The Frontstretch: Clint Bowyer: An All-American Story...And Just What NASCAR Needs by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday September 18, 2007

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Clint Bowyer: An All-American Story...And Just What NASCAR Needs

Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday September 18, 2007


Clint Bowyer's first career NASCAR Cup win Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway has catapulted the Emporia, Kansas driver into the limelight. His feel-good win came at an opportune time for NASCAR, as the first race in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship was otherwise – well, frankly pretty uneventful. But to me, the second year Cup driver's win goes to the very essence of what has allowed NASCAR to succeed – it was an all-American winning in what is perceived as an all-American sport.

That Bowyer's breakout victory has been met with widespread pleasure and acceptance from those inside the NASCAR community as well as writers and fans (even fans of other drivers) should be of no surprise. In fact, I had predicted in a July commentary titled, Driver Shopping? Try Clint Bowyer On For Size, "For now, Bowyer is locked in a tough fight to remain in the top twelve in points to be eligible for the Chase to the Championship. But should he be successful, look for a stampede of displaced race fans to jump on the Clint Bowyer bandwagon." But of course, the prediction hardly qualifies me for consideration as a modern day Nostradamus, as most anyone that has followed the Richard Childress Racing driver the past three years would come to a similar conclusion concerning the likable 28-year-old, who won in just his sixty-fourth Nextel Cup start.

Though generally considered the "weak link" of the twelve drivers that qualified for the 2007 Nextel Cup Championship – based largely on Bowyer's failure to have gained a victory in the series – no one could deny that this driver was talented, personable, and destined to end his winless streak eventually. Bowyer embodies a great many of the qualities that the average NASCAR fan looks for. He’s a racer that has paid his dues in the lower divisions, reminding fans of either the "hot shoe" at their local track or even the guy tinkering with his hot rod down the street. Most know a Clint Bowyer type in their own part of the country…making him both familiar and comfortable to fans at home!

The success of drivers such as Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer, both sophomores in the Cup series this year, exemplify the type of driver that has historically dominated the NASCAR landscape – a landscape of gritty and determined young men from small towns across America that have elevated themselves to the most prestigious auto racing series in the country through both hard work and perseverance. They are today's equivalent of the Pearsons, Yarboroughs, Labontes, and Earnhardts from another era, starting in lower division stock cars at local dirt tracks, learning car control, and fixing what they break. With money a constant obstacle, they scrimp, scrape, and sometimes borrow from Peter to pay Paul and get to the next Saturday night $500-to-win main event. Through a combination of luck and talent, they were able to separate themselves from the pack through the years, attaining success in the country's highest level of motorsports competition. And along the way, they have brought with them their own legion of fans and supporters that NASCAR, the business entity, has benefited from greatly.

Clint Bowyer is the latest American success story. And who doesn't like to root for a guy that comes from rags to riches? It's as American as apple pie; and for that matter, that is what NASCAR has been…an American success story.

But that landscape is changing. There seems to be some egotistical desire on the organization’s part to become more than just the leader in American auto racing. More and more, the shift seems to be to gain acceptance in the international theater. Races are being scheduled outside the contiguous boundaries of the United States, and some team owners are courting internationally recognized drivers from other racing disciplines. And to what good end…I fail to see. What is the goal? To eventually become a true international touring series? I sure hope not. That does not seem to be a scenario that would benefit the core NASCAR fan that resides in parts of the United States such as Tacoma, Washington; Duluth, Minnesota; or Jackson, Mississippi. These are fans that understandably would like to see even more Cup racing in their part of the country, and have no interest in the state of stock car racing in Bogotá, Columbia.

I have never heard a diehard fan lament that they would like to see NASCAR become more like Formula 1 racing. Heck, I doubt that there are many NASCAR supporters that would not, if allowed, vote to give Darlington its second race back over any international race facility in the world. Fans are not blind; they know that internationally scheduled events come at the cost of a U.S. track not being utilized in its place. And they also know that if NASCAR has room for expansion, that there is still plenty of room in the good ‘ole U.S. of A. to tap.

