It seems so simple.
Why, people ask, if I’m so often disenchanted with NASCAR these days, do I still bother to watch? And on the surface, it seems as though it should be a simple enough decision not to; it’d free up my Sundays for mowing the lawn and watching Lake Norman recede. But like ending any long-term relationship, it’s just not that easy. Because despite the problems, despite the inconsistency and blatant favoritism, somewhere past the manufactured competition and the ignorance of the past is something inescapable: it’s still beautiful.
The racing, the drivers and the cars, the crews and colors under the lights, those are essentially the same as they have always been. Some are young men with something to prove, driven by desire and ambition with a little anxiety and a little naïveté thrown in for a good measure. Some are older, hanging on to the twilight of a fading career, looking for that one more day in the sun before they walk into the dusk. The older ones were young once, the young ones can only dream of the long and prosperous careers the older ones have enjoyed. There’s a certain longing there, each for a part of the other.
The racing itself is all color and light, disguised in a snarling, angry beast of a machine. It thrills us a little, enthralls us a little, scares us a little. It’s angry and lighthearted all at once. It has teeth, and those teeth bite. But it’s magnetic – it draws back fans and competitors alike, even after the deepest of tragedies. It is comedy as well; there are enough lighthearted souls in the garage and the stands to ensure that. It’s a dance, really, spinning over the asphalt floor.
Racing in itself has either changed so much since the early days that it’s hardly recognizable, or it’s hardly changed at all. Maybe both. The technology has changed – if Big Bill France was still alive, I wonder if he’d even recognize the sport for what it once was. Seven-post shakers and 12-second pit stops have replaced the simple garages and tire-iron-armed crews, but the ultimate goal is the same-to make the car the fastest, to drive it better, to roll it into victory lane.
And what happens when they get there is often beautiful. Celebrations, sometimes tears, sometimes a heartfelt tribute to a lost comrade, sometimes stunned silence at a first win or one snatched from adversity’s claws… we’ve seen them all. And they, at least are still right, still worth it.
There is still a lot wrong with NASCAR, but there has always been a lot right with racing. Take the sanctioning body out of it, take away the multi-million dollar sponsors. Take away the fancy paint jobs, the silver Tiffany trophy and the gaudy television coverage. Take all of that away and they would still race. At heart, I find it hard to believe that the drivers and crews trotted out in spectacle each week wouldn’t be doing it anyway, some way, somehow on some track. Take everything away and they still dance.