For the first 31 years of my life, I was blissfully ignorant of NASCAR. And to be quite honest with you, I was happy with that.
It wasn’t that I hated stock cars; having grown up in the U.K., I was already enough of a sports fanatic. My life revolved around soccer, rugby and cricket – and racing-wise, it was all about Formula 1. NASCAR wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen; even when I moved to New York in November 2001, I never gave it much of a second thought. Over the next four years, baseball and the NFL were added to my sports portfolio – but NASCAR? I could have bumped into Jeff Gordon on the streets of Manhattan and I wouldn’t have known him from the next guy.
But in September 2005, my life changed forever when I started a job with Nextel’s ad agency in the heart of Manhattan. It took until 10:30 a.m. on day one to realize that stock car knowledge had become a necessity; working with the company’s racing division, I discovered that unless I went on a crash course (no pun intended) I was going to be in deep, deep trouble.
In need of answers, I opted for full scale NASCAR immersion ASAP. I devoured every piece of material the agency had since they began sponsoring the sport in early 2004. I studied numerous racing sites (imagine my delight at finding the comprehensive Jayski), and thumbed back issues of NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated. I read NASCAR for Dummies cover-to-cover, and played hours of NASCAR 06 Total Team Control – which later became a useful tool when I didn’t know an upcoming track. I discovered the Speed Channel, becoming enthralled by Beyond the Wheel while bemused by Inside Nextel Cup in the process. By the time I settled down to watch my first race, the Sony HD 500 at California, I had what I thought was a rudimentary knowledge of the sport.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As I watched every lap, my heart sank – I may have done my homework, but education could only teach you so much. I just didn’t get it at first; how could anyone watch this festival of advertising with the odd five minutes of racing sprinkled in for good measure? The four hours passed in a blur of baffling terminology and confusing action; when the checkered flag finally waved, all I knew was that some guy called Busch – driving a weird-looking yellow car with a decal of Tony the Tiger on the hood – had won, making him the youngest ever to do so at the tender age of 20 years, four months.
But with my job entrenched for the foreseeable future, I knew I had no choice but to press on and keep watching. With that in mind, the first big choice I knew I needed to make was who to support as a driver. I didn’t want to root for a “big name” – so that ruled out Junior, Smoke, Jimmie and Jeff right off the bat. But I didn’t want a villain, either – so that scratched either Busch, Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon from the list. With Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin retiring, they were non-starters, too, and I couldn’t very well pick the Cingular driver for obvious reasons. That still left over half a field of veterans; but as I continued to research, the name of rookie Denny Hamlin kept cropping up. When he got his break at Kansas, I figured, why not give the fellow rookie a try? And Denny didn’t disappoint; with three top 10s in seven races to close out the year in the No. 11 FedEx Chevy, my future as his fan was assured.
While the end of that season brought relief for drivers, it provided little respite for me – we dove into the 2006 Nextel ad campaign, and my NASCAR over-saturation continued. In January, I went to Lowe’s to shoot ads with Smoke, Edwards and Martin – more on that to come one day – and it was a pleasant and unexpected change to meet such down-to-earth characters. The driver of the No. 99 in particular was keen to tell me about his recent trip to England; in doing so, his fame evaporated as he became nothing more than your normal, average guy.
Getting to know drivers made me question whether maybe NASCAR wasn’t just the day job any more. When Denny won the Shootout to start 2006, it suddenly started seeming so serendipitous. It was after the third race that I stopped telling my wife that I was watching for work purposes only; as the year progressed, the transition from drudgery to devoted fan began in earnest. When I found myself ducking out of work two hours early because I’d forgotten to set the DVR for Cup qualifying – followed by staying in on Saturday night to watch a Busch race – I started to realize I had it bad. The obsession was complete when I couldn’t find an Internet connection on holiday in southern Chile; forced to ring a fellow addict to find out who’d won in Phoenix, I knew then that I was done for.
My attraction to NASCAR has come at an interesting time and place, during a phase when most people are questioning its direction. Back in England, talking football is the lifeblood of the nation – believe me when I say British people are not slow to complain about the sport they love. But the amount and scale of criticism I see of NASCAR is even more vociferous. To some extent, this speaks to the almost unrivaled passion of the fans; but on the other hand, you could be forgiven for believing the sport is rife with problems. So, if you’ll indulge this novice, here’s how I see it:
I see a sport that is in excellent health. I see a sport that puts on more than three-quarters of the top-20 sporting events in America, with its crown jewel of the Daytona 500 one of the most famous events in any sport the world over. I see fans so dedicated they go to the track four days early, a sport where nearly 4 million fill the stands for 10 long months (an average of about 100,000 a race) and millions more follow on TV.
I see a sport that has a rich tradition and history rooted in everything that is good and true about the American dream, about working hard and striving for the absolute best. It’s a sport that at its roots is about getting what you deserve if you put in the effort you need. Carl Edwards commented in his Cup banquet speech that the world might be a better place if all the best people weren’t building cars, and I think he has a point.
I see a sport that is handed down from generation to generation, one that is arguably more competitive than ever before. Yes, not everyone can win the championship – but with the Chase format and an incredible string of 10 races, it’s not impossible to pull off a miracle. The days when an Alan Kulwicki could win a title are gone; but the Chase, like it or not, gives any participant a fair shot at winning it all, and about 10 more drivers a realistic prospect of making that final field of 12.
Finally, I see a sport that in any given race, more than half the field can win. With some racing luck, a good gamble from the crew chief, or restrictor-plate parity, the number is even higher. Critics argue the No. 24 and No. 48 gobbled up 16 victories in 2006, but I’d point to the 14 others who won – including four first-time winners.
So, who will be the unlikely miracle in 2008? Will Bobby Labonte finally get to wheel the famous old No. 43 to victory lane? Will the criminally underfunded Boris Said catch all the right breaks on a road course? Is a Joe Gibbs Racing driver predetermined to win Toyota’s first Cup Race – or might Dave Blaney spring a surprise? Only time will tell; and that for me – as a fan without the benefit of years of experience – is one of the most exciting parts of NASCAR.
So, throughout the 2008 season – unless you readers write in and say I’m useless – I’ll be offering my thoughts as the certified Frontstretch rookie. I’ll probably say some dumb things, so please feel free to correct me; I hope, though, that I can bring a fresh perspective to the great sport of NASCAR, and I’m thankful – naturally – to be given the chance.