NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Too Vanilla or Too Obnoxious? Where’s the Middle Ground?

It isn’t easy to please race fans. That becomes evident in any discussion about drivers. One guy isn’t talented enough, and if he has a family name with a racing history, well then, by gum, he’d better live up to it or else! The next is too talented, apparently, because he wins too much, whatever that means. It’s a sport, winning is kind of the point… But I digress.

Then there is the constant back-and-forth about the driver who, for whatever reason, is perceived as “boring” and the one who is an “obnoxious jerk.” Mr. Vanilla toes the company line. He rarely has a harsh word to say about anyone, even when he has every right or reason. He is very conscious of what he says, is soft spoken, and always thanks his fans, crew and sponsors with a smile on his face, even though he’d probably like to throttle a few of them right now. You can quote him before he says anything, because you’ve heard it all before. A lot. The fans hate him.

Meanwhile, Mr. O. Jerk doesn’t toe any line and is likely to put his toe through something if things don’t go his way. When they do go his way, he is Mr. Congeniality, full of thanks for his crew and fans. When they don’t he morphs into a surly, snarling monster. Then he either takes his toys and goes home, refusing to talk to anyone, or snarls and snaps and is generally rude to anyone within a hundred foot radius. He’s unpredictable, but people are afraid of what he’ll do next. The fans hate him.

It seems that, in today’s NASCAR, most drivers are lumped into one of these categories.

Matt Kenseth is boring.

Tony Stewart is an obnoxious jerk.

Jimmie Johnson is boring. And he wins too much, too.

Kyle Busch is an obnoxious jerk. And he wins too much.

So say race fans. Of course, many of the ones who enjoy calling Kenseth or Johnson boring think Stewart and Busch are great for the sport. And the ones who think Stewart and Busch are jerks favor the quieter Kenseth or Johnson.

The question is whether there’s anyone at all who would satisfy the fans. Where is the happy medium? And what kind of driver does today’s NASCAR need to have and to promote?

This is not really an easy question, nor are there easy answers. NASCAR, as sanctioning body, has recently said that they want to encourage more personality. But a caveat here: sponsors don’t always like drivers who throw temper tantrums like footballs in public. Last week at Nashville, when Busch played rock star and destroyed the race trophy guitar, the representatives for race sponsor Federated Auto Parts walked out of victory lane in disgust. That’s not something that you really want to risk in a poor economy – if a race sponsor leaves, that can mean smaller purses and less revenue for already struggling tracks.

On the other hand, if drivers show little or no emotion, it seems like they just don’t care about the fans or the sport in general. So, what gives?

There are a few drivers who seem both humble and outgoing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes immediately to mind. He’s approachable and friendly to the media, which comes across to the fans, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind-but unless you are both his crew chief and related to him, he isn’t disrespectful or obnoxious. At least some of his popularity is due to his personality.

There are some others who, if they ever got the coverage that the big names get, would fit the bill. Casey Mears comes to mind, as does AJ Allmendinger. Both are friendly and outgoing with a healthy sense of humor to boot. But they don’t generate the reaction that they would if they were contending for championships, either.

Which might also be a part of the problem. If Mears or Allmendinger won at the rate of Johnson or Busch, they would probably both be immensely popular. At least until they won too much. Perhaps part of the perceived problem is that the drivers in the spotlight for winning are those polarizing personalities. Johnson heads the list when fans speak of the “vanilla” drivers, but the self-conscious Johnson isn’t alone – he’s joined in his corner by Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, to name a few. The hot-headed Busch has fewer drivers to carry the “obnoxious” torch, but Stewart and Carl Edwards have their moments, and brother Kurt has had to work hard to get off the naughty list.

It’s also hard for the average fan to see beyond the cameras. Johnson had a radio show a couple of years ago and was open and often hilarious-obviously much more comfortable without a TV camera on him. Kenseth and Newman both have a dry sense of humor and can be funny as all get out-but those moments are spontaneous, not made for television, and rarely come across on camera because on-camera moments are rehearsed and ingrained. Bad boy Stewart has a soft spot for kids and animals, donating huge amounts of money for various causes and doting on his own animals. Edwards donates trophies to various individuals for various reasons. But because both have a temper, and because the TV cameras love nothing more than to get in someone’s face in a heated moment, perception becomes distorted over time. But perception can rapidly become reality, and a few TV clips can cement a driver’s reputation, for better or for worse.

With many of today’s top drivers being, on the surface, polar opposites, it’s not really a shock that fans polarize around them. What is too bad is that there are happy mediums – mediocre drivers who are outgoing and honest, and the sides of both “boring” and “obnoxious” drivers that the fans just don’t see. Everybody has their preferences, of course. It’s no secret that I tend to have more respect for someone who is polite and gracious, even if that is sometimes at the expense of showing more of themselves, but I know fans who would take obnoxious over plain-Jane, simply because it’s different.

So what kind of driver should NASCAR promote to the masses? The answer is both simple and complex. NASCAR needs to promote all of their drivers. The problem is, television wants to promote winners and those already popular – there is little interest in actually making anybody popular. Which is too bad – there’s something for everyone in NASCAR, but you wouldn’t know it lately.

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