We’ve crossed the halfway point of the 2011 Sprint Cup “regular” season. Take away the ten events in the almighty Chase, and we’re suddenly staring down the barrel of the twelve races that’ll decide who runs for the money and who runs for the show. If the second half of the season is anything like the first half, NASCAR fans will be too exhausted to pay much attention to who’s challenging for the big prize. Our collective typing fingers, call-in-radio-show voices, and blurry eyesight will keep us from concentrating on the matter at hand – the “post-season” spectacle designed to steal away the hearts and minds and television ratings of football fans across the nation.
As summer approaches, an analogy comes to mind regarding the NASCAR season we’ve witnessed thus far; as I ponder the progression of 2011 as played out on the racetracks of America, a nostalgic image – an ideal formed from the memories of childhood – appears. I hearken back to the days of summer when the county fair would set up in a dusty, worn-down pasture near the outskirts of town. Not unlike John Mellencamp, I was born and raised in a small town. Heck, I’ve always lived in a small town. I currently live in a small town on the northern shores of Lake Michigan – so small, in fact, that it’s officially designated as a “village”. As such, county fairs have always been part of my annual social calendar. The exhibits, the entertainment, and the food have left an indelible mark on my psyche, as well as my waistline. This year’s goings-on in NASCAR are presently doing the same thing, minus the waistline deal (that’s all my doing; Brian France and company can rest easy).
Consider, if you will, what a county fair (or a state one, for that matter) involves. The overall intent of a fair is twofold. First of all, it’s a way to commemorate and celebrate the accomplishments of proud and talented individuals from within your own community. Whether you sewed a beautiful quilt, baked a glorious pie, or grew an enormous pumpkin, the fair offers an outlet for display, competition, and recognition. Such accomplishments are celebrated and rewarded.
The second objective of a fair is to provide entertainment and diversions for a community (be it large or small) in need of a break from the tedious demands of everyday life. For a child actively involved in 4-H, for a kid who spends most of their time working around their farm or working on their studies in school, a week at the fair is a much-anticipated event. Taking part in competition, like showing an animal they’ve raised and prepared, is a welcome escape from their customary life, the weeks and months doing work for others. The same is true for adults who see the fair as a brief respite from the mundane. In a rural community, the county fair can be a highlight of the year.
The 2011 edition of NASCAR competition has already added plenty of highlights to our collective memories, and we’re only fourteen races into the season. Nine different drivers have visited victory lane in the Cup series, while new names are working their way into the record books of both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck divisions. We’ve seen breath-taking finishes, historic achievements, and no shortage of both physical and emotional fireworks…. and it’s not even July 4th yet. NASCAR Nation circa 2011 has already exceeded most people’s expectations, with a scramble to the Chase looming ahead. As such, we’re approaching that time of year when communities settle down for some much-needed relaxation and all-important mid-year diversion. Such is the time of year when one’s mind wanders toward fairs and festivals and what they provide to their audiences. From the looks of current events going on within NASCAR, I’d say we’ve reached that point in racing, as well.
If county fairs celebrate and reward accomplishments, then the 2011 season has plenty to cheer about. From Trevor Bayne’s “Cinderella” win in the Daytona 500, to Regan Smith’s victory in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington, to David Ragan’s success in the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte, we’ve enjoyed a season of new names in new places – like victory lane at some tough tracks in some tough events. Toss in the success of Jeff Gordon at Phoenix and Pocono, and a historic run by Danica Patrick at Las Vegas to break a 62-year old NASCAR record, and suddenly we’re hanging blue ribbons all-around. The resurgence of Penske South Racing over recent weeks has been fun to watch, especially following the wake of how said resurgence took shape (more on that later).
The turn-of-events experienced by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Steve Letarte, and the entire No. 88 Hendrick racing team is another achievement worthy of celebration. Despite not notching a victory (yet), the No. 88 team has been more consistent, more competitive, and more impressive than we’ve seen them in past years; sitting third in the Cup points standings despite not winning a race (yet) is nothing if not a celebration of competitive consistency. As this coming weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway marks the third anniversary of Junior’s last Cup win, and given the fairly positive energy seeping through NASCAR’s top division this season, might the time be right for the No. 88 team to earn a blue ribbon of their own and place their names on the roster of winners for 2011?
And the award-worthy performances just keep on coming. When you think about Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and his breakthrough win in the Nationwide race at Iowa, and Justin Allgaier’s recent, fuel-starved coast to victory at Chicagoland, the long list of accomplishments calling for our recognition just keeps coming. Combine solid runs in the CWTS by seasoned veterans like Ron Hornaday, Jr. and (believe it or not) Kyle Busch with top-ten showings by younger drivers such as Cole Whitt, James Buescher, and Matt Crafton, and suddenly there’s more to celebrate. Add a strong 11th-place finish by Johanna Long at Texas last Friday night, and perhaps we now have yet another competitive female driver to reckon with in a national touring series? The times seem to be changing for the better.
