NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Felix Sabates Michigan Comments Spark Outrage – & Acceptance

Last Friday, as I was hurriedly going through my daily morning ritual of taking an ugly face and making it beautiful, the clock radio on my nightstand was transmitting my local morning sports talk radio show, Bakita & Grey on 107.3 WBBL-FM in Grand Rapids. It was a typical January Michigan morning; 10 degrees, overcast and downright depressing. Glancing out my bedroom window, the road in front of my house was frosted by what looked to be a trace amount of powdered snow and road salt.

If you are from an area of the country that actually steals a glimpse of that gigantic orange fire orb in the sky, picture just about any episode of Ice Road Truckers and you’ll get an idea of the misery that that is a Great Lakes winter.

My garage door opener screeched in protest from the dried grease caused by subfreezing weather as I left for work – yes, I am one of the fortunate few in my state that is gainfully employed with a rock-solid company – when the news story that had been eluded to all morning on the radio was finally reported. NASCAR team owner Felix Sabates (minority stakeholder of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) made some rather unsavory comments regarding the state of my state, in particular regarding the two Sprint Cup dates that are hosted by Michigan International Speedway each NASCAR season.

“I mean, there’s nobody left in Detroit other than the police and the unemployed,” Sabates told the Charlotte Observer in an interview. “I’d cut Michigan off the schedule altogether. Michigan – I’m talking about the state – is never coming back to what it used to be, so why go there and throw good money after bad money?”

Ouch. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down… then white-washing him in a snow bank and taking his mittens.

Considering the hypersensitive society in which we live in today, with people’s skin as thin as 5w20 motor oil, his remarks were insensitive, insulting and unnecessarily negative, what with the start of the 2010 NASCAR season just two weeks way in Daytona. What followed was a flood of angry calls and emails from people across the state who were justifiably upset with what Sabates had said about our home.

But here’s the ugly truth. Having heard his comments and reflecting on what I had seen and read in the news the few days prior – as well as having lived the past three decades, while Sabates’s comments may not have been the most inspiring words spoken to rally the troops here in the frozen tundra… was he really that far off base?

First of all, let’s take a look at the first target Sabates took a shot at (no pun intended): the city of Detroit – once again, the murder capital of the United States for 2009. It’s home not only the most miserable sports franchise in recorded history, but also a 70% unsolved homicide rate. While Michigan struggles with a nation-leading unemployment rate cresting 14%, Detroit’s “official” figure is just under 30% – though the mayor and other civic leaders concede the jobless rate is realistically closer to 50% (the additional 20% being those who have been unemployed for so long, they have simply given up on trying to locate a new job).

Those figures are consistent with the recent losses suffered by the automotive industry over the course of the last two years, which ultimately spurred government intervention – and acquisition of General Motors and Chrysler in early 2009. In 2000, there were approximately 332,000 jobs tied to the Big Three in the Big D – today, that number has fallen to 115,000.

Those are some Grapes of Wrath-type numbers, folks. Mix in a dust bowl and you have all of the ingredients for a modern-day Steinbeck adaptation.

During the economic expansion of the new millennium, Michigan was one of the few states that missed the boat. As the decade drug on, many took the next train out of town, as 67% of moves within Michigan were people leaving the state. Keep in mind that during this same span of time California’s housing market crumbled, Las Vegas crapped out, and Louisiana and Mississippi were nearly washed off the map from a storm and flood of Old Testament proportion. The manufacturing hub of North America was barely able to survive what natural disasters and acts of God were endured and overcome elsewhere.

That being said, it’s no surprise that this has had a bit of an effect on attendance at the two stock car races nearby that were always guaranteed sellouts each and every year.

Michigan International Speedway events had traditionally been much-anticipated and circled spots on the Sprint Cup calendar. After all, they were in the backyard of the Big Three automakers. The races took on increased significance and bragging rights for those associated with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, as they welcomed and entertained hundreds and even thousands during a race weekend.

