Thomas Bowles · Monday December 5, 2005
It’s Friday afternoon outside the Waldorf Astoria in downtown Manhattan, and Tony Stewart’s ready to touch some silver. The 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup trophy sits on a perfectly painted Champions’ stock car, just waiting for the sport’s bad boy turned good to lift it above his head for what should be a heavily attended photo opportunity.
But as Stewart approaches the crowd of photographers tucked on the side of the street, aside from a few shouts and a few dozen fans crunched together…you can’t really tell something special’s going on. Traffic still speeds by beside Stewart at their regular pace, with the occasional beeping over why another random event has to be going on at the Waldorf, blocking the right lane and causing drivers’ lives an unavoidable two-minute delay. Meanwhile, a steady stream of walkers flash by the miniature crowd outside the hotel, with maybe one out of ten stopping to see what should have been a spectacle unfolding before them.
“What’s going on over here?” An older woman asks as she walks by, to which one of the fans quickly shouts back, “It’s NASCAR. The champion is here taking pictures!”
“Oh. Well I don’t even know what that is.” And just like that, the woman walks away, joining the hundreds of passers-by who didn’t so much as blink at what was going on around them.
Tony Stewart’s surprised we’re taking his picture. Unfortunately, way too many New Yorkers were surprised he was someone famous.
If the Nextel Cup banquet were in Bristol, TN, there’d be a town holiday just so 100,000 people could surround Stewart in center square. But this is New York City, perhaps the one place left where NASCAR could be mistaken for the name of a new downtown bar rather than a sport. As a result, stories like the one above are the norm, not the exception whenever the sport comes to the Big Apple it covets so much.
On the surface, you would think the city was at least paying a little attention. Every year, Champions Week is packed so full of events you wonder if the drivers in the Top 10 ever have a chance to breathe. Talk show appearances, trips to famous landmarks, and special charity events eat up almost all their time before Friday’s banquet (Ironically, this week’s biggest charity event was to the Staten Island hospital…think there might have been some ulterior motive there?)
Not only that, but NASCAR’s Top 10 have started a drive through Manhattan the Wednesday of championship week, going in and around Times Square before ending their route at NASCAR headquarters on Park Avenue. In 2005, they set up over sixteen cars at various places throughout the city as a NASCAR “Scavenger Hunt” where fans who visited each place could receive NASCAR “Racepoints” and become eligible for prizes, discounts, and more.
It’s a bunch of good ideas; the problem is, the general public doesn’t seem to be responding. After visiting over half the “Scavenger Hunt” stations with show cars during the week, at no time were there more than one or two people who were stopping by to take pictures or collect souvenirs. Most people didn’t even stop to look at what should have been a passing curiosity. Of course, the employees weren’t really helping, either. Of the four stations I visited, just one group of employees knew the banquet was this Friday at the Waldorf. None of them knew Tony Stewart was doing a photo op in front of the hotel on Friday afternoon. And, when pressed, half of them couldn’t even name more than one or two drivers on the circuit!
When talking to those 100 fans or so that came out to watch the excitement at the Waldorf itself on Friday, their reactions supported thre evidence that NASCAR’s presence doesn’t seem to be affecting the fast-paced Manhattan population in the slightest.
“I think the true fans knew,” fan Glenn Ryan said when asked whether the average New Yorker knew the banquet was in their midst. “But the others…” He trailed off, then commented on how more advertising might be the answer to the problem of making the sport stand out in a city with 1,000,000 things to do on any given day.
“I think NASCAR in general might be a tough sell in New York,” said another fan, Ann Fischer. “The Northeast…people have a different view of what racing is all about.”
That appears to be true. There’s still a large portion of white-collar fans from the North who still can’t shed the notion of NASCAR as a redneck sport, confusing racing side-by-side with “just going around in circles, over and over again.”
One of the main problems, it seems, also continues to be diversity. New York is known as the giant melting pot of all races and ethnicities in America. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island symbolize an area where immigrants from all parts of the world came to start a new life.
Well, the NASCAR drivers and personnel at the banquet? Not so diverse. As an experiment during the pre-banquet ceremonies, my photographer and I decided to sit in the lobby for 10 minutes and count how many non-white personnel we saw attending the banquet. The result? Just one out of over 100 that passed through was African-American. Two were Hispanic. That’s not exactly the demographic numbers a sport looking to grab the attention of the minority population would like to see. A well-known problem, for sure, but one that continues not to be solved.
It’s actually gotten to the point that many of the drivers have bought places to stay in New York, where, unlike in Charlotte, they’re priority #50 on #60 on a list of celebrity sightings a mile long. Carl Edwards recognized in a local bar in Manhattan? Not when you’ve got Matt Damon five feet away. Or Derek Jeter. Or one of thousands of other stars who make the Big Apple their home. Edwards can’t have that type of anonymity back in Missouri.
Except that’s exactly NOT what NASCAR’s going to need in order to build a race track on Staten Island. Geez, a giant Olympic stadium in Manhattan had the support of the mayor himself and it still lost out to party politics. It’s going to be very difficult to push across an idea of a facility to a population that went to “Daytona Beach” on Spring Break years ago and never even knew there was a race track there.
It’s a shame, because the banquet Friday night was something to see, a true showcase of how the sport has grown in the 25 years since it first came to NYC in 1981. And certainly, NASCAR has and will continue to progress in the minds and hearts of fans. But when it comes to New York, there’s still a bunch of permanent roadblocks, ones that won’t easily be torn down.
“Watch out,” said a woman rushing by the crowd watching Stewart Friday afternoon. “I don’t care what this is. I’m late for something and I’ve got things to do.”
And just like that, she was gone, a typical Manhattanite when it comes to this sport; curious for one second, but in the end, claiming they have better things to do.
Photo Courtesy: Tony Lumbis
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