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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Clint Bowyer An All-American Story… And Just What NASCAR Needs

Clint Bowyer‘s first career NASCAR Cup win Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway has catapulted the Emporia, Kan. 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 12 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 64th Nextel Cup start.

Though generally considered the “weak link” of the 12 drivers that qualified for the 2007 Chase for the 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 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 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.

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, Wash., Duluth, Minn. or Jackson, Miss. 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 Bogota, Colombia.

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 Greg 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 and 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 fanbase along the way. Now, there is nothing preventing owners from selecting who they put in their racecars… 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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