NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR & the Drivers – Who Needs Who More?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

When NASCAR holds a special closed-door drivers’ meeting, you can bet it’s because they are not happy about one or more participants being critical, and it usually entails Mike Helton reminding the drivers that they should consider themselves lucky to be there. (Or they’re warning the drivers before a plate race that bump drafting is a no-no but that a certain amount will be tolerated. No kidding, Helton really said that once.) The irony of NASCAR’s sanctioning body not considering their own monumental luck in possessing considerable riches for doing virtually nothing – in the rare moments when they are smart enough to do nothing – is of course lost on them.

Did anyone get a look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. being interviewed after Pocono? He looked about as spent as MC Hammer’s fortune. Call them privileged if you like, but the drivers bust their butts in a dangerous, high-intensity arena every week, and most of them have paid considerable dues to get there. This columnist doesn’t think it’s too much for them to ask for a drivable car like most other racing series have.

Maybe one of NASCAR’s “brasses” should sit behind a wheel and battle 42 other cars for 500 miles on a 90-degree day. The most physically grueling task Mike Helton performs on a weekly basis is grooming his mustache. He can let these guys blow off some steam after they’ve been sitting in a sauna of a racecar for four hours.

We’ve seen this sort of “consider yourself lucky” dressing down from NASCAR before. After Tony Stewart compared NASCAR to the WWE on his radio show last year, his hauler was forbidden from unloading that weekend until he was given a stern talking-to from the bigwigs. Out of concern for his team and sponsor, Stewart eventually caved and emerged contrite, chalk dust still lingering on his fingers from writing “I will not speak ill of NASCAR” 500 times. It would have been interesting for Stewart, or any other driver receiving a similar reprimand, to tell the bosses that he’ll say whatever he danged well pleases. What would NASCAR do? Fine him? Park him? And why, for complaining about racing in a heated boxcar?

NASCAR can blow the “they need us more” horn all they want. Paying customers know better. Wander around the grandstands, the concourses, the parking lots, or the merchandise haulers at any NASCAR event and you will not likely see any t-shirts, flags or banners that bear Brian France’s visage, unless it is portrayed in a derogatory or insulting way. Certainly, it would be easier to find someone wearing, say, a Kenny Wallace or JJ Yeley t-shirt. No one buys a ticket to see Robin Pemberton give a ruling. Who would be easier to replace, Jim Hunter or Jimmie Johnson?

NASCAR’s drivers have built up huge fanbases and their racing skills have made for all kinds of golden moments in the sport. NASCAR’s current management, by comparison, has managed to cut ratings and audiences almost in half, largely through showing the same lack of respect for their customers that they are now complaining about receiving from their drivers.

MCLAUGHLIN: THE MEETING OF THE MINDS?

Jeff Gordon is one example. Gordon burst onto the scene out of nowhere and became an icon in the sport before he was 25. He fueled interest in NASCAR, not only by bringing in fans from outside of Alabama, but by piquing interest in anti-fans bent on seeing him fail… because he was that good. His ability to outduel everyone from Dale Earnhardt to Rusty Wallace won him four championships, second only to Earnhardt and Richard Petty. With all due respect to Bill France Jr., it is Gordon that expanded the sport beyond the South. In his dominant years, Gordon was to NASCAR what Michael Jordan was to basketball… a head and shoulders above the rest superstar who put butts in the seats.

In turn, NASCAR implemented a ratings-motivated playoff system that has arguably denied two championships for Gordon, preventing race fans from seeing the No. 24 team pursue title number seven from 2008 forward, which would place Gordon side by side with the all-time very best where he belongs. That system also failed in its goal of higher ratings. Win-win.

And for all Gordon’s help to grow the sport above the Mason-Dixon Line, Brian France has contributed almost as much to shrinking the popularity of the sport below it. We don’t need to re-ignite the feelings of Darlington fans rehashing that.

So who has been more beneficial to the sport?

Or try Carl Edwards, who started racing in Cup in 2005… and with his wins and subsequent gymnastic displays brought a whole new shade of color to the sport. He’s won 10 races and has executed his famous backflip as many times to the backdrop of thousands of popping flashbulbs. And thanks in part to Edwards, NASCAR audiences are still in the thousands.