And the same can be said for American drivers. There is no shortage of Bowyers, Hamlins, and Biffles succeeding in lower divisions throughout the country ready and willing to move up to the higher echelons of stock car racing. But there is a trend that is emerging to give preference to internationally known open-wheel drivers, becoming obvious in recent weeks with the announcements of Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Canadian Jacques Villeneuve’s planned debuts in the Cup series next year. It is a development that has concerned me since the 2006 announcement that Juan Pablo Montoya would campaign in the series this season. Nothing personal against any of the three…but I do not see their participation benefiting the sport.

These particular drivers’ successful on-track participation in the American-based open-wheel series of both Indy and Champ Cars have done little to grow either series. In fact, anything open wheel in America these days lags dramatically behind NASCAR in both acceptance and popularity. Yet, neither sanctioning body has seemed to come to grips with the fact that their continued attempts to sell a brand of racing to American audiences with foreign participants is not working. In the meantime, dozens of very talented American open-wheel racers plying their craft in midgets and sprint cars all over this country continue to be ignored, as team owners focus on the next "hot" former European karting champion to plop right into the IRL. Content that those drivers are more worthy, it’s made young American open-wheelers opt for NASCAR instead; popular and respected drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman have gone the stock car route since the early 1990s.

Next season, three coveted NASCAR Sprint Cup rides will be occupied by drivers that have built no equity in American stock car racing, rides that would have in the past went to an American driver that presumably had worked their way up through the ranks, developing a fan base along the way. Now, there is nothing preventing owners from selecting who they put in their race cars…nor should there be. But they need to understand that people tend to root for the home team…and in this case, the home team is the United States. And when they have no one that they can connect with and root for…not only do they stop rooting, but they stop watching.

Luckily, Clint Bowyer has beat the invasion of non-American drivers into NASCAR's highest level of competition, and it is a great "guy next door makes good" story. However, if the recruitment of foreign open-wheel drivers continues…expect fewer such stories in the future.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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M. B. Voelker
09/19/2007 06:47 AM

When did the desire to be successful become a bad thing? There is no stasis for an organization of any kind — it must either grow or die.

Why is it a bad thing to have the best drivers there are competing against each other, regardless of which of many racing paths they took as they developed?

Mike C
09/19/2007 01:50 PM

Putting a driver in a ride is really done the same as it always was. Except it is far more obvious now. The driver who can bring the biggest check or sponsor ( or hopefully both ) has always gotten the ride. It doesn’t have nearly as much to do with talent as it does money.This goes back to the beginning of auto racing. It hasn’t been as all encompassing in NASCAR as in some other race series, but it has always been a fact of life. Racing, and more importantly winning, costs a ton of money. The current influx of foreign drivers probably has more to do with their potential marketing value to the car owners , all new sponsor possibilities.
And sadly that means that truly talented drivers ( US and foreign ) get left behind.

Carl D.
09/19/2007 02:14 PM

M. B. Voelker …

I think you missed Thompson’s point. What he questioned was the merit of bringing in foreign talent with no roots in Stock Car racing at the expense of homegrown drivers who have worked their way up through the ranks, and the merit of moving races from the USA to foreign countries. Thompson used the current sorry state of the IRL and Champ series (and F1 for that matter) to illustrate his point that maybe this strategy is not in the best long-term interest of Nascar.

It’s my opinion that once the traditional fan base has become alienated from and disinterested in a sport that they helped to build, another stock car series will come along to challenge Nascar, and stock car racing will have it’s own IRL/Champ mess. That’s not success.

Bob Whitehead
09/22/2007 01:24 PM

AMEN, Tommy!!!

I couldn’t agree more. I do not think that skimming the “cream” off of those failing series is good for NASCAR. It may mean advertising dollars for NASCAR and sponsorship money for owners, but I do no think it is long-term good for the sport.

NASCAR – born in the USA – keep it that way!


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