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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Racing Against the Media-ocrity

To put it politely, Cup racing in 2009 hasn’t been very good. This grizzled ol’ cantankerous scribe could put it a lot less politely – and many of you normally gentle readers have expressed your sentiments on this season in increasingly pointed (and even profane) terms. What started as distant thunder back in February has become a deafening drumbeat late this fall. By the way, some of ya’ll are just out and out nasty… and that’s one of the things I love about you.

But let’s mind our manners. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this has been the worst season of Cup racing since at least 1998, when the five and five rules turned the season into an unholy farce that still causes me to grind my teeth to calcium powder recalling it.

There are a lot of opinions on what’s gone wrong. Some blame the tepid racing on the new cars. Others argue it’s the fault of the new points system. Some want to hang blame on a new generation of cardboard cutout, white Wonder Bread drivers who’d make Pollyanna sick to her stomach. I personally hang a lot of the blame on the loss of race dates at tracks that routinely provided outstanding racing (Darlington, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro) but whose dates were moved to cookie-cutter tracks that have routinely provided, (be polite here, Matt) tepid racing. Still others want to fault the emergence of a few superteams that are dominating the sport. There’s a thousand reasons why the racing is so awful right now, and it’s probably some combination of the above that is causing the problem – though to what degree can be debated endlessly.

What can’t be debated is the racing this season, at least on the Cup level, has been really, really bad. At times, the drivers have even admitted as much. NASCAR statisticians try wallpapering over the problem with all these “green flag passes for the lead” numbers. (Here’s a hint: During a long green-flag run when the leaders are ducking into the pits to refuel and re-shoe their mounts, there’s a lot of green flag passes for the lead – it’s just not much fun to watch.)

Even the TV guys admitted things were pretty sedate, perhaps overly so, at Talladega. Hell, even NASCAR officials have tried covering things up, saying things like, “Well, they can’t all be classics.” (Well yeah, OK, but can’t one or two a season be classics just to keep us watching?)

As for the fans, if Brian France, under an assumed identity for his own safety, were to visit the average fan-driven NASCAR message board and read the fans’ opinions of the races… he’d be sleeping in his closet, Dr. Dentons zipped up tight, both thumbs firmly entrenched in his mouth having nightmares for a month.

But man, fixing this problem could cost money. Lots of it. If the ISC had to fix its tracks to allow for better racing, it’s going to really beat up their already-battered bottom line. Scrapping the CoT and replacing them with real racecars is going to be awfully costly for the team owners. Scrapping the Chase is going to leave some serious egg on Brian France’s constantly twitching face, and even if they work free, paying 300 apes in bananas to sit at keyboards for 30 hours until one of them bangs out a better points system than the Chase, it could be prohibitively expensive.

So how do we fix this problem without costing rich people any money or making any substantive progress on actually improving “the product?” Well apparently, NASCAR’s latest brainstorm is to blame the media. The racing is just fine. In fact, it’s better than ever. It could not possibly be improved one iota. It’s just the nattering negative nabobs in the media that are convincing fans that this year’s racing is the equivalent to a nine-month long proctologic exam in the front window of a department store while Britney Spears’s music is piped into the room at maximum volume.

Wow, me and the other negative nabobs in the media made it 10 months with our evil plot to overthrow NASCAR so we could be unemployedm too, but with two weeks left to go this season, we got caught. I’m sorry… does this make sense to anyone? Who, exactly, is behind this giant conspiracy? Whoever dreamed up this humdinger needs to steal a page from South Park and Blame Canada!

Apparently, in one of their closed door town meetings, NASCAR officials offered up the talking point that it’s time to blame the media for the perception that the sport has become boring. They probably pointed out the grandstands are far from full and the TV ratings are down, but that sort of crap makes sponsors nervous, and nervous sponsors are less willing to write the big checks that keep your mansions stocked with Bentleys and Cheezy Poofs. And a separate meeting with the ABC/ESPN announce team must have really roasted those folks’ chestnuts on an open fire, because they were backpedaling from their comments about Talladega all afternoon at Texas.

The boy next door, Carl Edwards hinted at the theme over the radio during the race. Everyone’s most respect sage, Mark Martin, added he’d been around a long time and the racing doesn’t suck any worse than it ever did. Wow, what a stunning endorsement of what you do for a living! But if you’re going to launch a full-on assault on the media, the attack dog you want to take off the leash is Tony Stewart.