I can recall the June event in 1999 when I went with three of my friends, baking in the 90-degree heat and humidity, sitting high atop the turn 3 grandstand, smashed into each other, positioned behind some guy in a Jeff Gordon t-shirt who insisted upon each lap made by the No. 24 Monte Carlo to declare, “Rainbow Warrior, baby…. RAINBOW WARRIOR!” Where we were sitting, there was not room for one more cooler, let alone another spectator. The attendance figure posted that day was 125,000, with probably another 20,000 in the infield.

Even as late as June 2004, traveling to the race that morning with my cousin Joe, we sat motionless on I-94 for the better part of an hour, engine off, waiting for the traffic jam from Independence Day to inch forward. Upon arriving and parking about a mile away from the track, we sprinted to our seats, where I was elbow to elbow with a man who was so large and sweaty, I am convinced he was either George “The Animal” Steele or that one guy from the picture at Bristol with a No. 3 shaved into his back hair.

Again, there was not an extra seat to be had that year; grandstand attendance was cited at 160,000 with again, tens of thousands more in the infield.

Fast-forward to June 2008. Suddenly, NASCAR is not the most important thing in the world for those who are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. NASCAR instructs the drivers to not complain about the struggles of the new CoT, or voice their displeasure with the racing that had gone from manic to milquetoast in a matter of months. Gas prices were hovering around $4.50 a gallon, while recorded attendance plummeted to 115,000. Those same grandstands where my buddies and I were hunched and hung over in less than a decade earlier were as vacant as the boarded up, abandoned houses that are visible while driving into Detroit for a Tigers game at Comerica Park.

In 2009, Kid Rock was the Grand Marshal of the LifeLock 400 at MIS, but it might as well have been his buddy Bocephus, as the opening verse of “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr. came readily to mind in noting the sparsely populated frontstretch grandstand. 90,000 made it to the track this day, and from my position atop the press area on pit road between Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch’s pit stalls, that figure seemed generous.

With attendance falling by nearly half in the span of 10 years, it does give credence to Sabates questioning the retention of two dates at Michigan. After all, isn’t that how Rockingham and Darlington lost their dates? They too, were, tracks woven into the fabric of NASCAR lore, whose land-locked locales were both a deterrent and detriment to attending a race as part of a family vacation – with dates that in the case of The Rock could be less than hospitable weather-wise.

At the end of the workday last Friday, I returned to my ride and was listening to The Huge Show, which was overrun with irate callers still dismissing Sabates’s comments as scurrilous and reprehensible. About the same time the calls and emails were still pouring in, Sabates had issued the following apology:

“In an attempt at humor I made some comments about the city of Detroit and the people of Michigan that were in poor taste and that I sincerely apologize for,” Sabates said. “I have worked directly or indirectly with the auto industry for over 40 years as both an auto dealer and a NASCAR owner and it was never my intention to put down the auto industry, its workers, the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan. I have such respect for all of them.

“I am so frustrated over the challenges that this tough economy has brought to everyone in this country that I inadvertently joked about one of the areas hit the hardest. Those of us that have the luxury of getting to work in such a great sport like NASCAR owe a great deal to the city of Detroit and their support of the auto industry because without either, the sport of NASCAR would not be what it is today.

In fact, Michigan International Speedway, even in this tough environment drew an impressive 100,000 fans to the track at their last race.

“My sincerest apologies to anyone that I might have offended, it was certainly not my intent.”

As far as I was concerned, apology accepted – even though much of what he said is reinforced by our own local and state media every day.

Let’s be honest: Sabates is one of the more colorful individuals left in our sport. He is always one to speak his mind open and honestly, a gift for gab, and always makes for an interesting quote or soundbite whenever a microphone is within earshot. Was his intention truly to insult or belittle Michigan and those who live here?

Hardly.

The story doesn’t end here – in tomorrow’s newsletter’s What’s Vexing Vito, Felix Sabates puts those controversial comments into context, assessing the state of the sport, how we got to where we are today, and what needs to be done to prevent it from going belly up.

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