Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 6, 2008
More than occasionally, I am chided by readers for being too negative about the sport I cover. I am labeled a prophet of gloom and doom; though all too often, my predictions have borne out. That raises a question in some reader’s minds as to why I continue covering a sport that gets me so angry sometimes rather than spending Sunday afternoons on the lake, in the saddle, or cruising in my old Pontiac. To be truthful, I've asked myself the same question many times; and I did, in fact, take a summer off once. But time after time, I come back to the same answer — I watch stock car racing and I write about the sport because I love it. Perhaps I'm not infatuated with today's NASCAR "product,” but I know just how good it once was — and more importantly, how good it still could be. Over the years, stock car racing has provided me with a ton of thrills, joy, friends and yes, a way to make a living without having to get out of bed early on a Monday morning. So in answer to a challenge posted this week by a reader, here's my account of what's right with stock car racing — even in the form in which it exists today.
Safety : There's one thing I want to see more each week than a three-wide drag race off turn four to the checkers, and that's all 43 drivers returning alive and unharmed to the families that love them. Newer fans may not realize just how barbaric auto racing was in its infancy. Death used to be a routine and accepted part of the sport, and sometimes the grim reaper reached beyond the track and into the grandstands. At LeMans in 1955, for example, parts of a wrecked Mercedes sports car killed 82 spectators.
1964 was a grim year in particular for NASCAR racing. Defending series champion Joe Weatherly was killed in the season opening Riverside event; then, Fireball Roberts was horrifically burned in a wreck during that year's World 600, and passed away on July 4th of those injuries. Jimmy Pardue was killed in a testing crash at Charlotte; then, early in 1965, 1963 Rookie of the Year Billy Wade also died in a practice crash. The horrific carnage led NASCAR to help develop and mandate the tire inner-liners and fuel cells we see today.
Modern times have led to fewer incidents; however, newer fans almost certainly recall the carnage of 2000-01. During 2000, both Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty were killed in practice crashes at NHIS, while Tony Roper was killed during a Truck Series wreck at Texas. When Dale Earnhardt, Sr., seven-time Cup champion, was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the sport was set on its ear. If Earnhardt was mortal, what hope did the rest of the field have? That Fall, Blaise Alexander would die during a final lap crash in an ARCA race at Charlotte. In addition to the fatalities, several other drivers — including Jerry Nadeau, Ernie Irvan, Steve Park and Greg Sacks — suffered head injuries that postponed or ended their careers in the same era.
NASCAR might have been a bit more proactive in addressing the danger, but when they finally did react, they did so decisively. Head restraint devices were mandated for all drivers in the wake of the Alexander tragedy. Today, a HANS device is just an accepted part of someone’s safety gear during a race. Protests that the devices would lead to more wrecks because a driver’s vision would be limited, or that they would keep him / her from escaping a burning car have not been borne out. Even Tony Stewart, the most vocal surviving opponent of the HANS device, has since admitted it has probably spared him catastrophic injury — or worse.
In addition, the walls of tracks on today's Cup series now feature the SAFER barrier, an energy absorption system that limits the force of the impact passed onto the driver in a severe wreck. Such devices, once said to be economically unfeasible, are now standard issue at the tracks, and the threatened race stoppages to repair the SAFER barriers have been minimal.
Over the last few years, I have seen numerous accidents that would most likely have had tragic outcomes were it not for the HANS devices and the SAFER barriers; and in that way, at least the sport is better than the "good ol’ days."
And no discussion of safety at the race track should omit the roof flaps added to cars to help keep them from going airborne. Developed by Jack Roush, I think too often these simple but effective devices are overlooked, despite the carnage on both sides of the catchfence they have spared.
The bottom line is that auto racing is an inherently dangerous sport, and always will be. Eventually, and sadly, we will lose another driver; maybe this year, and maybe not for another decade — but it’ll happen. In the meantime, it behooves NASCAR to continue to do all they can to improve safety. A good first step might be introducing a traveling medical team and trauma surgery units to all tracks on the circuit. With closed head wounds the signature injury of the War in Iraq, NASCAR needs to keep track of the strategies the military is using to treat soldiers with that sort of physical problem, both to speed the healing process for drivers with similar injuries and to sit out those who haven't had time to properly heal.
Television : Television coverage of our sport, be it on FOX or ESPN, is almost universally panned by the fans that I speak to. Yes, it's too gimmicky, there's too many commercials, and there are some egotistical blowhards that are counted on as "talent" too in love with the sound of their own voices. But just about everybody has a mute button on their remote and access to the MRN race broadcasts. The fact remains that every Cup, Nationwide, and Truck race is now shown on TV, with 99% of those races shown live. A generation ago, that sort of blanket coverage was beyond the realm of race fans’ wildest dreams.
