NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Should The Fans Stick Around?

If you wanna be a star of stage and screen,
Look out, it’s rough and mean,
It’s a long way to the top,
If you wanna rock ‘n’ roll
AC/DC, “It’s A Long Way To The Top”

Big money got a heavy hand,
Big money take control,
Big money got a mean streak,
Big money got no soul
Rush, “The Big Money”

The Dover race caused me to do something I hadn’t done for quite some time. I dropped everything I was doing and tuned out the conversations around me, captivated by what was taking place.

Probably much to NASCAR’s surprise, the Chase had nothing to do with the great racing. You could argue that the new car played a part – it is visibly much more difficult to pass with it – keeping Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards close to each other for many laps. I won’t speculate further on that. And the close quarters at a shorter track makes the argument against the cookie-cutter speedways’ prevalence in NASCAR, as if it needed to be made. But what was most responsible for such a quality show, one that is the exception rather than the rule?

It is the same things that have always made for the best races. Drivers who have spent years honing and practicing their craft, learning how to draft, how to set up for a pass, how to put that imaginary egg under the gas pedal. Engine builders pouring their hearts and weekends into creating just that tiny bit more speed. Crew members that spend indeterminate hours preparing for maybe five bursts of 15-second efforts where imperfection is not an option. The arduous, continuous pursuit of excellence. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

So are exhibitions like Dover worth tolerating all that NASCAR fans have been griping about in recent years?

Some people question why some of us continue to cover a sport that we seem to hate. It’s a fair question. I’ve asked it plenty myself. I don’t utterly hate NASCAR these days… it still has its moments as Dover showed… but I certainly don’t love the so-called “evolution” of the sport since 2003, if that makes any sense.

It is a great privilege to have one’s rants about NASCAR published, especially in a free-speech forum like Frontstretch. To be linked on Jayski is the pinnacle of motorsports journalism, even if Pete Pistone is too. Do not think that I don’t consider myself fortunate in that regard. As dedicated as I have been, and still am, to writing something people will enjoy reading, you’ll have to forgive me if my interest as simply a genuine fan – which was how I got here – needs some Viagra.

MCLAUGHLIN: HOW TO MAKE A GOOD NASCAR RACE

Being a fan of major sports is probably the most supreme exercise of conflict in America today. The thrill of the greatest moments in competition inspires us. The hand of greed that is always involved sickens us. In my hometown of Philadelphia, Eagles fans soar on cloud nine if their team defeats the Cowboys. The Eagles are well aware of this when they charge $20 just to park at Lincoln Financial Field – a $512 million venue. Never mind what people pay for beer or decent seats. Who cares? It’s the Eagles!

That true appreciation for athletic feats frequently gets stained by greed is nothing new, of course. You can read about owners of baseball teams back in the 19th century and be amazed at their chutzpah. That doesn’t make the ugly side of major sports any less palatable, especially as misguided management grows exponentially with the popularity of any sport, even to the point where a racing team that has exhibited true greatness in 26 races had their efforts wiped out by some bad luck in two. In the name of “creating excitement.” Big money got no soul.

Sports’ greatest moments make fans vulnerable… and create a big, big market for its participants to charge top dollar, to obtain “fair market value” rather than to provide the best product at the best price, like every other business in just about every other industry must do. The sports and entertainment industries are almost unique in being able to be successful this way. Only in footwear are entities actually encouraged to charge the highest price they can manage.

But it’s understandable that otherwise sane people tolerate the rampant suction of our wallets at a NASCAR race. There are few more effective adrenaline shots on this planet than the sound of the engines firing after the grand marshal gives the command. Seeing it on TV, while exciting in its own way, does not compare. The rumble that courses through the chest of everyone in the theater is at once deafening, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Just the sheer volume instills enthralling anticipation of what will happen next.

The only greater thrill comes about five minutes later… as the crowd manages to roar louder than even the engines as a usually unknown official waves a green rag over the best racecar drivers in the world and cars rev up to ludicrous speed. As anyone who has attended a race knows, the thunder of 43 racecars roaring by is something that cannot be captured with tools as inadequate as a word processor.

When the asphalt gladiators begin to battle, nothing else matters: the traffic and parking hassles, the exhorbitant hotel prices, the grumblings about the changes that have been made to the sport. Once the race starts, there is no tangible price we can attach to the spectacle we are witnessing. My numerous grievances aside, even today I would still not argue that fans attending a NASCAR race get their money’s worth pretty often.

But that is no longer the case all of the time. The fans at Indianapolis this year most emphatically did not get a worthy product.

There have to be limits. Every entity involved with NASCAR, or any major sport for that matter – the networks, the hotels, the local communities – is well aware of the amount of money the sport brings in. What I have described above is something people will sacrifice quite a bit for. As James Earl Jones said in Field of Dreams, “They’ll hand over the money without even thinking.” How much is too much? Are people in Indiana willing to endure that again and still remain fans?

And how much is too much for a longtime, traditionalist fan? In five years, NASCAR looks absolutely nothing like it once did, and when people complain they are often (but not always) told to suck it up. Fans can understand the sport needing to grow and evolve, but they are perfectly entitled to suggest that the sport’s current direction is not one they like.

My apologies to anyone who expected a definitive answer from the article’s title. I can’t and won’t answer these questions for anyone, especially being in the fortunate situation of following the sport for a partial-living. But my interest as a fan has undeniably waned. It isn’t so much the new car or the loss of great tracks or even the Chase. The most irritating aspect of it all is that nagging feeling that NASCAR doesn’t seem to give a damn what its most devoted customers think. Of all of the “innovations” of the Brian France era, you’d think just one would be to find a way to give fans more green-flag racing on TV, and for more than one race out of the season.

For those of you out there tired of my complaining who want me to stop the negativity about your sport, I understand. I really do. I have been on the other side, defending NASCAR from people who I realize now sound just like me. It once mildly annoyed me that my father, a dedicated baseball nut who in my mind has not been nearly as outraged as he should be about steroids, repeatedly informed me that NASCAR, a sport he once enjoyed more than I did, is “pro rasslin’.” I now tend to think that, in the sense that NASCAR is so often about the show and not the real competition, he has a point.

Some of us accept the reality that times change; others are rejecting what they believe to be an inferior product. I hope people realize that my disdain is not towards those who still continue to be devoted to what is left that is good and right about the sport. It’s directed at the bottom line mentality that not only gave us the playoff, but that lost five Carolina races and probably has Dover and Martinsville in its sights in the future.

With all due respect to all opinions, I’ll highlight what’s great about NASCAR when NASCAR does.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • We all remember Biffle’s disputed win at Kansas Speedway last year. Commentators after that one were coming up with rule twists so convoluted that they could have pronounced Richard Petty the legal winner. Let’s hope the weather spares us such aggravation this time around.
  • Now that Tony Stewart is in the Chase, he probably won’t be coasting to the finish line in the first recorded incident of Stewart being out of hot gas.
  • This just in: following the announcement of NASCAR’s new drug testing policy, sales of Golden Seal root skyrocketed in the Charlotte metropolitan area. And not a moment too soon. If Shane Hmiel had just known when to stay away from Dr. Giggles for a few years, he could have made enough money to have a lifetime supply of Pop-Tarts and Cheetos, not to mention several backup copies of Dark Side of The Moon.
  • OK, now that Kyle Busch’s title hopes are finished, as I went out on a limb and predicted after Loudon, it would be great to see him win three or four more races. Can you imagine if a guy had 12 wins and finished sixth in the standings?

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