Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 27, 2010
I guess it was a couple decades ago, a new style Japanese restaurant opened up in a town nearby the small burg I called home (where the local McDonalds was considered fine cuisine) and became all the rage. “We just had to try it,” a friend assured the woman I was dating. Well, that put me on edge. I’d hated every movie her friend had ever suggested, every song, every scenic point we just had to see, and most of all I just hated that friend of my lady’s. But being in a relationship means occasionally having to listen to her wishes as well. Wincing, I checked my credit card balance, patted the Harley an unwelcome goodbye on an off night for us, and loaded Vickie up in my El Camino for the dinner. (I think showing up at a Japanese restaurant in an El Camino is a pretty sure sign you’re outside your comfort zone. )
I was a bit perplexed when told to remove my boots by the very friendly hostess, and very afraid someone was going to steal them. We were then led to a quadrangular communal table surrounding the cooking station where the chef would prepare our meal. The table, for the record, was about calf high. Everyone around us was sitting on the ground, so I grumped down onto my backside and wondered what in Hell I was doing there. I wanted my own table. I wanted the noise posing as music that sounded like a tornado in the string orchestra closet to cease. I wanted a jukebox. I needed a cold beer with a label I could read that didn’t taste like fish. And I, for damn sure, didn’t want to be knee-to-knee with an obnoxious couple that was clearly headed to divorce or domestic violence later that evening.
At this particular restaurant, watching the chef cook your food was supposed to be entertainment, and the cook was very good. There were flashes of blue fire from the fry pans, crap catching on fire, vegetables being cut up mid-air and caught on a knife, daring thrusts of knifes dicing small edibles in such fast motion I was sure he was going to lose a few fingers (and I was going to end up eating them.) He’d throw up entire fry pans full of food, catch them, and season them before they all landed. My fellow diners were applauding, but I was kind of sitting there thinking, “Can I just get a hamburger, a Bud and a check?” This isn’t what I’m used to. I like my portions large, a private table, my damn boots on… and I ain’t liking the meat to vegetable ratio of what I’m seeing cooked. Still, no dinner rolls or onion rings had arrived.
Well, after all the histrionics and flashing fire of meal preparation, the first course of what I was warned was served. I wished I was eating my boot. The chicken was rubbery and spiced to a degree my sinuses ached. The vegetables were alternatively blackened or chewy as bubble gum, and whatever the urine yellow sauce that slathered the whole mess, was I was quietly waiting to see if it would eat through my plate and the table. “I can’t eat this,” I whispered to Vickie. “I wouldn’t feed it my dog. And he eats crap off the front yard.”
“It’s terrible,” she admitted, spitting something into a napkin. But there we were seated in front of our very enthusiastic chef who was lighting off more conflagrations, doing more magic tricks with knives, and rambling on incomprehensibly in some Asian dialect nobody understood while thinking himself terribly amusing. I got up as if to use the Men’s room, found the manager, and told him I just wanted to pay my check, get my boots, and get on out of there. “Not to your liking?” he asked, seemingly extremely hurt. “Not to my liking,” I admitted, handing over the credit card. “Maybe, next course better?” He asked hopefully. “I ought to be five miles out of here before anyone finds out,” I told him.
I grabbed my boots and motioned frantically for Vickie to join me. We made a hasty exeunt (I mean both N50-15s smoking) and stopped for dinner at a steak and hoagie joint back in town. I didn’t see that meal being prepared. It arrived in a brown paper bag dripping with oil and grease. The bag, I should note, was not set ablaze, nor were any ears of corn the size of your pinky quartered midair. But it tasted like food.
Yeah, I’m pretty patrician when it comes to dinner, but others must have agreed with my easily wounded pallet. A couple months later that hibachi house was out of business and replaced by a pizzeria. You can have all the flash, pyrotechnics, and magic tricks you can muster leading up to a main course, but the final test is in the tasting.
