The Frontstretch: Professor Of Speed: When Art Imitates Life by Mark Howell -- Thursday November 15, 2012

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Professor Of Speed: When Art Imitates Life

Mark Howell · Thursday November 15, 2012

 

Boy howdy! Last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was one that fans won’t likely forget very soon. Both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races kicked it old school as the 2012 season wound down to its final events. Nothing like some blown tires and bent sheet metal to grab headlines. Fussing and fighting and whining and fining always put NASCAR squarely back on America’s sports pages.

That is, unless you’re the parent of a child in elementary school. If you’re dealing with backpacks and lunch sacks every weekday, your radar screen has likely been preoccupied with the motion picture Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

It’s an understatement of epic proportions to say that the Walt Disney Company is pretty much the lifeblood of global popular culture. From the big screen debut of Mickey Mouse in the cartoon short “Steamboat Willie” back in 1928 to the tourism and entertainment juggernaut we recognize today, one can argue that the Disney “brand” affects nearly every facet of everyday life. And it’s not just entertainment for children. Recent acquisitions by Disney have included such revered properties as Marvel Studios (think The Avengers) and – as of two weeks ago –Lucasfilm Ltd. (think Star Wars).

So is all this media movement important to NASCAR Nation? I’d say it’s plenty important.

Forget about the one-mile speedway that Disney built near its theme park/resort complex outside Orlando; that facility – to me, at least – will be remembered for only one thing: it was where (back in 1998) I took my first ride in a Sprint Cup car (the subject, perhaps, of a future essay).

As long as NASCAR has a contract with ABC and/or ESPN – both networks are owned by the Walt Disney Company – the sport will be tightly tied to Mickey.

And Mickey’s gloved grasp goes far beyond just network television, theme parks, and motion pictures; The Walt Disney Company has long been considered one of the “Big Six” worldwide multi-media conglomerates. As of 2010, according to data compiled on www.freepress.net, Disney ranked second in the organization’s “Stop Big Media” standings, coming in just behind General Electric, yet ahead of Fox/News Corp.

These companies own, operate, and control virtually all forms of media, including web content, radio networks, and publishing houses. When you consider the scope of these massive corporations and all of their access to global audiences, you see just how essential it is for NASCAR Nation to be recognized (and loved) by these multinational firms.

So there I was this last weekend – sitting in a crowded theatre at our local shopping mall with my wife and our almost-five-year old son. The lights dimmed and the three of us settled in to enjoy (hopefully) Disney’s latest masterpiece. I’m not a movie critic, so I’ll spare you my overall assessment of the film, but I can say that a fun afternoon was had by all.

For those who won’t have an opportunity to see Wreck-It Ralph, let me provide a brief summation. The story revolves around Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), an evil character in a popular video game called “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” For thirty years, Ralph’s “job” has been to wreak havoc on a high-rise apartment building. To repair the damage done by Ralph, players control “Felix, Jr.”, a handyman with a magical golden hammer who goes around fixing Ralph’s destruction while earning points. Winning the game means that Felix, Jr. earns a gold medal, while Ralph is tossed from the building’s roof. This pattern of activity frustrates Ralph to no end.

Ralph, we learn, is actually a pretty gentle soul who’s tired of always being the bad guy (he even attends group therapy sessions with other video game villains), so he sets out to become a better character. Since Felix’s gold medal represents victory, Ralph equates earning such an award with being good. He leaves the safety of his own game (arcade games connect to each other by a series of subway-like tunnels through electrical cords) to try and win a medal in another video game. As we’ve seen in countless other popular narratives, Ralph embarks on what the late cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell would call “the hero’s journey” – a tale of growth and personal discovery similar to what George Lucas created for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (the newest Disney property).

Very long story short: Ralph finds/”wins” a medal while taking part in a violent first-person shooter game and – during a hectic escape from huge cyber-bugs – winds up stuck in an Anime-inspired game called “Sugar Rush” where little girls race go-karts through a confection-coated landscape of candy and frosting. It’s here where Ralph meets Danica Patrick….

Well, not really. Who Ralph meets is a “Sugar Rush” character named Vanellope von Schweetz. Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) is a petite girl with long dark hair and hazel eyes who wears green clothing and craves the opportunity to prove herself as a racer. She’s been altered within the game’s computer code – through no fault of her own – to be little more than a technical “glitch”. Vanellope is too inconsistent to be treated as a valid character by others in the “Sugar Rush” game; her image breaks up and flickers occasionally, so she’s too dangerous to compete in the kart races that make up the game’s action. She means well, and has great ambition and self-confidence, but she’s unable to get the driving opportunity she needs.

