Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Bowles-Eye View, which will run Mondays during the season on Frontstretch
Dear NASCAR Faithful,
The offseason is over, and I can’t wait! What a refreshing change from the past few years; it’s amazing what a couple of weeks off not having to cover test after test in December and January will do for your tired soul. After a disappointing year, the worst thing to happen when the racing doesn’t match the hype is to have it hammered into your head day in, day out. And while some fans still complain about your precipitous decline the past few years… I know there’s a lot more who actually started to miss you for the first time in recent memory.
See? We’re one paragraph into this thing and I’m already giving you a break. I usually don’t; but this time, the stakes are too high. For I – like many others who have a passion for your series – still have the dream that the old days will return. I remember the days when side-by-side racing for the lead took 20 laps, not two turns; when lead changes consisted of more than battles on pit road; and when the top-10 finishers consisted of 10 different car owners, each with their own unique setup and perspective on the sport.
I talk of the dream because too many are discussing the nightmare of possible self-destruction – and fewer still are bold enough to believe it can actually happen. And while I don’t like to talk about it, I’m in the camp that truly believes that it’s possible. I’m still young, but old enough to see open-wheel racing grow at the speed of light in the early ‘90s – only to disintegrate before my eyes. I know that the problems you face are real, the future is uncertain, and anything can happen if you continually make the wrong decisions. Recently, everyone and their mother has focused on your bad ones to the point that if I didn’t know better, we attended NASCAR’s funeral around the time the Chase format was announced in late 2003. Looking back a few years from now, maybe that’ll be true; only time will tell us that. If you don’t address the cracks in a house’s foundation, no amount of money spent on the living room will keep it from falling apart.
But with my love for stock car racing stronger than ever, I’m taking a break from shaming you and trying to chime in with a little bit of support. For in between the joy a true offseason gave both the media and the garage, I had a lot of time to think. And one of the things I realized is that as much flack as you take from everyone, it’s more important than ever we, as journalists, are held to the same high standard that we expect from you. While criticism has come at your sport at all sides from recent years – albeit some of it justified – that same public glare has come amidst your media followers getting a free pass at times when they shouldn’t have. After all, we report the news, but we’re not important enough to become it unless we do something really bad. And we have great influence on the court of public opinion; if 25 of 25 articles talk about how terrible you are, well then, what are millions of people going to get drilled into their heads? The last thing I want is for criticism to build into a prerequisite of your death.
Of course, when you screw up – and it has been all too often – then the negatives will always remain. But, my pledge to you this year as a journalist this year is to attempt to become more balanced. Yes, there’s so much about the sport today that people feel needs to be changed – and I will always write a critical story if one is justified, as well as if it has the necessary facts to back it up. But when I can this year, I’m going to try to focus on the positives every once in awhile. Fans of this site are probably screaming at this letter right now – I can hear the “The last time NASCAR was good was 1987!” chants from here. But roaming through the garage day in, day out, the best people haven’t all left the building. Contrary to popular belief, not every young driver is “cookie cutter,” and there are plenty who have stories to tell that would inspire a new legion of fans. It’s up to us, as journalists, to spin that positive side every once in a while, cut through the sponsor B.S. and let people know who they are. After all, it’s a year of economic crisis in which everyone is looking for a feel-good story, a temporary relief from problems that seem to build with each day that goes by.
But in exchange for doing that, I’d love it if you’d actually listen more than you read. Stories like Mauricia Grant, empty seats for fans, dissatisfaction with the Top 35 and the Car of Sorrow (er, Tomorrow) don’t just come out of thin air. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; and the fact those stories continually get written underneath the denial or defiance of your sanctioning body is increasingly worrisome. Time and time again, solutions are offered through every nook and cranny of the garage: crew chiefs, drivers, the media, officials. But all too often, you choose “none of the above” and lead us down a road that has us scratching our heads. Or, you do nothing at all; but ignorance can no longer be an appropriate defense for a sport that knows what its problems are.
While we’re here, time to address those pesky drivers and crews. Some of you like the media, some of you hate the media, and some of you don’t care to know the media (or me) from a hole in the wall. Whatever the case, remember that a journalist’s opinion is just that – their opinion – and that’s why they call some articles “commentaries.” We’re paid to say what we think like you’re paid to make the fastest car in America, so don’t take us to task for doing our job – and don’t take me too seriously either, because most of the fans never do. And even if we are friends, sometime – whether it’s this year, next year, whenever – we’re going to think your team did something dumb, and it’s going to appear in print. As a journalist, I’m entitled to that opinion as much as you are to email me that you disagree.
Of course, that criticism can always lead to awkward moments in friendship and in life; but in the end, we need to work together. Because people don’t care about you anymore when all you say is a bunch of sponsors and pre-rehearsed sentences from that script your PR person gave you a few weeks ago. That’s not how you gain fans; it’s how you perpetuate boredom. And as empty seats showed us in 2008, fans are tired of being bored. So, find someone you trust, keep an open mind, and allow us to see you for who you really are. Because chances are it’ll be a good thing for both sides.
And this year – although it’ll never happen – do me this one favor. When I do my job right, uncovering a rumor or a tip days or months before you want it released, don’t do me the disservice of denying that it’s true. The one person I gained the most respect for last year was Tony Stewart, and I’ll tell you why. When I broke the rumor he was leaving Gibbs, he could have easily denied anything and everything that was happening – after all, he didn’t sign with Haas CNC for months. But instead of throwing me under the bus, he came right out at Talladega and admitted that what I reported was factually correct. It’s an increasingly rare moment in sports, different from several other stories through the years where I got put through the ringer – only for the truth to come out exactly like I said it about two to three months later. You’re taught as a kid that honesty is the best policy… let’s work on that.
Speaking of work, Media Day is about to get started down at the Beach. Optimism reigns from all sides; it’s a new season, and everybody starts out with their dreams intact.
Let’s hope this year, no one’s bubble bursts anytime soon.
A Longtime Journalist, And A Lifetime Fan