And through my as usual convoluted thought process, that takes us back to Saturday night’s All-Star Race. It was not to my liking, you’ll note. Oh, the last ten laps were fine, but three hours is a lot of time to wait for a ten-minute payoff. I am told by no less an authority by this site’s Owner and Senior Editor TB that folks today have a lot shorter attention spans than they did back when my contemporaries and I were still dragging our knuckles through the primordial ooze, working on this evolutionary thing that has led to the MTV generation and its successors. Back in those days, we were able to eke out an existence without microwave ovens that prepare snacks in seconds, cell phones that promise instant communication, access to limitless volumes of information (if you see it on the Internet, it must be true), Facebook, YouTube, Twitters, tweets, and American Idol. We endured cars that you had to warm up for three minutes before driving. We were so stupid, we didn’t realize that Lynyrd Skynyrd might have been onto something if they’d found a way to shorten Free Bird to two minutes thirty seconds, getting rid of all that guitar solo trash. But even for a member of the patient generation, Saturday night was too much. The All-Star Race, whatever they’re going to call it and whoever is going to sponsor it, needs fixing and it needs fixing bad.
The first question of many (and TB, are you getting the impression this isn’t going to be one of my new generation shorter columns yet?) is whether we still need the All-Star Race? It was a cool idea the folks at Winston came up with back in the day (1985) to pit drivers who had won races the previous season and that season to date against each other. A 70-lap shootout was created, with the winner getting a great big check at the end. It was an easily understood and palatable format. Somewhere along the process, things took a turn for the bizarre with giant pachinko machines, fan votes, field inversions, grandfather clauses, ten minute breaks, mandatory pit stops, fireworks, rock bands, and about everything but a dozen mermaids working stripper poles during crew introductions. (Yeah, some of you love the crew introductions… I’m not amongst you. I figure since this is MTV racing, we ought to be able to flash a few second image of each crew guy onto the big screen, as long as they promise not to wear purple robes and crowns or do up their hair like Ann and Nancy Wilson performing the Alone video out of the ’80s.)
I guess what really soured me on the whole “All-Star” concept was Joey Logano’s participation in last year’s event, fully four months into his rookie season, with one top-10 Cup result to his name. That’s an All-Star? A kid with a lot of promise and a decent third-place result when the night was over, sure. But an All-Star? I think not. The fact Logano was included based on what someone else did in the same car was too bizarre for me to handle. It’s like Dale Krantz getting inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame for Ronnie’s version of Tuesday’s Gone.
If the All-Star race is to continue, it needs to be hot-rodded. First off, stuff a great big engine into it to make it more exciting and immediate. Then, strip off everything that doesn’t matter. Certainly, the event doesn’t deserve its own weekend. I’d run the Nationwide race on the Saturday afternoon before the 600 and run it as a companion event that evening, free to any fan who bought a ticket to the Nationwide race. Attendance figures as of late might indicate a “Doubleheader” would put more butts in the seats and allow another off weekend for drivers, teams, and fans to enjoy at home before starting the long summer stretch that visits some of the most boring tracks on the circuit.
I’d insist that they go back to the original format, where there was just one race and the only drivers who made the cut were ones who had won the previous season or the current season. If that means Dale Earnhardt, Jr. doesn’t make the show, oh well. There’s a little more incentive to win a race occasionally, which is what “All-Stars” do. There’s no free lunch.
The distance also needs to be pared back to a maximum of 50 laps. Thirty would be preferable. Twenty might even be ideal. If these guys are going to cruise until the final ten laps anyway, I don’t want to watch it. When the green flag drops, I want to watch these guys, purportedly the best in the business, stand on it, bend some fenders, smoke some tires, get well and truly pissed off at one another, and in general act like a million bucks is something other than a headache for their tax advisor to deal with. Oh, and the winner of the All-Star race should get first pick of pit stalls for the World 600, so the actual victory has some relevance to their day jobs.
Ideally, the entire All-Star telecast ought to be over in less than ninety minutes, replete with pre-race and post-race coverage, which would hopefully include post-race fistfights and severely dented fenders and egos. It ought to look like the “A” Main feature at your local short track, and it ought to be an event that even non-racing fans are still talking about when someone drinks the milk at Indy.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for every driver that makes it to Cup level competition. They’ve come up through the ranks at short tracks and through sacrifice, perseverance, and talent made it to the big leagues. It’s time to let these drivers show their bare-knuckled personalities for at least a single evening a year.
But right now? They’re not allowed. The All-Star race has become a Rube Goldberg-esque mess that’s incomprehensible to the new fans it was intended to attract and unendurable to the long-term fans it is meant to entertain. It’s time to fix it or get rid of it, because what we got is, to put it simply, not to my liking. Maybe the next course be better?
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