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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Why I Still Watch

The Chase is terrible, the races are boring, and NASCAR doesn’t care about the fans. While all of these may be true to a degree (OK, so maybe the Chase sucks a LOT), the complaints do make something for the media (I think that’s me) to talk about. But the race fan in me, the part that made me pursue a somewhat thankless career to begin with, wonders why the people complaining still watch. Seriously.

Wait. A lot of the time, I’m one of the people complaining.

So, why do I watch, then? Why does anyone? What’s left after the complaining is done? I can only speak for myself, but there are still enough reasons left to make me stay. Like…

…the drivers (and crew chiefs, and crewmen). It’s not their fault the sanctioning body is headed by a greedy little man. I don’t aways support NASCAR but I sure as hell support these guys. There is truly something for everyone here. Whether you want to pull for the nice guy, the bad boy, the local kid, or the underdog, there is a driver that every fan can be drawn to. You can pick a driver who has multiple championships or one who has never won a race. Or one of each, like a certain writer who will remain nameless. There is a reason you see virtually every driver on a t-shirt at any given track on any given weekend. Spend a little time forgetting their corporate personalities and learning their real ones – it’s well worth it, even if you decide the guy is… well, not who you had hoped. After all, a villain makes the hero seem even sweeter. If nothing else, be duly impressed by their heart and desire – the fire that burns deep in every one of them, from the guys with more trophies than they know what to do with to the ones with empty shelves – they all have a deep, burning passions for what is often a thankless sport. Thank them.

…the moments. While many races don’t have numerous lead changes or a finish with two cars banging off each other, most have a moment where you want to stand up and cheer – it might be your guy making a move into the top five. It might be the guy fighting to stay in the Top 35 in owner points passing his rival. It could be a spectacular save of a car so sideways it looks like it’s on a fast trip into the wall. Perhaps it’s seeing a driver emerge, intact, from the smoking rubble of a horrifying crash. Not every moment is a winning moment, and if that’s all fans are looking for, not only are they never going to be satisfied, but they’re missing some amazing things. Once upon a time, races routinely ended with fewer than five cars on the lead lap and the leader checked out so much that the second-place guy couldn’t see his back bumper. It’s better than that now, but you still have to look for the really good parts.

…the history. I’ve been a fan for a dozen years, a long time by many new fans’ standards, but not long at all to the old-school fans who had the good fortune of seeing Petty and Pearson in their primes on tracks of all varieties across America. Those days are long gone, but I love to read all I can about them. I enjoy learning about the drivers and the tracks that I never saw. There is so much to be learned about this sport, so much to wish you could have seen, so much to wonder if you’ll ever see anything like it again. It’s a colorful history, wrought with winning and losing, cheating, and guys ending up naked in swimming pools. It seems as though guys ended up naked a lot back in the day. Perhaps it’s too bad that the days of the elaborate practical joke are, with the intense media scrutiny of the 21st century, a thing of the past. You saw the drivers’ personalities back then; you never had to search for them.

…the hunger. There is nothing like talking to a young driver who is fighting his way up the ranks. There is a passion, a raw hunger in them all that makes you want to pull for them. It’s what made 17-year-old Ryan Truex win a regional touring title. It’s what makes guys like Jarit Johnson patch together a car and go race at their local tracks, maybe in NASCAR’s regional series, all on their own dime without the dollars and trinkets of the top divisions. Spend a little time in the Camping World East or Whelen Modified Tour garage and you’ll see what I mean. The hunger is almost palpable, and those teams are much more in the moment than the Cup teams – sometimes that week, that race is all there is. There might be more if it goes well. If it doesn’t…well, it just has to go well….

…the sound. There is nothing in the world that moves my soul like the sound of 43 perfectly tuned engines straining, crying for release as they come to the green flag, except for the moment they are turned loose and cry together in full song. It’s angry and hungry, mournful and beautiful. It’s the moment you can hear when someone’s engine is missing or down a cylinder and the throb of the best horsepower in the field making it sound easy. It’s a primal music that makes your chest ache with its intensity.

…the hope. I can’t rightly say that NASCAR has never tried. Two ideas on the table right now are an attempt to make things better for fans and teams. While I don’t agree with two-day weekends, I can see why they would be a boon to many teams. And earlier, universal start times would make following the races easier for the casual fan (no more wondering what time this week’s race is!) and the die-hard alike (home from church, watch the race, dinner with the family on Sunday – a lost tradition that may make it back. Hopefully NASCAR will hear the fans’ voice more in coming years – start times are… er, a start. Perhaps schedule changes and other fan-friendly ideas could follow. The frustration of fans is that this should be our sport – and NASCAR often takes that. Perhaps the hope is false, but as hope does, it springs eternal. I’ll always hope for more. Always.

So call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I still love racing. For me, seeing what can be fixed is frustrating, and that’s where the venting of complaints is born. It’s not that I don’t love it or don’t want to be there – it’s that I do and I want it to be right again. The moment I don’t have that hope, that optimism, is the day that I should and will walk away. But for now, there’s still enough. I’m still hungry, too.

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