The Frontstretch: The Best Of The Frontstretch : Don't Drink The Kool Aid by Matt McLaughlin -- Sunday January 20, 2008

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The Best Of The Frontstretch : Don't Drink The Kool Aid

Matt McLaughlin · Sunday January 20, 2008

 

Editor’s Note : With Speedweeks just around the corner, there’s an opportunity to take one last look at 2007 before moving forward. And that means we have a chance to honor the fantastic men and women that make this site tick – our talented staff of 19 writers who work hard each day to give the latest and greatest NASCAR news, information, and commentary. Our staff’s passion for this sport is unwavering, and their dedication unmatched – it’s because of them viewership for the site has more than doubled over the past year, even in the face of increasing concerns about declining TV Ratings and fan support. People may not like the direction the sport may be headed – but based on the numbers, it’s through the hard work of our Frontstretch staff that more people are coming here for a daily stock car fix.

So, in their honor, we present to you a special “Best Of” week, chronicling the best articles our staff presented to you in 2007. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, and most of all, they’ll make you think – and hopefully, they’ll make your day just a little bit better. Enjoy, and look forward to bigger and better things to come as we head towards 2008!

This article was originally published February 5th, 2007.

As a season of uncertainty in NASCAR is set to begin after some football game this evening, NASCAR is circling the wagons. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to fix the problems that plague the sport, the organization has instead decided to ramp up their propaganda machine to proclaim all is well.

You expect that sort of dishonesty from geek puppettes on the corporate payroll of the very organizations they are supposed to be reporting on in an “unfiltered” manner, but recently, some surprising sources in the media are offering up the Kool-Aid to fans with the missionary fervor of Jim Jones down in Guatemala. Why? It all comes down to access, and for some folks access trumps honesty. Access, after all, keeps them employed. And in the Brave New World of NASCAR, there is no room for freedom of the press. Dissent must be rooted out and silenced. One need look no further than a note penned by the Dictator of the Banana Republic of Daytona, Brian France, to one well-respected scribe wishing him well in his new field of work when, in fact, that fellow had expressed no interest in leaving his current job.

The rallying cry of the Kool-Aid patrol is "NASCAR – Love It or Leave It." Simply put, they make blind adherence to the party line a bare minimum of what is expected of a good fan. That provincial attitude has always set my teeth on edge. What we are discussing here is, after all, just a sport. The stick and ball sport writers routinely diss the organizations they report on and nobody calls for their ouster. It’s like saying any discontent with the current foreign policy of this great nation is unpatriotic because the challenges we face right now make a mere sport look insignificant. Is a man less patriotic because he calls into question the mistakes he perceives our government making? Should such a fellow be deported to Canada? If every citizen of this nation who has grave reservations about our current foreign policy were, in fact, deported to the Great White North, I doubt all the sweat shop seamstresses in the world could ready enough flannel shirts to export for a decade. Likewise, if every NASCAR fan who has grave reservations about the direction the sport is headed were to be banned from the grandstands, NASCAR would need only a gallon or two of Kool-Aid to serve those who were left.

The latest PR blitz involves the almost universally ridiculed Car of Tomorrow program. Fans have been clamoring for years to have more "stock" put back in stock cars, but NASCAR is headed in the opposite direction, standardizing the new rolling stock. If I take any comfort in the fact the CoT is about to debut, it is that the fellow who designed the AMC Gremlin is once again gainfully employed. NASCAR would like you to know the new CoT will fit inside a standard size transporter. They'd like you to know that they hand out the ungainly Pep Boys wings on the back of the things prior to the race and collect them back afterwards so teams don't have to pay for them. They'd like you to know the inspection process will be a lot faster with the new cars. They'd like you to forget all the nasty things the drivers and team owners said about the new cars last year now that threats of unwarranted pit road speeding penalties are now suddenly toeing the corporate line. Well, bully for the Car of Tomorrow. The fact remains the dang things are so butt-ugly that you'd have to tie a T-bone to the rollcage to have a starving mongrel lift his leg in salute and urinate on the tire. They don't want to release figures on what the new program, to be phased in over the next three years, is going to cost team owners, how much more money those same team owners must now ask from sponsors, and how many sponsors will leave as a result. If that doesn't worry you or you think nobody will opt out of the game, you're due for some confusing afternoons on the couch each weekend trying to find things like the GM Goodwrench car. And, of course, NASCAR would like you to forget that the standardized car will be of great help to a certain automaker joining the sport this season, negating years’ worth of experience by the other teams.

Speaking of automakers, let's not forget the debut of Toyota Racing Development. This is, the party-line tells us, a good thing. It shows that NASCAR now has a global presence. (Well, except for those durn Europeans, unless the NASN folks in Jolly Old agree to up the ante to extortion prices soon). And, these folks are quick to point out, the Camry Toyota will be racing is made right here in the U.S., while the Charger, the Fusion and the Monte Carlo are assembled in either Mexico or Canada. (And not imported to Japan where cars made in America must be individually inspected by slow moving Japanese bureaucrats to help protect the domestic automakers. If only we'd been smart enough to adopt a tit for tat protectionist scheme to address the trade imbalance). Let's face it: the big three are in big trouble. Sometime this year, Toyota will surpass GM to become the world's biggest auto producer. Mercedes is said to be looking for someone to pawn Chrysler off on, and Ford is reeling and could possibly be heading for the mat. With the massive layoffs in the auto industry, keep in mind that for every three auto-workers laid, off two more Americans in related industries ranging from local restaurants to steel mills will lose their jobs as well. And that might be the very thing that derails the Toyota Express. After all, how many former UAW members that you’ve seen working night shift at a 7-11 can afford a Lexus?