Ralph uses his good nature and strong muscles to help Vanellope build a kart so she can compete against the other racers who laugh at her. After overcoming many obstacles (including having to learn how to drive – she “knows” she’d be a good racer – and an invasion by the aforementioned cyber-bugs), Vanellope goes on to indeed win the big race she enters in the kart she built with Ralph’s help. It turns out that Vanellope has actually been a central character in “Sugar Rush” all along (she’d been made into a glitch by another character who was jealous of her driving skills). Ralph is then celebrated for his helpful (and not destructive) talents.

By the film’s end, we learn that Vanellope was originally intended to be a princess in “Sugar Rush”. Her eventual race win causes the game to “reboot” itself, which returns von Schweetz to her rightful position as an avatar that’s popular with the young girls who play “Sugar Rush” at the video arcade. Ralph returns to “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” and continues to play “the bad guy”, but everyone understands that it’s simply the role he was intended to play…. it’s not who Ralph really is deep down inside.

While watching Wreck-It Ralph, I couldn’t help but discover a direct connection between Vanellope von Schweetz and Danica Patrick. Vanellope von Schweetz’s almost-desperate need to prove her worth as a driver echoed Patrick’s own desire over the years, especially as Danica tried to make a name in Indy Car competition.

Patrick’s mere presence affected her relationships with other drivers, much in the same way that Vanellope’s presence affected her connection to her fellow racers. I was reminded of the T-shirts that Patrick’s open-wheel teammates wore following her rookie run at Indianapolis in 2005. Buddy Rice wore one that read “Danica’s teammate”, while Vitor Meira’s was emblazoned with “Danica’s other teammate”. The attention given to Danica Patrick at Indy that year prompted the late Dan Wheldon to wear a T-shirt that read “Actually won the Indy 500”. Vanellope was similarly treated (by the other drivers in “Sugar Rush”) as a source of derision, but also – to some extent – by their inherent fears that she might actually be a serious competitor.

As Danica Patrick’s stock car fortunes continue to climb (10th in NNS and 17th in NSCS races at Phoenix last weekend), so will the media surge her presence gives to NASCAR. We saw this happen in open-wheel competition, so why won’t such recognition and devoted page space occur again once Patrick runs a full-time Cup schedule with Stewart-Haas Racing come Daytona in 2013? Her improvement in NASCAR seems to be more than good luck; it appears as though getting seat time has led to better slightly performances this season.

Danica Patrick’s NASCAR fortunes continued to improve this weekend at PIR – even as Jeff Burton did his best Jeff Gordon impression with a lap to go.

The learning curve in motorsports is steep and difficult, and perhaps nowhere else is it as harsh as the weekly grind of NASCAR. If Patrick continues to struggle and learn – as all new drivers and teams are wont to do – why can’t she return some of the favor and bring in new fans, new media coverage, and new enthusiasm?

Like Vanellope von Schweetz, Danica Patrick capitalized on her innate desire to climb behind the wheel and compete. At the age of ten, Patrick drove in her first kart race at Sugar River Raceway (I’m not kidding) near the town of Brodhead, Wisconsin. Not to say that Vanellope and Danica were separated at birth, but they share some very unique qualities that speak clearly to the notion that motorsports are an essential part of popular culture.

This connection grew even more tangled when it was announced that Patrick will be featured as a “playable guest character” in the new “Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed” video game that’s scheduled for release early next week (just in time for holiday shopping!). Danica will drive a “Danicar” designed for her by Mattel (the makers of “Hot Wheels”), and her avatar will be able to compete against – of all possible characters – Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph.

Danica Patrick’s real life car from the soon to be released Sega video game hit the track a couple of weeks back at Texas. If only she could hit the reset button on 2012…

I guess such a tie-in is only fair since the video game character Sonic appears in Wreck-It Ralph (he appears in a public service announcement warning video game characters that they will die for real if they get killed in a game other than their own – a dire warning to Ralph!). Given the popularity of 2010’s “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing”, launching a sequel so quickly – and so laden with crossover character connections – makes perfect corporate sense. It’s like a page was stolen from the Walt Disney Company’s playbook….

Rule number one for understanding popular culture: pay attention to artifacts that encourage the largest audience possible to consume the largest amount as possible. Economic forecast notwithstanding – people will spend money on what they want (not need, but want).

So I left the theater feeling pretty good. Wreck-It Ralph was fun to watch, my wife and son enjoyed it, and I had made a discovery that felt original in its perspective on the character of Vanellope – not always easy to do when you work in the area of popular culture. As I began to write my column, I thought I’d check to see if my reasoning was, in some sense, relevant.

