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It’s been some years since I became a devout NASCAR fan. Unlike some of my readers out there, I wasn’t raised on the local dirt track at the end of the street. Auto racing came to me through the Wonderful World of Sports, and later via a little cable box on top of the TV. I can only remember being dazzled by the Indy 500, but not by any billboards or the pretty colors on the drivers’ uniforms. In fact, as a young ‘un, I could tell you their names… Rutherford, Unser and Mears. But not who paid for their appearance on my Saturday afternoon sports program. It was entirely about the “Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat,” nothing more. And so it should be.
However, times have changed, and those that sell advertisements now have more screen time than the finishing order of a race. When was the last time you can honestly remember any coverage of the Sunday Cup race simply announced, “And the winner of today’s event was?” At what point did the name of the local grocery store chain become more important than who is hoisting the trophy over their head?
It’s no longer enough to be the best. The champion must grovel to those that wrote out the checks before kissing their wife or spraying their teammates with champagne. Spontaneity has vanished in the name of, well, you pick the culprit. Sprint, Nationwide, Coke, Pepsi, NAPA, Interstate Batteries, UPS, FedEx. Just read your favorite driver’s uniform and you’ll have a huge selection to choose from.
The other major league sports have all patted NASCAR on the back for setting the standard for funding sporting events. But I ask you to take a moment and think about that. Has NASCAR sacrificed something essential to competition in the name of staying in the black?
Baseball is baseball, not the Oscar Meyer Nine Innings. Football remains football. Not even Nike has dared to push the NFL out with the name of their latest running shoe plastered on every football. What does the NASCAR fan get inundated with every week? Sprint Cup at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where the Chevy Impala driven by Pepsi driver Jeff Gordon wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses talks about stopping smoking when you chew Nicorette Gum after you’ve painted your car with DuPont Automotive Finishes… he crosses the finish line while his Goodyear tires give out on the last lap, fueled by Sunoco gasoline, gasp.
How did this happen? Where did the racing go? Is it possible to call a race anymore just by talking about the competitors? More so, can the participants speak without spewing a lengthy string of plastic acknowledgments towards their sponsors?
I know it is possible. Each time I visit Thompson Speedway and watch the locals take a turn around the track, there is a lack of stickers on the cars painted in matte black primer. Victory lane celebrations feature lots of hugs and cheers, a little talking and more celebrating. The billboards in the turns are faded and sometimes peeling. Nobody worries much about appearances, and the racing is awesome!
That’s all I’m asking. Just a small concession on the part of Brian France et al. Sell every lap of the race, if you wish. But do you think we could back down on the name-dropping? I vote for equality for all! Muffle the constant peddling by the television, radio and print media. Leave the advertisements for those nasty five-minute intermissions we get far too many of. Let’s talk about the drivers, the teams and the cities that we are visiting!
After all, I’m fairly certain a soft drink manufacturer has never built a car, maintained it and steered it to victory lane. Humans do that. Let’s give the winners their due, and step on the can angling for a perfect camera shot.