Thomas Bowles · Sunday January 29, 2006
Editor’s Note: For those long-time fans of Bowles-Eye, welcome back to the fold…for the third year on Frontstretch and sixth year overall, I’m back to give you my thoughts every Monday morning and sporadically throughout the week. We’ve got some exciting things planned for the Frontstretch this year, from exclusive driver interviews to new columnists to the relaunching of the FS newsletter…hope you’ll be along for the ride!
It’s funny with writers how quickly ideas come and go. Seven weeks have passed since my last column, giving me more than enough time to figure out what I wanted to write to the world about once my offseason came to an end. There’s so many juicy stories: Toyota to Cup in ‘07, Michael Waltrip stealing owners points from the 77, and Gordon’s renewed energy in his quest to get to 7 (Nextel Cup titles, that is). But with all that’s going on, my thoughts didn’t come into focus until I found myself in the grocery store on Sunday afternoon.
While I rumbled through the ShopRite aisles, grocery cart in hand, I strolled by the VHS section (yes, struggling writers still own VHS machines and not DVDs), and couldn’t believe what I saw. Sitting there compiling dust in the corner of the shelf was a discounted VHS copy of Days of Thunder. For just $4.97, the 1990 movie that coincided with NASCAR’s sudden movement to the national spotlight could become a part of my VHS collection forever. One of those movies you promise yourself you’ll buy someday but never do was now five feet away, begging to throw itself in the nearest plastic bag in the checkout line.
But as I did what any self-respecting person involved with NASCAR would do and throw the movie into the shopping cart, I began reminiscing about how much the sport has changed since Days made it to the big screen sixteen years ago this summer. At the time, the racing schedule consisted of 29 events, not 36; only a few of which could be seen on network television. Although ESPN carried most of the rest of the schedule, there was still a race or two that you couldn’t even see live no matter what cable package you had. Modern mainstays like the Craftsman Truck Series, racing at Indy, and tracks at Texas, Kansas, Chicago, and Las Vegas were ideas that hadn’t even made it to the drawing board yet.
Without rehashing every small detail, my point is clear; very few sports have achieved the level of growth that NASCAR has in such a short period of time. The answer to why can lead you in several directions, but as I sat there thinking about it, the simple answer may be that the sport has managed to maintain a family-style image in comparison to the other major sports.
Just take a quick survey of what’s going on in the rest of the sporting world. Baseball is currently plagued by a steroid scandal in which up to 20% of all players may have been taking illegal drugs, including several home run superstars likely to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame despite the irresponsible actions they took. Hockey is coming off of a player-owner lockout in which both sides were so completely distrustful of one another an entire season of play had to be cancelled before the key players came to grips with reality and worked out a deal to keep their sport from going under. And basketball is so concerned about its national image, drug problems and legal troubles rampant among many of its athletes, that it actually instituted a dress code for the 2005-06 season to try and showcase their athletes as being somewhat professional.
Even in football, the most popular sport in America, you can’t steer clear of selfishness and greed. The Terrell Owens scandal involved an egocentric wide receiver who was so greedy and selfish he chose to sit out the season over money issues, destroying his team. Don’t think he’ll be staying after practice to sign autographs for impressionable youngsters anytime soon. Marcus Vick, a collegiate football player, was kicked out of school for stomping on a player’s leg after a tackle and giving opposing fans the middle finger, then was promptly arrested on a DUI and gun charges.
For the most part, NASCAR has been able to steer clear of these issues, building their fan base with 43 fan-friendly, clean-cut drivers who may speak their mind but don’t break the law. And that image remains because the people that choose to represent the sport display real personalities; they don’t fake it in front of the cameras, at least not all the time. I noted this more than ever in the offseason, attending a true NASCAR “party” for the first time in which I was able to meet drivers behind the scenes, get a true sense of how some people acted when the cameras were off and the limelight was away from them. And to be honest, these guys are no different than you and me. For the most part, the “young guns” of today haven’t let the fame get to their head, learning from veterans like Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin and choosing to be a role model for the sport they love, not a disgrace.
As the sport continues to evolve, however, there will be growing pains, and we have seen some recently. 2005 brought its share of challenges to the sport in the form of rules violations, drug suspensions, and increasing instances of misbehavior both on and off the track. Between Robby Gordon’s helmet-throwing incident at New Hampshire, Shane Hmiel’s personal drug hell, and Kurt Busch’s arrest, NASCAR was working overtime to plug an increasing number of holes in the PR dam. Not only that, but the disturbing trend of drivers and owners breaking contract midstream continued to the point that loyalty, one of the founding principles upon which the sport has prospered, may now be a thing of the past, if not in serious jeopardy. Long-standing relationships with drivers and teams have been severed over money and image, and the continuing influx of money and power may keep teams like the Jeff Gordon-Hendrick or Mark Martin-Roush lifelong deals from ever happening again.
With the sport entering the last year of their current TV contracts, car chassis (the Car of Tomorrow plans a 2007 debut), and up to half-a-dozen Nextel Cup stars retiring after the season, 2006 needs to be a serious attempt at repairing the cracks in the armor. The new generation of younger drivers—- including this year’s seven Nextel Cup rookies—- need to remember the examples set by drivers of previous generations. Make sure you stay that extra minute to sign the 10-year-old’s autograph. Don’t let the temper get the better of you and knock the wrench out of the crew chief’s hand in public, or the teeth out of the nearest Nextel Cup competitor. Be gracious with the media…not dismissive and obnoxious towards it. And most importantly, display a passion and respect for the sport that brought you to where you are in the first place…not an indifferent and flippant attitude that can bring the sport back down to Earth.
By the same token, the media has to display that same responsibility and respect that appears to be lacking lately. To be honest, in late 2005 I was one of the culprits. Kurt Busch, I’m sorry for reporting on your Arizona arrest without having all the facts in hand. I, like many other members of the media, went all-out for a public hanging, when it turned out that in the end, we didn’t have any rope. It is our job to report the facts, not rumors, about the many incidents and controversies that occur on a daily basis in the sport. When we do present our opinion, it needs to be a respectful way, not degrading and narcissistic as if we know it all; for in the end, such columns present more problems, not solutions, for a sport we’re all trying to make better, not tear to shreds. Too often lately, I’ve seen many columns like that, and it needs to change.
Everyone, from the most famous Nextel Cup driver to the smallest writer on the smallest website, is lucky to maintain their place in a sport thousands, if not millions of people, would give their left arm to be a part of. Through luck, skill, and circumstance, we’ve risen to our current positions, and we’re all in this together, playing varying roles of how NASCAR is viewed by others. There is no room for error; as the mistakes of 2005 have proved, every misstep makes national news.
It’s so hard to rise to the top, but oh-so-easy to fall right back down to the bottom. Let’s hope everyone involved with the sport spends 2006 working to stay on the peak of that mountain, rather than pushing NASCAR closer to the edge of a dangerous cliff.
Let’s get started.
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