That’s when I stumbled across a movie review from November 1st written by Fiore Mastracci, a self-proclaimed “conservative film critic” who seeks to “cut through the Looney Liberal Left agenda in Hollywood.” Part of his negative response to Wreck-It Ralph, as published in the Pittsburgh Film Industry Examiner, included the following:

Disney is not content with simple tales and creative scripts. The agenda must be followed! Wreck It Ralph soon turns from a character’s trek of self-discovery to an affirmation of woman power and the age old Disney postulation that a princess hides inside every girl. Ralph becomes secondary to instilling in the children’s audience the superiority, physically and intellectually, of women. The thrust of the film shifts from Ralph to Vanellope and her quest to prove she is a premiere race car driver. Must be the delusional representation of the fantastical life of Danica Patrick.

I immediately thought my observations had been “pre-made” by another writer, but then I considered the focus of Mastracci’s critical comments; his concern was more about the pro-female/”girl power” perspective of the film’s plot, not any specific metaphorical connection between Vanellope von Schweetz and Danica Patrick.

The tie to Patrick, it appeared, stemmed from her everyday recognition as a female race car driver. It was a reference made in the same way that someone might refer to a fast-driving man as “Mario Andretti” – it’s not who they are, it’s simply how they act.

So, will Vanellope von Schweetz be on the starting grid for next year’s Daytona 500? Maybe it’ll depend on when Disney decides to release Wreck-It Ralph on DVD. Look at how profitable the film was at the box office last weekend.

Maybe the sequel will be titled Wreck-It Jeff….

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Andy D
11/15/2012 08:25 AM
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We saw this happen in open-wheel competition, so why won’t such recognition and devoted page space occur again

I would hope that it’s because we already played this game and the outcome is known.

She was a reliable 5th through 10th place finisher. She’s good but not great. She didn’t have the best equipment, but couldn’t use all that she had. She was lousy at set-up. She hadn’t won anything for 12 years before her Indycar win in Japan.

She deserves Ryan Newman level attention, not Junior level. If she becomes great, then have at it. But don’t burn us out on her now so that we’re tired of the story when she arrives.

john
11/15/2012 01:55 PM
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I’m (cautiously) optimistic that broadcasts will eventually stop having “Danica Watch” moments throughout all the races. To be fair, the Cup guys don’t spend a ton of time paying attention to her, it’s mostly on the Nationwide side. That’s not Danica’s fault, that’s ESPN’s (or whoever.) It died down for Dale Jr when everyone realized he wasn’t winning 10 races a year too.

I have zero problem with Patrick; I’m not even a huge fan of hers, but I’ll defend her every single time I see stupid, illogical, childish hatred toward her. She’s no different than any number of drivers in top tier series: good but not great talent, and the marketing and/or backing to have the money to get a good ride.

She’s a microcosm of what women have had to go through for decades all the way down to the short track level—I know, I’ve raced against plenty of them. Most of the racers don’t treat them any differently, but many do: they’re girls, and girls need to get out of the way, and there’s no way they’re losing to a girl. It doesn’t matter how fast they are, they’re going to run them harder, they’re going to wreck them, they’re not going to help them out in the pits, nothing. I’ve witnessed a dozen women with the talent to win races give up in frustration when they run out of money after being wrecked every Saturday night. And if they try to fight back on the track? They get labeled as a wrecker. They don’t have TIME to learn the craft or find that little bit of extra speed to outrun the people wrecking them, before it gets to be too much.

The number of times she’s been taken out this season in Nationwide borders on the ridiculous. Certainly a few wrecks have been her fault, but the majority were not.

She’s proven she has the speed, especially on the 1.5 milers and the road courses. She’s had several (SEVERAL) top 10s and, in the case of Road America and Montreal, possible wins taken away by guys behind her refusing to lose to a woman.

Off the top of my head, Villeneuve wrecked her out of a likely 4th place finish at Road America; James Beuscher wrecked her on the STRAIGHTAWAY at California, and last week Burton wrecked her with two laps to go when she was on her way to a career best in Cup.

She also had a win, if not at least a podium finish, go away while leading comfortably at Montreal after halfway, with a broken track bar.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying she would have set the world on fire; that sort of season could happen to anyone. How often have we heard “he’s got the speed, but always has bad racing luck?” The difference is most of hers has been at the hands of someone blatantly wrecking her.

