There is a trend I’ve noticed in racing lately, and I don’t like it. It seems like everywhere you turn, a team is firing a driver for nothing he caused, a fan is picking a new favorite when old number one isn’t winning so much, a sponsor is dropping a prospect for a big name or a veteran for the Next Big Thing. People, places, and things that have been a part of the sport for decades find themselves suddenly on the outside looking in. Everyone’s an opportunist, and everyone wants instant gratification.
There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no loyalty in NASCAR.
When Bobby Labonte was released from duty at Hall of Fame Racing this week for the next seven races, it was a bleak illustration of what the sport has become. It wasn’t exactly HoF Racing’s move; it was Yates Racing’s – they supply the cars to HoF and HoF passes over the sponsor dollars – when the sponsor they wanted on the car wanted rookie Erik Darnell behind the wheel. Darnell drives for Roush Fenway Racing’s development program, and Roush Fenway has a “partnership” with Yates Racing. (If by “partnership” you mean Yates signed on to be Roush Fenway’s pawn). It’s been clear since the merger a couple of years ago that Roush was calling the shots, therefore it shouldn’t really be a surprise that their development driver is the one ousting Labonte. It just stinks. (And it’s not the first time. Travis Kvapil got the Yates ride over Kenny Wallace at Roush’s demand. Before someone changed their mind and Kvapil got dumped too.)
It used to be that a year’s contract was forged with nothing more than a handshake and a promise, and those agreements were usually upheld. Today, contracts are broken and ended prematurely all the time, seemingly with little regard for the other person who signed it. Sometimes it’s mutual, and sometimes it’s performance based – that’s understandable. Ditching a driver for another who is no better is just a rotten thing to do. Most fans are loyal to their drivers (more on that in a moment) and to their drivers’ sponsors, so it’s a rotten way to treat the fans, too. Whether the decision was up to the team owner or the sponsor, it’s no way to repay the loyalty of the driver OR his fans.
Even worse to a used-to-be Nationwide Series fan is the sponsors who have jumped ship on the actual Nationwide Series teams in order to put their name on a Cup driver. Note to those sponsors: I don’t use your products anymore. And I hope that fans don’t, because it makes it acceptable for sponsors to treat teams and drivers like the dirt on the bottom of their shoes. A few years back, AutoZone inked a deal with ppc Racing, but ditched them as soon as the quarterpanels of Kevin Harvick’s car opened up – a move that drove several nails into ppc’s coffin. And ppc wasn’t exactly a small potatoes team – they were the last actual Nationwide Series team to win the championship, and they didn’t just win it, they destroyed the competition. But AutoZone’s leave-taking killed them just the same.
Most race fans are loyal to their drivers almost to a fault. Go to the track any given Sunday and you’ll see the ancient Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki t-shirts in the stands. You’ll see Dale Earnhardt coolers and Rusty Wallace beach blankets. Fans love their drivers no matter what.
Which makes it that much harder to understand the few who pick a new driver to cheer for when their old favorite hits a run of bad races or the twilight of his career. Adding a second driver, or one in another series is one thing, but to just drop one driver for another is a foreign concept to most fans, and I’ll admit I don’t understand it either. (But then again, I’ve been a Kenny Wallace fan for a dozen years and suffered through more heartache than many fans. And I will never change.) It just seems… cheap to me. If you liked a guy last year when he was winning, ditching him when times get tough is hardly being much of a fan.
Today’s NASCAR is a far cry from the days of the handshake and the promise. That’s progress. But the undercurrent of loyalty thrown under the bus in exchange for some kind of instant gratification is disturbing to me. The foundations the sport was built on are crumbling, and this particular pillar isn’t NASCAR’s fault. So much loyalty is gone from the sport, but perhaps it’s a microcosm of the world around us in general. There may be no crying in baseball, but there should be in NASCAR.