NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: What Kind of Fan Will You Be? An Open Letter to NASCAR Fans

Dear Race Fans,

I suppose the 2010 season has officially kicked off. The Budweiser Shootout, at least, is behind us and in a scant three days, the field for the Daytona 500 will be set. The whole season – 38 weeks worth of racing – stretches ahead in front of us. But there are no points winners yet, and nobody has succumbed to mechanical failure and heartache. It all feels like new, and anything can happen as the eternal optimism of a clean slate lies before us.

However, it’s not going to be a perfect year – far from it. The issues and problems that NASCAR is facing did not go away during the offseason, no matter what you might have heard. The race tracks on the schedule, the teams at the top of the pecking order and the Chase and the Top-35 rule have not changed.

Still, the weight of those issues shouldn’t alter the fact this season feels like new. It feels fresh every year when spring comes to Daytona Beach, in full bloom before it arrives in the rest of the country a month later. Hope springs eternal in tandem with the weather, and there’s a sense of anticipation that will not be felt at any other time this year.

But if you’re not feeling that way… then something’s different inside of you. For some, it will never be the same as it once was – too much has changed, gone wrong, been fixed with a Band-Aid instead of a body cast, and will never be the same again.

That’s understandable. I see it every day: the “fixes” that haven’t worked, paired with fans’ frustration over a Chase system that just doesn’t seem to want to listen. This sport’s gotten too big, too fast, and cannot go back to the smaller, more intimate circle of friends in many respects. There is no Fountain of Youth: no matter what happens from this point forward, NASCAR cannot recover its innocence any more than anyone else can.

Sure, you have every reason and right to be bitter. It hurts to see the sport move further every day from its tradition-steeped roots, to know once-thriving racetracks lie dormant, and to watch drivers be pushed aside for younger ones, especially when it’s clear that their ability to race hasn’t diminished. It’s no easier to witness talented young drivers stand on the sidelines as some with less potential take up spots with a name, the family business sponsoring the car or a pretty face. It’s hard not to be bitter in times where the rides go to those with the dollars – not the driving expertise.

Maybe, you have watched less and less as the years have taken the sport further from what it was in the beginning. While some changes were necessary (surely no fan begrudges anyone the safety advances the decades have brought), others seemed simply an attempt to make the racing something it is not and has never been. Many of you are leaving something behind that you barely recognize anymore.

But others haven’t been fans that long. You never really saw the sport until it was thrown into the mainstream, and you were transfixed at first. All that color and sound and speed – everyone around you, it seemed, wanted to watch this once fast-growing sport. Just not anymore; and now, like many trends before, you’re losing interest, as the racing isn’t enough to make you want to stay home on Sunday.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that February day, nine years ago now, when, for numerous fans, the sport as you knew it ended with a last-lap crash that took one of the sport’s most popular personalities – and one of its greatest drivers as well. For those fans that lived through it, things have never been quite the same since that day. It took a long time before I stopped looking for that black No. 3 on the racetrack, and I often wonder how the sport would be now if things had turned out differently.

For all those reasons and more, for all types of fans it’s just not the same – and it never will be. So, what now? Does that mean that any of you, whether you have followed the sport for six years or sixty, should stop wanting it to be better? No. The moment fans stop wishing for change is the moment that change will cease to happen. But despite your best efforts, some things will not change, and there is nothing you can do about that. In fact, many things should not change, because they keep the drivers safer, and that is something you need to accept.

So where do we go from here? As the new season starts, race fans, I ask one thing of you. Don’t try to take the optimism I have for the new season from me (however misguided it may prove to be). Don’t try to take that from anybody – it should come from inside yourself. And as hard as it may be to watch sometimes, as bitter as you may be (and as I said before, with good reason), please don’t get down on those if us who want to believe that NASCAR can and will get better. That hope is what carries us through, in good times and bad, during this nine-month marathon. Be as pessimistic as you want, but don’t attempt to make everyone feel like you do. I still love the sport, despite the bruising it has given my heart on many occasions. That does not mean that I am a fan of the sanctioning body or the way they run things. That, in turn, doesn’t mean that I won’t applaud them when praise is due. I may be a member of the media, but I don’t have a company line to toe. Like many fans, I love racing. I will not, nor should I be expected to, apologize for that.

As the new season begins, remember that every driver is tied for first in points. So spend at least double the time you take putting down other drivers to cheer for your guy instead. Most drivers don’t care if you talk trash about their competition, but it means more than you know for them to hear that people are pulling for their success. Remember, the fan sitting next to you isn’t a bad person because he or she cheers for a driver you don’t like. In fact, he or she has more in common with you than you give them credit for. That person loves the sport, too, and believes in their driver enough to be there in the stands along with you. So use your energy to cheer your guy home – energy spent on hoping some other driver has a bad day is simply wasted.

The bottom line in this life is that you have two choices about any situation that comes your way: make the best of it and realize that this too shall pass, or complain and do nothing else until you drive yourself mad with anger and hurt feelings. Some fans choose the former, and still enjoy what they can in the sport. Those fans hope for change and want things to be better, but they still watch, dream, and cheer for their driver to cross the finish line first. But others select the latter path, and some of those seem to be supremely unhappy unless you can drag the rest of us down with you: berating the sport (often correctly, but also often misguidedly), degrading others for their optimism, and booing other drivers more than you cheer for your favorite.

Race fans, as 2010 begins, I hope that the racing is better than in 2009, whatever your definintion of “better” may be. I hope that you find the excitement that you once saw in the sport, or that the excitement has never dwindled. I hope your driver crosses the finish line first. But as the year unfolds, your reactions to adversity are defined solely by what’s within each of you – not with NASCAR, not with the racetracks, and not with any driver in the field.

So the next time the chips are down, I hope that you will ask yourself, what kind of race fan am I? And what kind of fan do I really want to be?

I hope you make the right choices.

Happy 2010,

Amy

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