While Pocono’s 500-miler was pushed back a day, the rain couldn’t do the same to my deadline. So while I’d love to write on the race itself, instead I started this Sunday night staring at a blank page after “start your engines” became “stop those weepers!” That left us with hours upon hours of driver interviews and waiting for a track that, in the end, would never dry with an eerie water problem that’ll leave me dreaming of nightmares from California’s rain-plagued race in February, 2008.
But sometimes, in the midst of waiting out the rain you can patiently learn quite a few things about the drivers in the interim. I remember as a kid, rain delays used to be one of my favorite things (as long as the race would get started again) because almost all the drivers usually got interviewed… and they weren’t sponsor robots! It’s amazing how much personality and flair you get out of somebody when they’re not worrying so much about someone else paying attention. So, this time I decided to take a trip down Memory Lane, taking a few notes during ESPN’s filler programming to jumpstart a random news and notes piece about the Sunday race that wasn’t….
I have to say, one of the best segments on the entire show was the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus interview with the “Chad is Rad!” shirts. No matter what you think of this duo – and yes, I know most of you have had about enough – you have to marvel at how well the chemistry extends between them both on and off the track. These two are very different people, but that hasn’t stopped them from not only respecting those differences but forming a close, personal bond with each other that strikes a balance both in friendship and on race day. Perhaps those 10 minutes relaxed in front of the camera gave us a glimpse of the true secret to their success; because after all, isn’t it always about the people you work with as well as the passion?
I also wonder what fans would think of Johnson had that segment aired in 2003 and not 2009. Both he and Knaus were looser and funnier than I feel like they typically are on the air; if that were a first impression, maybe fans might have a slightly different view. But first impressions are hard to break, and of course, everyone hates a winner… something the No. 48 team is certainly no stranger to. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that during driver introductions nowadays, Johnson’s boos are slowly growing in crescendo to trail only Kyle Busch at this point.
One more thing… weren’t the rally cars on the X-Games really freaking cool? I absolutely love watching those things. Notice those cars look like real racecars… yet you still feel you could drive them down the street or on the highway. For those fans not around in the 1990s, that’s exactly the same impression you got when you turned on NASCAR in the old days… and why the Nationwide CoT is so important. Right now, no one can envision driving the Sprint Cup cars anywhere but the junkyard; and because of that, you don’t get the same connection to the car you own, something which was once a subtle but critical element in the sport’s explosive growth.
As Scott Speed got interviewed, I couldn’t help but think how much the Top-35 rule dooms a guy like him. Sure, Speed’s had an awful rookie season, the type of year where his new best friend comes guised in a package filled with white concrete. But he’s also failed to make the starting lineup twice on days where the No. 82’s main competition – the 35th-place No. 34 car driven this year by John Andretti and Tony Raines – has actually been far slower. Of course, the No. 34 need not worry about its qualifying speed; it’s got itself a locked in spot, while Speed must come every week dreading the fear of the nightmarish DNQ.
During the race, these two often resemble the tortoise and the hare. Andretti (or Raines) plays it safe, working to secure the best finish possible while not putting the car in harm’s way. In contrast, Speed is like a giant wrecking ball, trying to make up the gap in points all in one race before unceremoniously totaling his car in the process. That consistently leaves the No. 34 with a free ride into the field; and while the feel-good story of Front Row Motorsports should be commended, “playing it safe” and racing to stay out of trouble isn’t what the fans come to see. I know it can be a necessary evil when building a race team… but should a racing series be building a system where even cars at the back of the field are encouraged not to take chances? To me, that’s why those rally races and the old school NASCAR was so popular… risk. Speed likes to take risks, and man, he’s been penalized for it more than once this season. For in today’s world, it’s going to be the poor man’s blue-chip stocks like Andretti rewarded for their on-track performance instead.
One other thing from ESPN’s hours upon hours of interviews… I really thought Jamie McMurray handled himself brilliantly in the face of being labeled a “lame duck.” After finding out his team would either cease to exist or be moved to Yates in 2010, the driver was not only gracious but upbeat in explaining things, masking his disappointment in place of confidence he’d finish out the season strong. Of course, it certainly helped he’s gotten married in the last few weeks, but still… rarely do you see a driver that comfortable in his own skin just days after being told he wasn’t good enough to continue on with a top-tier team. McMurray may have failed to live up to expectations, but no one’s ever going to accuse this classy driver of throwing stones on the way out the door.
But while I have to praise McMurray’s attitude on his long-term future, he’s part of a handful of drivers that wowed me with rain-delay quotes about the weather. As I was browsing through other columnists tonight, preparing to write my column, I caught these two nuggets from Terry Blount’s story on the race being postponed …
“Being around another day won’t be fun for anybody.” – Jamie McMurray on racing in Pocono Monday
“What’s tough is, everybody’s got a schedule for the week, and everybody’s got plans….” – Bobby Labonte on above-mentioned topic
Hmm… is it just me, or do those comments make it sound like racing tomorrow is going to be a pain in the butt? Can you imagine if you were a race promoter trying to put some fans in the seats for Monday? “Come on down to Pocono, guys… McMurray says it’s going to be a whole lot of no fun!” Seriously, while I know the rain was frustrating for everyone how can you expect the fans to tune in when the drivers are throwing out quotes that make them seem like they don’t even want to be there?
To be fair, these aren’t the only two drivers irritated over the extra day, caused by NASCAR’s grueling schedule that offers just one more week off (August 29th-30th) over the final 16 races of the season. But at the same time… to draw fans and excitement into a sport, especially one that’s facing a ratings and attendance decline, you’ve got to be on your “A” game at all times. If I’m a casual fan and I’m reading those quotes, I’m wondering why they’re even bothering to race tomorrow; I mean, if it’s rainy and dreary and the drivers are bothered by it, why not call the whole thing off?
It’s harsh… but it’s true.
One last thing before we call it a rainy night. Many believe that NASCAR should have a traveling medical team attending all the races. Well, I’m going to take it one step further in bizarre fashion… I think they should have themselves a traveling team of parking attendants. Instead of each track paying $5 an hour to point people in the wrong direction and cause general mayhem, why not get experienced personnel to fly to each track, come up with a reasonable traffic flow and then execute to the best of their ability?
As you might imagine, this comes after my latest bout with traffic, taking 90 minutes to merely exit the track onto a one-lane road because the parking volunteers neither had control nor direction over traffic flow. At no other sporting event that I go to (including football games with nearly the same amount of fans) is traffic so horrifically mismanaged each and every week. Once again, this is an area the sport classically underestimates in terms of getting people to make a return trip to speedways. You could have witnessed one of the best races in modern times; but if it’s taking you eight hours to move the equivalent of five miles afterwards, would you be on your way back the following year?
A few years ago, I went to see a concert outside Washington, D.C. with three of my buddies. It’s generally regarded as one of the top-three concerts all of us have ever been to… but afterwards, we got stuck in mismanaged traffic so bad it took over three hours to move in the right direction. I was in from out of town, so I never had any reason to go back to that venue… but I was curious if my buddy who lived there had. I asked him the other day, and he said in the last few years he’s avoided any and all events that go on there – even if it’s a band he likes. Basically, the experience of one bad night of traffic has soured him from ever going back…
It’s a story that happens more often than we think in NASCAR; and at some point, it’d be great for the sanctioning body to recognize that.