S.D. Grady · Tuesday February 2, 2010
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“And Bird stole the ball!”
That is probably the most memorable moment in my sports experience. When I think back on that 1987 game, where the Boston Celtics were faced with going down 3-2 in the playoffs to the Detroit Pistons, it isn’t the improbable grab by Larry Bird with a second or two left on the clock that lingers in my mind… or Dennis Johnson’s perfect basket. It’s local radio personality Johnny Most’s raspy voice screaming into the mic, his excitement and thrill unmistakable, as he made the call declaring Beantown’s win.
“And Bird stole the ball!”
It’s those moments that create and keep fans, in any sport. For the aging NASCAR fan, it might be the time when Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500, or when his son won the Pepsi 400 that they recall with intense pleasure. Perhaps it’s Joe Nemechek’s first Cup win at New Hampshire, Terry Labonte climbing from his crumpled car in Bristol’s Victory Lane, or Earnhardt crumpling him en route to Bristol revenge. There’s also Ned Jarrett watching his son, Dale, take the checkers at Daytona from the broadcast booth not once – but twice. Happy times, indeed.
And even when the spin turns away from Victory Lane, the storylines remain compelling nonetheless. Ricky Rudd and Harvick standing nose-to-nose on Bristol’s pit road. Robby Gordon’s helmet hurtling straight for Michael Waltrip’s door at Loudon. Juan Pablo Montoya shaking Harvick’s helmet at Watkins Glen. And yes, Brad Keselowski’s car spinning off into the sunset at Homestead, courtesy of Denny Hamlin’s revenge.
The commonality that threads through all these scrapbook-worthy instances is emotion. The competitors felt them, both the ugly and noble versions, as passion for the sport shined above all. It’s through their physical demonstrations, intemperate and joyous, that we — the fan — become enamored with the driver, the car, the sport, and – most importantly – the moment.
Riding the high of drama mixed with joy, we are encouraged to return to the track and seek a second thrill. However, declining attendance and TV ratings indicate fewer and fewer sports nuts are converting to the NASCAR faithful. Why is that?
The sport has been touting their “let the boys be boys” policy for a couple years now. Time and again, officials have actually bit their tongues and looked the other way, hoping for the outburst or crumpled fender to draw cries from the stands. But it’s almost like the fans and drivers can’t quite believe in the credo of “Let them see the anger!,” that no one’s sold we’ll be treated to an honest reaction each week. At some point, NASCAR is going to lower the boom… aren’t they? After all, huge fines were handed down over the past decade in the name of decency.
It would appear that the sponsors think this is a good thing. Their highly paid telemarketers (aka the drivers) should maintain a nice, clean-cut appearance. That’s what Americans like, right?
I’m not so sure.
Nice is sweet. It’s vanilla ice cream. You know what you’re going to get, and surprise is not on the menu. It’s not… thrilling.
Thrilling is Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch banging on each other’s door while they ride the rim at Darlington. It’s Darrell Waltrip doing the dorky dance in Victory Lane, and it’s Jeff Gordon shoving Matt Kenseth on pit road.
Perhaps this ephemeral competitive quality cannot be mandated like a new spoiler, but it can be encouraged. Neither NASCAR nor I are advocating personal vendettas that result in high-speed disasters – simply inviting both the drivers and the fans to show their discontent when it is warranted.
NASCAR made their stance clear, once again, during the 2010 Media Tour. They say they’re going to back off and let the drivers show some personality. Bump drafting is back on the menu. Emotion has got the green flag. Like politicians on the podium, officials insist change is in the air.
Perhaps their tinkering with the CoT will work after all. Maybe we’ll see more competitive racing. But the single ingredient that will ensure this “new and improved” NASCAR recipe will lure a new fan into its devoted fold is the raw, unadulterated, unedited emotions of its competitors.
I can’t wait to see it.
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