NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Lost Wages or Lost Minds?

I guess I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I don’t get it. With all the major challenges facing NASCAR right now – and they are myriad – how did they decide that “fixing” the awards banquet issue was a top priority?

For those of you who might not have heard, the postseason Cup awards banquet will be moving from New York City to Las Vegas, Nev. – Las Vegas! Come on. NASCAR has always prided itself, at least publicly, on its family values, blue-collar, God-fearing fans and traditional morals. But when I think of Vegas, what comes to mind is gambling, boozing to excess, drugs and hookers. It’s a city that caters to every vice the human soul can imagine thanks to the mobsters who built the joint. Stock car racing has its roots in the fertile soil of the Southeast – not in that Neon mirage out there in the desert sands of the Southwest. If I’m recalling my theology and Springsteen correctly, you have to cross the desert sands to someday reach the Promised Land.

Yes, I am sure there are many fine people who live in or around Las Vegas, and my guess is that some of them are stock car racing fans. I know for certain that many stock car fans enjoy a trip to Las Vegas, as evidenced by the nearly full grandstands at that track this season – a season where selling tickets has been a huge challenge. I just don’t happen to be one of those that cares much for the city. I’ve been there twice, both times on business, and I never felt any inclination to go back there on my own dime. When I feel the need for tackiness, crassness, neon dawns, the worst of human nature and phoniness, I just watch FOX TV.

Then again, New York City isn’t among my favorite places to visit either. It’s expensive, it’s crowded, and it can be dangerous. Yeah, back in college my buds and I used to ride up to New York on the train to go clubbing; but after getting held up at gunpoint outside of Grand Central Station when my date and I were returning from the No Nukes concert, I was sort of cured of that.

Naturally, NASCAR isn’t going to pick a place to hold their banquet based on my preferences, and I don’t expect them to. But it’s legitimate to question why this move is being made. Officially – and the amazing thing is they managed to say so without cracking a smile – it’s to save the teams money. Yeah, hotel rooms are very expensive in New York City. (So are emergency rooms… but let’s not go there.) You can get a better rate on a room in Vegas, though I don’t imagine Carl Edwards is going to be staying in the Best Western in the darkness on the edge of town or that Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are going to camp out in sleeping bags in the Rumpus room of Kyle and Kurt Busch’s folks’ place to save their owners some coin. Nor do I imagine that this year’s titlist is going to be flying in an economy class seat on Southwest Airlines en route to Las Vegas. Firing up those private jets and sending them three-quarters of the way across this great country of ours is an expensive proposition. Maybe the top-10 drivers in the points can rent a passenger van together and make an epic road trip out of the ride to Vegas with one lucky fan chosen as designated driver? No, I don’t think so.

Yeah, the reason the banquet is moving involves money… and lots of it. Struggling with declining tourism in this tough economy, particularly when it comes to booking large conventions, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce (or any remaining members of that organization Katherine Harris hasn’t toe-tagged yet) are offering somewhere between a $500,000 – $1 million annually to host the big event. Good luck getting $50 out of New York City for a similar privilege. And you can be sure that a large portion of that largesse will find its way into NASCAR’s coffers. After the dismal economic results NASCAR’s corporate sister, the ISC, offered up Tuesday, you better believe they’re looking for some new income sources. Tradition and keeping with what fans expect to enhance the work of their predecessors? These folks would flood their tracks and offer up sailboat races if there was an extra $50 in it for them.

The New York City banquet experiment started in 1981. NASCAR wanted to move the banquet into a major market and get themselves closer to the Wall Street and Madison Avenue sorts who were an increasingly important behind the scenes to keep the sport growing. I guess there was sort of a goofy charm to seeing good old boys with deep Southern drawls all decked out like maitre’ Ds in tuxedos, gaping at the tall buildings in New York City and wondering where to get a decent plate of grits for breakfast. Another intended goal of the move was to give the sport more media exposure in a market that largely ignored it, at least in the papers if not amidst fans from the area. But New York sportswriters are obsessed with the stick and ball sports, and it seems they still haven’t gotten their arms around the notion that driving fast loud cars in a circle might be a legitimate sport all its own. Three questions seem to consume those stick and ball writers when they get the short end of the stick and have to cover the banquet: A) You made how much money last year? B) What’s it feel like to wreck a car at 200 mph? C) What do you do when you have to pee in the racecar?

Not exactly the type of media coverage you’re looking for, is it?

One idea I do like is the notion that a larger auditorium might actually allow some limited number of fans to attend the banquet. The cynical part of me wants to know how much they’ll be charged for the privilege over and on top of travel and lodging expenses. And the cautious part of me wants to know how those fans will be selected. There’s a caveat here, folks. If you are in fact able to attend the banquet, bring your “A” game as a fan. Off the record, NASCAR officials will admit one reason the fans have never been able to attend the banquet is they don’t want folks booing their champion or any of the other drivers who earned their way to the ceremony. You might not like Gordon, Kyle Busch or whatever other driver you don’t care for, but the awards banquet is not a forum on their quality as a human being or suitability as a role model. It’s a celebration of their notable achievement that year on the track in which they outpaced their competitors – nothing more and nothing less.

In my mind, at least, the new venue for the awards banquet should have been Charlotte. That’s where the racing community is headquartered, and that’s where most of the drivers, owners, and crew members make their homes. The first NASCAR race was held in Charlotte, a link to this sport’s rich history. And soon Charlotte is where the sport’s Hall of Fame will be headquartered. In a perfect world, I’d like to see the banquet held at that Hall as a reminder to the 10 drivers lucky enough to attend the banquet – especially the champion. Their names are being added to a very elite list of drivers that dates back over 60 years. To win a Cup title is a notable achievement, and to study the names of the drivers so honored before them should be both gratifying and humbling to the one whose name is on that big trophy. A NASCAR champion should be mindful of the efforts made of guys like Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson to promote this sport to the fans. Our top drivers of each season should make similar efforts… especially since those other guys were paid chump change by comparison back when they were winning titles.

Charlotte makes sense to me in so many ways. More of the team members – the “boys back in the shop” who seldom even get to the races to see the fruits of their hard work – would get to attend the ceremony if that hard work paid off with a title or a top-10 finish. Drivers who have spent 10 months on the road chasing the circus could sleep in their own beds and wake up with the families that love them. A celebration in Charlotte at Christmastime would, without a doubt, help raise money for Speedway Children’s charities. A Charlotte banquet would be cheaper for the team owners, more convenient for the competitors, and better for the fans. But unless Charlotte suddenly offers to pony up $1 million for the privilege, I don’t see that as happening anytime soon.

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