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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: The Lights of Miami

Huddled together against the cold, their eyes scan the horizon for the lights of the Miami cityscape. It’s been a long and sometimes perilous journey they’ve endured, and it seems like it’s lasted forever across uncharted waters the likes of which they’ve never seen before. Dispirited and increasingly concerned, they keep looking for those bright neon lights. Some are on the verge of giving up; others already have. Still others refuse to give up hope. They’ve come so far, and they’ve waited so long. They’ve suffered cruelly under a mercurial dictator who refuses to listen to his people. Things have got to be better ahead, or their hopes and dreams will be shown to be a hoax. One way or another, they know the long journey is almost over – but even the toughest of them have begun to wonder why they’ve come all this way. After all, there’s no guarantee that despite having come this far, they’ll ever be able to enter the Promised Land.

A vessel full of boat people trying to sail from Cuba to Miami? Perhaps they’re in similar straits. But in this case, I’m referring to the NASCAR fan army heading towards Homestead in their recreational vehicles and rental cars to see the end of the 2009 NASCAR season this weekend.

It sometimes seems an eternity since this season kicked off back in February with the Daytona 500. My home here in the Northeast was shrouded in snow that day. Since then, we’ve been through the spring, a wet and cool summer and the annual fall celebration of the riot of colors as the foliage across the rural horizons enchanted us. (Best viewed from the seat of a motorcycle, for the record, and there is of course only one brand of motorcycle a proud man would be seen aboard.) Now, all the leaves are brown, and once again, the skies are gray.

It’s been a big year for me. This summer I turned 50, but having reached that milestone, I’ve decided growing old beats the alternative, with all due apologies to Pete Townsend. I also underwent a major cancer scare that led to my unexplained absence here on these pages in late August and early September I never told you about. I ended up sitting here at this keyboard banging out a will rather than a racing column one weekend, genuinely convinced that the next day after my tests I was going to be told I have terminal colon cancer. To my fans and friends, all’s cool, nothing to worry about. False alarm. To my foes and detractors, sorry to disappoint you, but it appears at least for now if I’m going to check out early it’s going to be via the bike, not the cigarettes. I’m sure at least some of you reading this have had a similar health scare during your life. News that you’re going to live a while longer is a thrill, but it also changes your perspective on life… and makes you wonder why you’re wasting beautiful Sunday afternoons watching boring races when life offers such an intoxicating variety of other choices.

In the off-track automotive world, this has been an unprecedented year. Two of the Big Three had to turn to the Feds for billions of dollars in aid just to stay afloat. Ford told Obama, “We can get by without the checks right now, but if you don’t mind, set some of those corporate welfare dollars aside for us just in case we need it down the road.” Chrysler wasn’t so much sold as it was given to Fiat. Countless auto producing plants (some of which turned out the material that won World War II for the good guys) were shuttered… or will be soon. Scores of assembly line workers were added to the rolls of the unemployed. Even the once all-conquering Toyota lost money in record amounts, and if they’re not yet on the ropes, they’re at least wobbling as it turns out the frames on their trucks rust, some of their vehicles seem to accelerate uncontrollably for no reason, and the floormats in Camrys are killing people. Cash for Clunkers helped staunch the bleeding, but the economic wisdom and long-term environmental benefit of that program is something our children and grandchildren are likely to still be debating. That only seems fair, seeing as they’ll likely still be paying for the program….

On the track, the news in stock car racing was almost as grim. For years, NASCAR has tried to tout a product that was increasingly more entertainment than sport. The problem this year was that product grew increasingly less entertaining. Three years into this unholy new car experiment, you’d have thought the teams would have figured out these unseemly little son of a bitch CoT aberrations, but only one of them has. One team within that organization has got this “postseason” strategy: sort of dance for the first 26 races to get into the Chase, then let them have it right in the kisser for the last 10. It’s gotten to be like watching three of the four members of the Justice League head into a room full of straight jacketed retards (sorry, intellectually-challenged individuals) and kick their asses. No, not every season is going to be 1992. If that were the case, us oldheads wouldn’t remember 1992 so clearly. But please, Dear God in Heaven, don’t let another one be as miserable as 2009. And, God, I know I’m always asking for that next mega-sized Powerball winning lottery ticket, but it’s genuinely cool with me if you give it to Brian France, so he can buy a NFL franchise in Los Angeles and ruin the NFL rather than systematically destroy the sport I’ve loved all these decades any further. I am convinced that nothing is going to get better in this sport until Brian Zachary France, who has demonstrated the intellectual capacity of a purple butt baboon too intellectually lazy to pluck even the fruit from the lowest hanging branches, is no longer involved with NASCAR.

OK, let’s be fair. The new side-by-side system for restarts was a major step forward. It’s just too bad NASCAR constantly decides to throw bogus debris cautions to line those cars back up side-by-side and wreck some contending cars on an almost weekly basis. And the decision to standardize earlier starting times for next year is heartening. At least fans will only have to waste a majority of an afternoon, not an entire afternoon watching this foolishness. There will still be time for a family barbecue, a quick scoot ride, or a session of washing down a fistful of Valium with JD once the race ends to deaden the pain.

I live in the Philadelphia TV market. Stick and ball sports here have spent decades chanting, “Well, maybe next year.” So, hope springs eternal. I’m also a Springsteen fan. If folks who don’t like Bruce write his stuff off as “car songs” (and car songs are good!) the Boss’s true message can be summed up as “hope.” Someday, we’re going to rise above these Badlands, and they’ll start treating us good. We’ll ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands. Don’t worry, Baby, don’t you fret, we’re living in the future and none of this has happened yet. So you’re scared and you’re lonely and thinking maybe we ain’t that young anymore, show a little faith… Hope. You give up hope and you start dying, little by little, piece by piece. So yeah, I’m hoping maybe next year. Maybe next year, the racing won’t be lame. Maybe we’ll have a barnburner of a title race again. Maybe there will be a return to side-by-side racing and slingshot passing. Maybe the cars will stay right side up at Talladega. Maybe we’ll spend Sunday evenings all pumped up about the racing we watched rather than disheartened, angry, and cynical. Maybe Brian France will find an occupation he’s good at. They’re opening new Wawas all the time and need management trainees. And maybe the Eagles will win the Super Bowl. Yeah, right. I’m a Springsteen fan from Philly, but like I said, I’m also 50 now. I don’t set out milk and cookies for Santa anymore. (Well OK, so last year I did, but I really, really wanted a new Challenger and I hedged my bets by leaving a six-pack and a $50 bribe beside the milk. I figured maybe Santa would get drunk and hotwire me one.)

But optimism is for the future… not the present. Right now, it’s gotten so bad, I’m half-expecting to see a bunch of NASCAR fans leave Miami aboard a makeshift boat, heading off towards Havana thinking, “It can’t be any worse.”

So one way or another, the 2009 NASCAR season ends this weekend, which means it’s time to say good riddance to bad rubbish. For the last several seasons, by this late in the year I’ve been thinking, “OK, this is it. I’ve taken all I can take, and I can’t takes anymore. I quit.” Call it the burnout factor after a nine-month long season. But I always change my mind, and I’ve decided more than likely I’ll be back next year; after all, hope springs eternal.

But if the racing is as bad in 2010 as it was this year, it will be my final one writing about this mind-numbing stupidity – and I ain’t even promising I’ll last the season. I hear the weather in Havana is nice this time of year….

Roll, roll me away,
I’m gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep ridin’,
Keep searching till I find what’s right
And as the sunset faded
I spoke to the faintest first starlight
And I said next time
maybe next time
We’ll get it right

– Bob Seger

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