Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 10, 2005
For years, NASCAR has always prided itself as having the most easily accessible drivers and crews in the landscape of professional sports. It’s the one place where, for the most part, you find family-oriented, friendly drivers who are able to sign almost every autograph that comes their way, with crews that are happy to chat with fans of all ages on pit road hours before the race begins.
NASCAR has also gone out of their way to provide as much accessibility to the drivers and race tracks for fans as is humanly possible. But with the growth of the sport, this relaxed, fan-friendly way of handling the sport’s supporters is beginning to reach its limit; you can only have so many thousands of fans at the race track before the drivers have to be protected for their own safety. It’s that type of concern that got most fans banned from inside the garage areas themselves a few years ago after years of being able to walk through them, and after witnessing what I saw at Daytona two weeks ago, I’m beginning to think stricter standards aren’t too far behind.
Now, for those regular readers who wondered where all of my columns were last week on Frontstretch, I was busy enjoying my vacation down in Daytona Beach, and covering the NASCAR race from a fan’s perspective. If you haven’t been to Daytona, it’s one of the most fan-friendly, driver-accessible spots on the Nextel Cup tour, perfect for a fan who wants a close-up view of their favorite sport. After a recent renovation, the track’s infield has added a new Nextel FanZone pit pass attraction, which allows you to get just outside the garage area at any time of day.
The FanZone is something NASCAR should be proud of, with every possible luxury a fan could ever want. Want an inside view of the garage? Walk up to the stall of your favorite driver, and there’s a glass window you can look through to see all the work going on between driver, crew chief, and everyone on the team. There’s even a window slot where you can ask for autographs and feed the crew. Want to see if NASCAR really inspects those cars before they hit pit road? Take a ringside seat on the bleachers as you watch tech inspection happen five feet in front of you, with crew chiefs and teams signing autographs as NASCAR makes sure your driver’s car is legit. Want to see a birds-eye view of track activities from the infield? Climb up to the FanZone deck, where you can not only see most of the track, but look down on several garage stalls and haulers below, all while waving at your favorite driver as he passes by on his way to take to the track.
Now, to compare this type of access with other sports, it’s the equivalent to sitting in the front row at an NBA game, or sitting on top of the dugout in a Major League Baseball Stadium. The only difference is, thousands of fans get to experience this feeling on any given Friday, Saturday, and Sunday except for just a lucky few, and the drivers often come to the fences and sign autographs for their adoring legion of fans. But unfortunately, with every group you have a few bad apples, and it’s those bad apples that increasingly have me concerned about the ability for NASCAR to handle its growing fan base. Consider these two incidents:
- Last Saturday, NASCAR This Morning decided to set up its prerace show on the Nextel FanZone deck, so fans could get within ten feet of hosts John Roberts and Kenny Wallace. While that may have not been the smartest decision by SPEED to begin with (TV equipment was nearly toppled by fans walking by on several occasions), the efforts of the hosts during the show were hampered by drunken fans standing just steps away from Kenny Wallace. They taunted the driver during several commercial breaks, making some lewd remarks about Kenny and Lisa Marie Presley and nearly tipping over the fan barrier onto the set at one point during the show. Luckily, Kenny was his gracious, humorous self in the face of these people, and even still signed autographs afterwards; but if it wasn’t a driver like him, who knows what would have happened.
- During practices and pre-race activities on Friday and Saturday, NASCAR drivers would frequently cross through the gates of the Nextel FanZone in order to get to the bathroom. You see, in all of NASCAR’s brilliance, the most convenient bathrooms for drivers and crews coming back from pit road happen to be in the MIDDLE of the infield FanZone, not in the NASCAR garage area where they can be somewhat protected by a deluge of fans ready to pounce on their earliest opportunity. I saw several occasions where Jeremy Mayfield, Richard Childress, and others were trying to go to the bathroom only to be mobbed by fans anxious to get a piece of their favorite driver. Now, if a driver was walking through the FanZone that would be one thing, but if they’re clearly there to go to the bathroom…I mean, would you want to be interrupted by ten people waving pictures in your face to sign when you’re standing there waiting to pee?
It’s this lack of basic respect that causes concern about the future of the fan-driver relationship. Everywhere the drivers go, not only is the crowd bigger, but the expectations get higher, as fans increasingly expect to not only see but get an autograph of their favorite driver due to NASCAR’s image as an “accessible” sport. And it’s this type of situation that has NASCAR facing a tough road ahead. Driver access is already not as good as it used to be; as we said earlier, just five years ago the sport allowed pit pass ticketholders to stroll through the garage area and actively approach drivers and crews during actual pre-race activities, without having to sit behind a fence. Further restricting the drivers is distancing themselves from their fan base, and alienating those who look to NASCAR for relief from stick and ball sports where some athletes would rather knock down kids on their way to their limo rather than sign their autograph.
But sadly, in some ways the writing is already on the wall. Not has NASCAR’s fan base grown thousands of times beyond its small-town Southern roots, but there are too many autograph-chasers now who are beginning to lose that basic respect you need between fan and driver. They will stop at nothing to get something signed, and you have to respect some of these drivers for how well they’ve handled certain autograph-seekers that come up to them in ridiculous situations, whether it be at a private dinner, going to the bathroom, or just as they step out of the car after the race. And people are going to begin to walk away disappointed from race tracks, unable to catch their favorite driver; even at autograph sessions, the numbers of fans showing up have become so great that not everyone is going to get to shake the driver’s hand and get their signature. It’s just impossible.
So if you see a fan acting out of line next time you’re at the track, please tap them on the shoulder and let them know how lucky they are to be standing two feet away from some of the greatest drivers in the world. And enjoy the access while you have it, because chances are the bad apples are going to get their way sooner or later.
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