The closest NASCAR will ever come to an entertaining backflip is its frequent flips on rule enforcement. What is more likely to bring out a caution – a multi-car crash on the last lap or a piece of foam on the track on lap 30? Is a car being too low after a race in which the driver has won a “Car of Tomorrow” penalty? Is it legal to pass the pace car or isn’t it?

Kyle Busch, who through remarkable ability and unapologetic attitude has made a big splash in 2008, has won four races in inimitable fashion. Busch’s occasionally Ali-style “it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it” persona has re-ignited some fan interest… for many of the same reasons Gordon’s success did. Kyle, by both winning and thriving on fan disdain for him, has also done his part to apply a tourniquet on the ratings bleed.

To listen to NASCAR and Brian France, though, the minuscule ratings increase from the sport’s mediocre 2007 performance has resulted entirely from their brilliant innovations. We frequently hear “the racing has been great,” as if the new car was responsible and not the best stock car drivers in the world and their teams and crews. And only Earnhardt Jr.’s subpar performance last season could offset the excitement created by the Chase. France himself acknowledged that Junior’s not being in contention in 2007 may have contributed to sagging ratings… which, while asserting as such may direct attention away from their unwelcome meddling, would also seem to suggest that NASCAR needs Junior more than he needs them.

The next time you see a promo for the Nationwide series where NASCAR touts the skills of Joey Logano – who hadn’t even participated in a Nationwide race before being the focus of a commercial for a struggling racing series – ask yourself why they aren’t touting their own skills in handling sponsorship issues, which resulted in their accepting a third of the original asking price to sponsor the very series where the young phenom has just begun racing. One wonders if they would tell Logano to just shut up and drive if he brought that subject up to the press.

What had been the cause of NASCAR’s ratings plummet over the last few years, finally stabilizing this year, and a continued dive in attendance in a sport that was once recession-proof? Is it drivers complaining about the cars? Or is it advertising bonanzas masquerading as broadcasts, inconsistent rule enforcement, the unceremonious departure of key races from long-revered venues, or a new car design on which even the best teams cannot seem to get a consistent handle?

What has NASCAR done, exactly, to keep people watching that equals the contributions of Stewart, Matt Kenseth, or Jeff Burton? Does an elitist crowd tune in now because they race near L.A.? Does the “they just go around in circles” contingent reserve spots in front of the TV for the last 10 races? Would people who wear Miller Lite No. 2 t-shirts trade them in for Sprint t-shirts?

NASCAR’s sanctioning body is like every government. They have simple jobs with disproportionate compensation and prestige; yet they bristle at legitimate criticism, and they can never accept that those they govern would be better off if they were on a permanent vacation. As the Roosevelt quote at the beginning of this column suggests, this sport needs Brian France and Mike Helton about as much as it needs me. Maybe even less so; I had nothing to do with implementing the Chase.

Maybe NASCAR could spend some energy on reducing the unholy amount of commercial breaks and corporate logo-enhanced sideshows during green-flag racing in their broadcasts, rather than on instructing drivers to be PC robots. There might be less concern about ratings then.

“Shut up and drive?” How about: “Shut up and count the till.” The drivers are hardly the only ones who should consider themselves fortunate to be millionaires.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I like road courses, but two such races a year is enough. It definitely challenges a driver’s skills, but if it’s so radically different that some teams put a different driver in the car, then keep it to a minimum. Kinda ironic that they are called “ringers” at the only tracks that aren’t shaped like a ring at all.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya scored his historic first Cup win here a year ago, but I’m betting that Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, or Patrick Carpentier aren’t going to duplicate that feat. Nothing against those guys, but they haven’t really even mastered turning left in stock cars.
  • I predicted Gordon’s first win of 2008 this week, which is probably as easy a pick as any. But he needs to run well Sunday, because he’s too low in the standings right now the way the team has generally been running.
  • Speaking of Gordons, this is a chance for Robby Gordon to recoup some of the losses that his team frequently takes on Sundays. I don’t know how the guy does it.

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