And everyone seems oblivious to that, ignoring her good finishes, ignoring the laps she’s lead, ignoring the time she’s spent in the top 10, and all the good hard passing she’s done. She’s improved leaps and bounds from last year.

I’d argue she’s improved more in two seasons than Dario Franchitti ever did, and is a better oval racer than Juan Montoya. And the improvement that’s taken her two seasons took Sam Hornish five or six, and being demoted to Nationwide in the process.

And the argument that “she should be winning races because she’s in top equipment” is ridiculous. JR Motorsports hasn’t been top equipment in years. Cole Whitt has better finishes, but he’s not exactly raking in the wins either, and has simply been wrecked less often. In case no one’s been watching, the only driver to get ANYWHERE with JR Motorsports equipment was Brad Keselowski. Before and after that the cars haven’t won anything other than Plate races.

And “driving for Hendrick” in Cup? She drives a car built by Hendrick. It’s still run out of a sorta-part-time team. PLUS she’s only run like 10 races, was she expected to win already?

And as for her Indycar career? Anyone who thinks she “accomplished nothing” in Indycar doesn’t watch Indycar. NO ONE accomplished anything for the past 8 years or so (prior to this past season) if they weren’t in Penske or Ganassi cars. Tony Kanaan was the only other driver in the field who get anywhere with wins, driving a non-Penske/Ganassi car. In fact, in two separate seasons, Patrick was the best of the AGR cars, AND the highest finisher in points NOT driving for Penske or Ganassi in one. The fact she even got that ONE win is a bit of a miracle, just like anyone else getting a win was a miracle.

Complaining about Danica not winning a lot in Indycar is like complaining that someone in a Sauber in F1 in 2002 couldn’t beat the Ferraris and McLarens.

And if that’s “making excuses for her”, then that’s also making excuses for Ed Carpenter, Tomas Scheckter, Townsend Bell, Roberto Moreno, Sarah Fisher, Al Unser Jr, Scott Sharp, Jaques Lazier, Buddy Rice, etc etc etc etc etc…

Anyway, off my soapbox.

As I’ve said before, and agreeing with Andy, the #1 problem isn’t her, it’s the attention given her. And there’s nothing she can do about that. If the TV networks would just calm down, I don’t think we’d be hearing so much hate for her.

pepper
11/15/2012 02:53 PM
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First of all, there is no princess living inside of Danica Patrick. Her claim to fame doesn’t come from her skill on the track. It comes from her soft-porn poses for money. I’d seen her photos in a bathing suit and just overlooked them. The one of her spread-eagle in front of the grill of a car was one I imagine you’d see in any porn shop magazine. It reminded me of a frat boy’s phrase as he was licking his lips, rubbing his hands together and uttering, “fresh meat in town”. As a female, it is embarrassing to see her being promoted as just a female driver trying to make her way in a male dominant sport.

When she came into the sport three years ago, I think most women wanted to give her a chance…even support her. Then we discovered her copperhead disposition came with her. The past year her treatment of her teammate has been offensive and unacceptable. She has intentionally wrecked other drivers for perceived offenses, and intentionally cut Hornish’s tire down at Phoenix before that 17th place finish.

The media reminds me of the aforementioned frat boy in their glorification of this driver. Their speil and her attitude has turned off most of those who wanted to give her a chance. She’s made her bed. and she will most assuredly have to sleep in it. Frankly, I do not see an upside for NASCAR promoting her.

john
11/15/2012 03:53 PM
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pepper

Fail. She did not get her drives by posing in a bikini. She was hired to race in Formula Atlantic, and then by Rahal-Letterman in the IRL, before she posed for anything. The offers came after.

No one has hired Danica Patrick for her looks. They hire her because she has talent and because sponsors love her and bring lots of money.

She’s no different than any number of other drivers who are good, but not great, and bring sponsorship dollars. If you want to whine about THAT happening in NASCAR, do so.

Two of her wrecks were intentional, in retaliation for perceived slights against her. That doesn’t count the dozen or so times SHE was wrecked intentionally. God forbid she fight back.

Her attitude is the same as any other stockcar driver who keeps getting run into.

Also, nothing she has done is porn. Not even remotely close. You sound like a 90 year old conservative religious woman who’s afraid of boobies.

john
11/15/2012 03:55 PM
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And if your next complaint is that “sponsors shouldn’t hire a driver for their looks” then it’s time fire Kasey Khane, because they’ve been marketing him to desperate middle-aged housewives exactly the same way for a decade.

Also: Carl Edwards posed for ESPN Magazine with less clothing on than Danica Patrick ever did.