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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: The Meeting of the Morons… Er, Minds

The bozos that make up NASCAR’s front office have many faults, but the most glaring of them is thinking their fanbase is made up of easily swayed morons. Led by the chief clown Brian France and his less than hilarious sidekick Señor Helton, the organization clings desperately to a party line that, somehow or another, thinks they can market a turd as a candy bar while braindead fans will be two-fisting them in no time, singing their praises along the way.

Well, the obvious source of my irritation (this week) is a closed-door meeting NASCAR officials had with drivers and team owners last Friday shortly before practice was scheduled to begin at Michigan. Obviously, I wasn’t invited, so I can’t tell you what exactly was said at that meeting. Maybe NASCAR officials previewed their officially endorsed book of racial and sexist jokes that FOX will be marketing for them next season, with a forward by Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond. Having spent time in a garage area where even Catholicism is seen as an aberration worthy of demeaning jokes, I wouldn’t doubt it. But from what I hear, NASCAR officials had a different agenda.

The general consensus is that Friday’s meeting dealt with NASCAR’s irritation with drivers’ negative comments towards the Car of Tomorrow (aka the Ugly Mutt cars), the quality of racing this year and the reluctance of NASCAR officials to address those criticisms. During the meeting, the drivers were reminded that their lofty standard of living depends on the future success of NASCAR, that they have things pretty good based on the standards of the general population these days, and that fans aren’t as lucky in this troubled economy. Many of them are staying away in droves due to the price of gas, trepidation over their continued employment, concerns about their rising mortgage payments and a general malaise that has become a dark shadow over the American consumer and his or her willingness to spend money during a time where our economy seems to be on a express train to Hell. It doesn’t matter if you look at the prices on the stock market or prices in the grocery market, at the unemployment rate or the un-enjoyment rate at many of this year’s so called races – right now, committing the considerable financial resources to attend a NASCAR event is a tough sell even for many longtime fans.

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A lot of these issues are beyond NASCAR’s control. Mike Helton can’t control the price of gas. Brian France can’t end the mortgage crises. John Darby can’t wish away the devastation in the Midwest, which will undoubtedly raise prices at the grocery store after the recent floods have destroyed crops. And not even Big Bill the Original could convince the current administration that an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq is sending too much of hard working people’s tax dollars overseas in a time where we need to be investing on Main Street – not in Baghdad.

Yet, faced with the above, NASCAR seems to think that if drivers would be a little more upbeat in their comments on the new racecar, the quality of racing, or the Chase, everything would be better. I think not. I think the diehard fans that support this sport may let their favorite drivers sway their decisions on which spray paint, energy drink, home improvement products or candy to buy. Those drivers’ affiliations might even sway more crucial decisions, such as what beer to stock in the fridge. (Though it’s notable that Bud isn’t on the ropes after the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself.) NASCAR officials regularly publish inflated figures as to stock car racing fans’ fanatical loyalty towards its sponsors; but looking from the outside in, I have seen that loyalty diminish over the last decade. I don’t see more race fans at the corner Sunoco because it is the official race fuel of NASCAR; I see folks searching for the lowest-priced gas they can find. I don’t see more fans selecting Goodyear tires for ma’s ride; I see them looking at the sales ads and searching for the best bargain. Increasingly, I am seeing fans arrive at races in Hondas and Hyundais, having selected the cheapest new car they can find that will reward them with longterm reliability and good gas mileage. A new car is the second highest investment most of us will commit to next to the roof over our head, and it’s too important an investment to make based on what Junior, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch or Kasey Kahne races. Speaking on a personal level as a race fan with a neat job, I can tell you that I started drinking Coors Light because I like the taste of the stuff – not because my hero Bill Elliott ran under that banner. And as much as I pulled for Bill back in my pre-writing days, the fact my ’89 T-Bird blew a head gasket with less than 50,000 miles on the clock – and Ford basically told me to go pound sand – has soured me on the idea of ever buying a new Ford as primary transportation again, despite my lust for classic muscle car-era Mustangs.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand. (You knew I’d arrive here eventually, didn’t you, gentle readers?) I don’t think that even a fan’s favorite driver, whatever driver that might be, telling fans that the new car is great and the racing lately is fabulous (or even thanking them for showing up) is going to convince the average fan that the new car and the quality of racing lately is up to muster. For whatever faults I have as a writer on the topic (and they are myriad, according to some of my critics), the one thing I still pride myself on is never underestimating the intelligence of race fans – for to do so is to leave yourself open to caustic comments by those true fans themselves. Yes, there is a widespread perception that the average race fan is a high school dropout, trailer-park dwelling, beer-swilling redneck who is waiting for Earnhardt Jr. to tell him which brand of TV dinner to shoplift this week at the local Piggly Wiggly to feed their families. If such fans exist, God bless ’em all for their loyalty; but in my experience, the vast majority of race fans are hard-working guys and gals who are pretty discerning when it comes to the product that fuels their passion and dominates their weekends and free time – stock car racing. They can tell a good race from a bad one without being told by their favorite driver if it was an exciting event, and they resent having invested their hard earned and increasingly rare discretionary income to attend a boring race. I pity the fools who have to sell race tickets to the September race at Dover as a result.

It’s interesting at that the start of this season our friend Brian France introduced a new period of glasnost to the sport, saying he wanted the drivers to speak their minds more freely and show their personalities. Now, four months later, he’s telling them candor is OK as long their comments toe the company line. Yeah, my guess is if you’re strapped in a stock car driving close to 200 mph in close company, every race is quite exciting. The problem is the drivers are getting paid to be there. The fans are paying to be there. Judging by the empty seats at Dover, Pocono and Michigan over the last few weeks, less and less fans are willing to make the financial commitment to do so, and that heralds a growing crisis in the sport.

Truth be told, I never went to business school. The closest I ever got was idling at the curb in a Grabber Blue ’70 Boss 302 waiting for a girl I was seeing to get out of class. But I’ve been told the classic business model is this; the first generation invents, the second generation improves, and the third generation destroys a once noble enterprise. If that’s the case, NASCAR may be well on their way to becoming a classic case in textbooks at Wharton. The challenges our sport faces today are very real and approaching crisis level. Trying to wish them away by making sure the drivers don’t dare mention the negatives is like trying to cure cancer by avoiding a visit to the doctor’s for diagnosis.

We all grew up hearing the story of those three little monkeys; “hear no evil,” “speak no evil” and “see no evil.” But the amount of monkey business in this sport recently is out of hand, and if Brian France could hear the evil things fans write to me about his new car, he’d probably be working real hard on getting that NFL franchise in L.A. off the ground.

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