In its infancy, stock car racing was most often shown as part of ABC's Wide World of Sports. Snippets of the race were broadcast amidst other things, like lumberjack's log rolling competitions. Yes, in those days stock car racing was on the same level as what ESPN now calls "Lumbersports" — just a regional curiosity. Most often, they'd cut to the race late in the event, show some highlights of what had happened earlier, then broadcast the finish and quickly go on to more mainstream programming. As most of you know, it took until the 1979 Daytona 500 for the first major NASCAR race to be shown flag-to-flag on TV.
The birth of the cable TV industry led to networks like ESPN — then in its infancy — looking for cheap programming to fill their 24-hour schedule. The resulting match wound up being a marriage made in heaven; ESPN helped boost NASCAR's popularity, while NASCAR racing helped put ESPN on the map. But even a decade ago, ESPN used to tape delay the Martinsville race to show the NFL football draft live.
No longer is that the case today; and in addition to seeing all the races, fans have their choice of countless programs devoted to the sport, ones which range from the sublime to the downright silly.
But television isn’t the only outlet. Satellite radio now devotes an entire station to NASCAR racing available coast-to-coast, with news and opinion about the sport available 24/7. Speaking of news, the Internet has revolutionized how race fans gets their information. Jayski's popular Silly Season site provides fans with the inside scoop that was once exclusive to only the garage area. The sports pages of the Southern papers that devote countless columns to NASCAR are now available online, and sites like this one give readers not just news, but a variety of commentary and forums to exchange information and opinions with other fans in real time.
Honestly, back when I was a kid, reading tiny two paragraph articles in Monday's sports pages to see who won that weekend's race was a big thing. I never dreamed fans would have this sort of access to the sport, or that the technology to allow as much would even be possible. But these are heady times we live in — as long as you keep your thumb on that mute button.
The Drivers : While lately, some younger drivers have had scrapes with the law or gotten busted for using drugs, by and large NASCAR to date has escaped the scourge of bad behavior epidemic to the stick and ball sports. Yes, it's troubling that Shane Hmiel has gotten himself banned for life; but compared to the unending litany of drug use, spousal abuse, gunfights, and even murders for hire in other professional sports, that's small potatoes. To date, there hasn’t been any evidence of drivers using performance enhancing drugs like the steroid crises in Major League ball, and the majority of NASCAR athletes have a squeaky clean record with police.
How? For better or worse, sponsors drive racing these days. That makes a difference, because even if NASCAR would allow such conduct, sponsors would not tolerate it. After all, in addition to driving their multi-colored high speed bulletin boards, drivers are expected to promote the sponsor's product; and how can they promote when they’re busy creating a negative image? Case in point: do you recall Kurt Busch's minor run in with the sheriff's office in Phoenix? That was enough to cost a former champion his ride that same weekend. While that same sort of conduct no longer raises eyebrows in other sports, in the NASCAR world, even a divorce — routine in today's society— makes sponsors uneasy.
But even with drivers’ squeaky clean images, I reject the idea of athletes — even our athletes — as role models for kids. I feel parents should be role models for their offspring; and if kids must look outside the home, well, there was an itinerant preacher who walked this earth approximately 2,000 years ago who’s a solid choice. He wasn't much of an athlete — though perhaps he would have done well in a bass fishing tournament.
But by and large, if kids are going to look up to NASCAR drivers, other than some anger management issues from time to time, we've got a fairly respectable set of athletes competing in our sport. And that’s a good thing.
Drivers to Watch at Atlanta
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson won both Cup races at Atlanta last year, and also won here in the Fall of 2004. He has Top 10 finishes in eight of the last nine Atlanta Cup events; but then again, he had three straight wins at Las Vegas prior to falling flat on his face last weekend. Will the real Jimmie Johnson please stand up?
Carl Edwards: Having won the last two Cup races, the spotlight will be on Edwards this weekend. Are Edwards, Roush, and Ford really ready to contend for a title, or are his two victories the result of stronger competition suffering bad luck the last two weekends? Also, how will the team rebound from their 100-point penalty for an oil tank cover violation assessed Wednesday night?
Jeff Gordon : Gordon has won four Cup races at Atlanta; and after a disastrous start to the season, the No. 24 team really needs to put some points on the board. But when the chips are down, Gordon has traditionally risen to the occasion. Yes, three races into the season is far too early to send up the white flag; but the fact remains that Gordon already has suffered more DNFs in 2008 than he did in the entire 2007 season.
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