My guess is that the arrival of Toyota will produce a quick boost in TV ratings and track attendance. After all, you can't have Batman without the Joker and you can't the Three Stooges (a rather apt metaphor for current management of the Big Three) without Vernon Dent. Folks will want to see the good guys beat up on the foreign interlopers and will cheer lustily each time a Toyota suffers mechanical problems or a wreck. But once the bad guys start winning, and trust me my little pretties, they will continue spending great sums of money until they do so regularly, I expect ratings to tumble and interest in the sport to diminish greatly.

How out of hand is the latest round of dishonest propaganda spewing from Speedway Boulevard? I was reduced to paroxysms of laughter causing Corona to spew out my nostrils yesterday reading the breathless press release heralding the fact that NASCAR has signed a five-year extension of the deal that gives Goodyear exclusive rights to produce tires for the sport. Here are some of the nuggets Mike Helton, about as grievous a corporate gasbag as has ever yessed his way to the top an organization, had to offer:

"Our longtime relationship with Goodyear is a testament to the company's consistent high-quality tire it supplies the race teams,"

Well, um, yeah, except for all those races that were ruined when Goodyear’s poorly designed tires completely ill-suited for conditions started blowing like popcorn. But, of course, the party-line is the teams were doing bad things to good tires with their inflation pressures and alignment settings. Never mind examples like one particular night in Charlotte, when NASCAR tried to spare Goodyear any additional embarrassment by mandating and checking pressures, race leader Tony Stewart, who had no tire issues to that point, blew a tire and slammed the wall hard. Those things don’t register on a one-sided radar screen.

"Goodyear has been a vital partner, which has been essential to NASCAR's side-by-side competition."

"Side by side competition?" Wow, Goodyear has been around a long time, and we haven't seen much of that side-by-side thing over the last few seasons, have we now?

"Goodyear has been a vital partner, which has been essential to NASCAR's side-by-side competition."

Oh, I get it. It's the Goodyear execs who get to decide when the phony debris caution flags are thrown to tighten up a race and make sure everybody installs a new set of tires before they fail.

“Since it first began supplying tires to NASCAR, Goodyear tires have logged 1,410 Nextel Cup (formerly Winston Cup) victories, and the number continues to rise.”

Well, of course it will, you blathering buffoon. You've given them exclusive rights to be a tire supplier, and thus, by definition, they will win every race. In most every other major form of auto racing where Goodyear has faced actual competition from other makes of tires, be it CART, the IRL or F1, they have taken their ball and gone home tails firmly between their legs over the last decade. It was Goliath's Goodyear that insisted on switching Cup cars over to radials to rid themselves of the pesky David (Hoosier), a move which helped make side-by-side racing a thing of the past. If Goodyear is really interested in increasing the excitement level of the sport, they could always reintroduce the bias ply tires. But, they will howl, we haven't produced bias ply tires for street use in over a decade! Well, believe it or not, most passenger car owners do not have the option of not driving in the rain or changing their tires every hundred miles. There is absolutely no correlation between the Eagles raced in NASCAR and the street market nowadays any more than there is a need for blimps to replace airliners in corporate travel.

I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused, by the lengths some corporate lapdogs will go to regurgitate the corporate line unmasticated. My favorite instance last year was when the general manager of the track in California said the reason the grandstands looked so empty was that all the folks in those empty seats were under the grandstands shopping. This year, I read that the declining TV ratings are nothing to be concerned about. All sports have seen their TV ratings decline except for that "aberration"; the NFL. Wasn't it just a few years ago that NASCAR TV ratings were the aberration, and thanks to our new network partners and the Chase, the NFL's days atop the heap were numbered.

As I have stated previously, and I truly believe, this season will be a pivotal one in the sport's history. As someone recently inadvertently pointed out, NASCAR is both sport and entertainment. I agree. It's just that the teeter-totter has tipped a little too radically to the side of entertainment to the detriment of sport. What's the difference? What's the difference between Olympic wrestling and the alphabet soup of "professional" wrestling organizations complete with bizarre nicknames, staged results, and busty blondes some folks still watch? Sports by nature are entertaining to those who understand the rules and nuances of the game. (Such as the difference between a pistone and a lugnut) Entertainment by nature is not sporting. Results are staged for the best possible story. Does NASCAR decide a winner before a race? Not yet. But by throwing unnecessary caution flags, arbitrarily changing the rules on a weekly basis, the highly contrived method of determining a champion, and bogus penalties during and after an event applied unequally to name drivers and others. they are heading in that direction. At least, that’s what I can tell you, as I have not partaken of the corporate Kool-Aid.

Maybe I'm right and maybe I am wrong; time will tell whether it is the cynics or the Kool-Aid dispensers who have a better grasp of where the sport is heading. Honestly the answer is likely to be somewhere in the vast gray area between corporate white and doom black. Whether NASCAR continues to grow or begins to fade will not be decided by the scribes of either ilk, but rather by the fans who vote with their pocketbooks and four hours of couch time in front of the TV. Unfortunately for the sport, the fans I hear from don't sound like they've ingested their Kool-Aid. Hell, even the fans of the chief purveyor of Kool-Aid on the Internet regularly voice their own displeasure with how things are going despite that site's adherence to the party line drawn up by the site ownership. Many of them also seem to think that the warning message is flashing "racingdone." So, gentle readers, I will leave it up to you to decide whether the Brave New World of NASCAR we see this year is better than the "good old days," seasons like 1989, 1992 et al and whether the Car of Tomorrow is better than that winged wonder of yesteryear, the Plymouth Superbird. (And I remain a fan of both the Plymouth and the Dead…sue me.) That's your right as a fan, and don't let anyone silence your opinion pro or con on the issues. But I'd stay away from that Kool-Aid NASCAR’s serving. And you might want to avoid those hot dogs, too.

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