As of this writing, today is Fat Tuesday. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “Hey Vito, how’s that different than any other day of the week for you?” Ironic indeed, since I just got done working out in the festering cesspool of filth, germs, and bacteria that has apparently been given the CDC acronym of “Y.M.C.A.” By all measures, there is no reason I shouldn’t be violently ill by mid-morning, what with the number of people that congregate at my local gym on a weekday night.
During this particularly unfulfilling cardio session, I was given pause for reflection. No, not because of the girl bounding about on the treadmill in front of me with “Juicy” emblazoned across her pink sweatpants posterior (though let’s not be so hasty as to dismiss her); but rather, because running in place is something I thoroughly detest. It is a necessary evil, however, as once you hit 30 your metabolism suddenly pulls the rug out from underneath you and your motivation goes up in smoke – while your pants size goes up like Smoke.
What happened to the old days when I could just show up ready to go and hit it hard for 90 minutes? Now, it is a forced march necessitating a cocktail of thermogenics, energy drinks and protein bars to endure.
Oh, how I longed for my recliner and down blanket!
Lately, I’ve felt the same way about NASCAR and how things used to be. Even my motivation to find something to write about this week was found waning. Perhaps it’s the weather up in Michigan this time of year. Maybe this early-season malaise is the fault of California and Las Vegas, and those who insist on scheduling them on back-to-back weekends after two weeks of intrigue at Daytona. Whatever the case, the rush of caffeine and endorphins helped trigger these little vignettes – all while running in place like a rat on a wheel.
FOX Sports: This network is single-handedly responsible for setting the sport of auto racing back at least 20 years. In an effort to pander to the casual fan and sports guy, it has bastardized NASCAR and the coverage of the sport, relegating it to little more than a cartoon. This is particularly frustrating when watching a classic NASCAR race from the early ’80s. Ken Squier could narrate a race that would make you think that each successive lap was going to bring the white flag – even while Bill Elliott held an 18-second lead over second place. Ned Jarrett was down in the pits amongst a stack of tires, screaming over the engines, while Jack Arute was clambering over pit wall to jam a microphone through the window of Darrell Waltrip’s car, getting his opinion of an accident during a pit stop.
Today, the action on the track is little more than background noise to the conversation taking place in the booth.
CBS pioneered the advent of the in-car camera. It was kind of a crude device at the time; a jumbled mess of hose clamps, zip ties and duct tape intertwined with a roll bar on the passenger side of the vehicle. But the result… was magic. There was no greater sensation of speed then the camera mounted at dashboard level, panning side-to-side as the 205 mph wind buffeted at the window net. All the while, Cale Yarborough sawed on the steering wheel to keep his racecar tracking in a straight line. Or, mounted in the Miller Buick, the camera swung right to see Bobby Allison catching a side-draft off of son Davey at Daytona.
Today… we have Digger.
Engineering in Reverse: One of the oft-romanticized aspects of NASCAR was the ingenuity and creativity of the crew chiefs and car builders. In what other form of racing will you hear tales of a lever being pulled and birdshot spilling out of the frame rails of a car and onto the track?
One of my favorites was when Fred Lorenzen’s team was caught with a fuel tank that held a gallon more than the mandated 22-gallon unit. A NASCAR inspector ordered it removed. They complied – installing a 28-gallon tank in the process. The gray area was like a city pool in the summertime; everyone was welcome to jump in and take part in the fun. It was honor among thieves, a Tom & Jerry act perpetuated by the inspectors and the men employed to build the fastest, trickiest pieces in the garage.
Today, fudging 1/8” here or there will get a crew chief exiled for six weeks, and branded with the scarlet letter “C” on top of it all.
Stock cars were always criticized for being an anomaly of a racing machine: Engines and chassis from almost half a century ago, 15” wheels, weight and downforce numbers that were the inverse of a “real” racecar. NASCAR took things a step further in 2007, introducing a car that was taller and wider with even less downforce, creating an ill-handling and temperamental slug that was forbidden to be fiddled with.
Making things worse is the fact that these cars all look identical, a Ford indistinguishable from a Chevy. For a series that built its popularity on being unique, this flew in the face of reason. It was not that long ago that a Ford Thunderbird, Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass or Chevrolet Lumina – all looking decidedly different – competed against each other and won races in NASCAR.
Today, none of those nameplates remain. And they all have four doors now.
The Natives Are Restless: There once was a time when NASCAR fans were as loyal to their sport as Admiral Yamamoto’s bunch. Everyone would stick around through a torrential downpour, camp in the mud or endure the occasional snowstorm, all with the mindset that we’re in this together because you couldn’t get this kind of action anywhere else.
Today, that same fanbase is as fickle and indifferent to the sport as a third-world nation is to a dictator in mirrored sunglasses and military uniform with scrambled eggs on the shoulders.
Why is this happening? Probably because the parallel I have drawn is fairly accurate. The sport that owes its being to those same fans has, in recent years, bitten the hand that fed it for so many years. Think I’m wrong? Take a look at the stands the next time the Goodyear blimp – assuming it hasn’t suffered a similar fate as many of its tires – pulls out for an aerial view of the racetrack. Wide-open swaths of aluminum and plastic are visible, a sight not seen before in the modern era. And spare me the talk about the economy. Yes, it is an issue, but people are still leaving their houses.
In my home state of Michigan – the land that prosperity forgot – the Detroit Tigers sold out nearly every home game last year, even as they faded down the stretch to become one of the worst teams in baseball. The Detroit Lions, who set the ultimate record of futility, were still selling out home games well into their 0-16 date with disaster. Again, this is in Detroit; I’m not sure if you’ve watched the news lately, but things aren’t so rosy in Motown.
An hour or so away from that Seventh Circle of Hell sits Michigan International Speedway. Last June on Father’s Day, there were entire sections of grandstands unoccupied. In 1999, I sat atop the bleachers in turn 3, wedged in between one of my buddies and some fat guy. I slipped in and out of consciousness that day, baking my brains out in a wave of 90-degree Midwestern humidity while battling both a wicked hangover and three hours of sleep to watch a race featuring a grand total of zero cautions with five cars finishing on the lead lap.
And I loved every minute of it. Back then, that was a green/white/checkered finish.
Is this to say that I’m turned off by NASCAR now? Not at all. Like so many who watch the sport on a weekly basis, I get riled up because I do still care. I don’t watch it because I have to (though I do, since I write about it), but rather I do so because I enjoy watching it. I like the feeling I still get seeing all of the cars lined up on pit road, hearing the National Anthem, seeing the jets fly over, the command to start engines and the first two or three laps of a race as the cars barrel into the first turn at full song. You can’t get that feeling anywhere else. Not at a baseball game, not watching golf.
And certainly not running. With that, give me another Packzi. I earned it, damn it.