phantom yellow” here – it was time to clean up the mess and get back to business. So here it goes….
Topic One: In response to my buddy Matt McLaughlin’s piece last week addressing Hollywood’s ignorance/apathy toward films dealing with NASCAR, I jotted down the words “1963 Daytona 500”. I agree: the 1992 Cup season finale at Atlanta had all the makings of classic cinematic storytelling (including Richard Petty dropping the F-bomb via in-car audio on national television). But if a director ever wants to craft a NASCAR-related, “Cinderella”-type feature film, he/she should consider a docudrama about the 1963 running of The Great American Race.
The plot is pretty well-established among NASCAR fans: Marvin Panch is injured when he wrecks his Maserati during a Speedweeks’ sports car event and is pulled from the burning car by a journeyman stock car driver from Iowa named DeWayne “Tiny” Lund. Panch, from his hospital bed, asks his car owners – the now-Hall of Famous Wood Brothers – to let Lund to drive his No. 21 Ford in the 500. Tiny drives the car with consummate skill and wisdom, conserving his fuel and tires to beat the handsome-and popular Fred Lorenzen, and two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, to the checkered flag by 24 seconds. Lund wins the race on one set of Firestone tires in a top-five sweep by Ford, averaging 151.556 MPH for the event.
If the folks at Disney can tell the inspirational stories of athletes like the ill-fated Marshall University football team and Triple Crown winner Secretariat, the tale of a true underdog who gets one shot at glory and nails it against overwhelming odds seems like a no-brainer. Consider the fact that Talladega Nights was launched into full production by a six-word pitch to studio executives (“Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver”), and we understand why truly relevant stock car stories – and that includes Matt’s selection of the 1992 Hooters 500 – will never see the bright lights of the big screen.
Topic Two: I found a sales receipt with “casting choices?” scrawled across it. This has to do with a little game I play every now and then where I try to come up with reasonable choices to play particular figures from history or sports. That said, I’ve made the following selections for big budget motorsports and NASCAR films….
For historical motorsports scripts, I’d offer the role of Barney Oldfield – America’s “Speed King” – to Randy Quaid. To make racing scenes more realistic, the role of Yale-educated driver David Bruce Brown could go to Tom Cruise (provided some make-up was used to lower his older appearance a bit – he was ideal for this role circa 1990).
For a film about the late Dale Earnhardt, I’d talk with Barry Pepper about reprising his role from the 2004 made-for-TV movie 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story. When working with a more contemporary NASCAR screenplay, and needing to cast an actor to play Tony Stewart, I’d select John Krasinski from The Office. The role of Jeff Gordon could be played by Kevin Zegers, who appeared in Transamerica (2005) and The Jane Austen Book Club (2007). If scheduling or contractual issues arose with Zegers, I’d talk with Emile Hirsch of Speed Racer (2008) fame as a possible replacement. For a biopic about Kurt Busch, I’d cast Shia LaBeouf of the Transformers franchise to play the leading role (this actor supposedly shares a similar temperament with James Finch’s driver, too. It’s called “method acting!”).
Topic Three: Speaking of Kurt Busch, I came across a piece of notebook paper that read “KuBu at RFR again?” With all manner of silly season rumors drifting about, this idea may not have been too far-fetched. Perhaps a second go-round on “The Cat in The Hat’s” payroll was what was needed to get Busch to straighten up and fly right. Hard lessons were learned all-around back then, but maybe struggles can indeed lead to triumphs. This is a moot point, however, since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is going to the No. 17 Ford next year. Which leads me to….
Topic Four: A statement stub with “driver + $$ = job” written in the address line. While not approaching the realm of revelatory thinking, it does speak to current conditions within the sport. Open-wheel racing operated this way for decades, as wealthy wanna-bes brought blank checks to places like Indianapolis and bought rides that were usually out of their league.
NASCAR makes such wheeling and dealing seem less obvious, even though the same business has been going on in meeting rooms for years. A driver is only as good as the money backing him (or her), as a talent like Clint Bowyer can tell you. When General Mills dropped the No. 33 Chevrolet, Bowyer and team were done at Richard Childress Racing. My question here is….
Topic Five: Does lineage trump loyalty? Sure, the blood running through your veins means a lot if you’re royalty, but what about if you’re merely working for royalty? If the future of the No. 33 RCR Chevy was so delicately predicated on funding that the team folded once Cheerios rolled off the car, how is it that Austin Dillon (who is a talented up and comer in his own right) wound up this season in the No. 33 car with American Ethanol signage plastered across the fenders?
Sure, Dillon’s a very gifted young man, but is he not also the car owner’s grandson? Clint Bowyer was able to land on his feet at Michael Waltrip Racing because of his experience, skill, and personality, but he also scrambled to bring some of 5-hour Energy’s money to the dance with him. Bowyer’s bloodline meant little to MWR, even if his blood pressure rose during the green-white-checkered sprint to Victory Lane last Sunday.
Topic Six: A newspaper clipping about Nelson Piquet, Jr.’s Nationwide Series win at Road America last Saturday. The article was interesting for all the typical reasons (first win, second-generation driver, tough road course, competitive field), but it was the role played by social media that caught my attention. After learning that Piquet, Jr. had qualified for the pole in Wisconsin, Brazilian race fans used social media to force a soccer game off national television in exchange for live coverage of the NNS race.
Brazilians are serious about their love of automobile racing (as proof, I suggest you check out the 2010 award-winning documentary Senna. I showed the film in my global popular culture course last year, and students were openly crying by the end.), but they also seem acutely aware of the power wielded by effective use of social media. Now if only NASCAR Nation could harness such technology to achieve truly positive change within the sport. Imagine what American television coverage might truly become!
Topic Seven: A sales receipt from Culver’s, Home of the Butterburger. Note to Matt Kenseth – have your people contact this food franchise and another Wisconsin-based corporate powerhouse (maybe one that builds motorcycles). Having a “local boy” go to Joe Gibbs Racing with sacks of cash from companies like these – firms that resonate with NASCAR fans of all ages – might just seal a possible JGR deal. It’s always good to tie up those loose ends.
And that’s what I did; I tied up these loose ends when not checking on my injured spouse, running the vacuum, washing dishes, and having the occasional lightsaber duel with my son. A clean desk is a happy desk, even though we’re about to enter the second half of the 2012 season. Like everything else in NASCAR, things will not remain neat-and-tidy for very long.
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