Since entering the garage area, knuckles dragging on the ground, his middle swollen like he’s carrying triplets, unshaven and with a chip on his shoulder the size of an crew cab duly loaded with two cords of firewood, Stewart has made his dislike of the media obvious. A lot of drivers have somewhat strained relations with the media, but few have resorted to actually physically assaulting said scribes. Well Mr. Stewart likes to remind people he doesn’t have time to answer stupid questions. After all, being as fabulous as he is a 24-7 challenge. (To clue Tony in: media members don’t like asking stupid people questions, either, but that’s what we get paid to do sometimes.)

Stewart can wheel a race car about as well as anyone who’s ever drawn breath on this earth, but he’s dumber than an acre of mud. When he has a point that he wants to make, he comes running to the media babbling like a holy roller seeing the first bag of rattlesnakes entering the church. But if he’s in a bad mood, don’t expect him to fulfill the same obligations other drivers who finished in the top three are expected to endure. He is, after all, TONY STEWART. We’re just “the rest of us” – privileged to be drawing breath on his planet.

Well, Mr. Stewart now claims that boring races are just a myth that the media has created and that the racing is great. If the media would just shut their yaps and unplug their keyboards, all would be well.

Frankly, I don’t think so.

I know race fans pretty well. After all, I’ve been one for 40-something years now. I hear from them not only daily but hourly. I’ve spent long afternoons seated with them on the side of the catchfence where you pay to be as opposed to the side where you get paid to be. I sit at their kitchen tables discussing the sport with them. I’m elbow-to-elbow with them at taverns, and sitting beside them on a guardrail catching a smoke while our Harleys make that ticking sound cooling off. I debate the sport and the relative worth of each event with them standing in line at the Wawa or the Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning… and most of the time, I do a lot more listening than talking.

A lot of them know who I am and what I do, but they want to talk. They’ve read what I had to say. Now they want me to hear their opinions. Funny thing is, I’ve never run into Brian France or Stewart at Dunkin’ Donuts. Come on by, guys. I’ll spring for the coffee and a sausage biscuit.

America runs on Dunkin’. You dummies are just running out of time.

Here’s what I know about stock car racing fans – or at least the fans that are left. These people are passionate about their sport (and it does, in fact, belong to them since they ultimately pay the bills that keep the circus tent erected.) They have strong opinions about it. Nothing I write, nothing any scribe can write about the sport, is going to change their passionate beliefs. I might give them some points to ponder from time to time, and they’ll wish to debate them with me via email or in the Wawa parking lot, but that’s my job as a writer.

There’s still a perception in some circles that somehow stock car racing fans are some illiterate bunch of toothless boobs tuning in on Sunday to see big wrecks. I know that not to be the case. I know surgeons, psychiatrists and priests who are stock car racing fans. And if there are fans who might not have a formal education beyond a couple years of high school, they still know their sport. They have strongly-held opinions, and they’ll debate them to their dying breath. If anyone out there thinks I have some Svengali-like power to hypnotize mass numbers of folks from all walks of life into adopting my attitude and my opinions, your estimation of my talent is light years beyond my own.

If anything, I think I feed off the fans I deal with and their attitudes more than they do mine. In my weekly race piece, the largest section is entitled “What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week.” As I prepare that section, I’m surfing the message boards I frequent seeing what the fans are talking about, what they liked about an issue or race, and what got their goat. Somewhere along the way, I’ve figured out that it’s the fans that keep me employed doing this job. You paid for the Harley (thank ya’ll, I really dig it). There’s a few drivers in NASCAR who would do well to remember they’re in the same boat – only I‘m in steerage and they‘re in the outside suite. And this boat is taking on water at an alarming rate while the crew dances on deck proclaiming all is well.

Sure, it’s the media’s fault. Keep believing that, just like the guy coughing up blood into his handkerchief keeps believing it’s seasonal allergies and not lung cancer.

Cup Racing this year has sucked. You can launch a witch hunt claiming the media is to blame, or you can start correcting the fundamental issues that are destroying the sport. These drivers and NASCAR officials can launch all the rocks at me they want. Pretty damn soon, they’re going to be tossing them at taillights disappearing towards the horizon.

Stewart once raged that NASCAR needed to get the fans out of the garage area, that it was the teams’ workspace and having all those representatives of the unwashed masses around made him claustrophobic. Now, apparently, Stewart is ready to toss the media out of the garage too. Given a couple years, I think Tony is going to like the garage area just fine. The media will be gone. The fans will be gone… a lot of the teams and drivers will be gone. He’ll have no reason to feel claustrophobic standing among those who are left studying the vast swaths of empty seats in the grandstands.

Will the last person to abandon NASCAR kindly turn out the lights on your way out the door?