The overall, upbeat nature within NASCAR thus far, however, goes well beyond victory lane. County fairs are often showcases for the newest in advances designed to make your work and your life easier. As a kid, I used to spend hours climbing all over the latest in tractors and farm equipment (in fact, I still do, even though I haven’t driven a farm tractor in years). Seeing new ways to do old chores was part of the magic at the county fair; it allowed people to believe in the idea that newer was often better, and that change was actually something to embrace.
We’re seeing that now in NASCAR. The addition of ethanol fuel has suddenly allowed people to use the terms “environmental concerns” and “NASCAR” in the same sentence, even though the new vented fueling system has added challenges to what used to be a pretty simple (though wasteful) task. Development of the unique “single point dry break” dump can has made refueling during pit stops both slower to do and more difficult to insure, but it’s also made this necessary job a bit more environmentally-responsible. Many of the fuel mileage issues we’ve seen in 2011 seem to come from the complexities of this new “green-minded” approach, but this is also part of why so many of us love racing; creating and mastering new practices and procedures to meet the demands of such developments allows crewmen to play an even larger role in the success of their race team, and that’s highly cool.
Other advances also affect the general nature of NASCAR competition, even for those of us who spend race days glued to a couch. On-track changes like new nose pieces have made airflow a concern, bringing rejuvenated attention to the age-old issue of keeping engines cooler, and the controversy over “clean” versus “dirty” air. On the spectator front, 2011 has given fans the “split-screen” television commercial – an attempt to satisfy both the sponsors and the consumers who spend their hard-earned and precious dollars on them. Satellite radio has brought in-car communications to its listeners, allowing fans to eavesdrop on discussions between drivers, crew chiefs, and even NASCAR officials. This development provides fans with an intimate, audio relationship with the competitors, their race teams, and the administrators who police all the action; this nationally-available opportunity also forces everyone involved to accept a new level of transparency – an “open door”, of sorts, that makes NASCAR a more egalitarian community. Scanners have been part of the fan experience for many years; now it’s possible to “share the love” without even being in the same time zone as the track.
Unfortunately, such intimacy often comes with a price. This closeness has also been part of the 2011 season so far – our opportunity to observe and critique the behaviors of competitors and to witness the odd twists-and-turns that make up our NASCAR Nation.
It’s like the sideshow tents we’d see at the county fair. As kids, my friends and I would challenge each other to test our courage; we’d pay our admissions and walk cautiously behind the waving curtains that separated all of us from all of them: the unusual and the freakish; the odd and the often-horrific. Of course, much of our anxiety came from the innocence of our youthful ages and the tests of bravery we put ourselves up against. Our county fair was quite small, so for every dog-faced boy and human pin-cushion, there was also a good chance you’d get to see a dancing chicken (the formula: one chicken + one hot plate + snappy music = entertainment for the middle-school masses) or a talking bird (a good place to learn the latest in profanity, too, if you timed your visit properly). It was a place to stare, a place to shriek, and a place to laugh…. much like the 2011 NASCAR season so far.
Consider what’s been going on in Brian France’s traveling show. We’ve had pit road “bump-and-grind” shows, verbal criticism of teammates, in-car radio tirades against crews and owners (here’s the Penske connection mentioned earlier), and fisticuffs of several types – from the Ryan Newman/Juan Pablo Montoya “punch” (the quotation marks mean it was implied) to the Richard Childress/Kyle Busch headlock WITH punches (nothing implied here, by the way). In addition to such entertainments, we’ve also had Kyle Busch clocked at 128 on a local road between Troutman and Mooresville (near where my oldest daughter goes to school, so drive carefully), and a CWTS driver and crew fired (then abandoned!) at the track by an unhappy owner. Toss in some NASCAR-issued warnings for rough driving (guess who?) at Pocono, and an R&D shop “time out” for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota following a failed post-race inspection, and it’s about time to go out and grab a corndog. You can bet your deep-fried elephant ears that we’ll see more of this behavior as the point standings (and many team budgets) continue to tighten.
But is this not what going to a county fair means? Is this not the opportunity to see new sights and enjoy new experiences? As life becomes more predictable, isn’t it necessary to tramp through the dust, smell the grease, and look for attractions both noble and nutty from time-to-time? Such diversions do us good by reaffirming our humanity, by letting us see what’s new while restoring our ties to that which is old. For all of the excitement and controversy we’ve seen in NASCAR 2011 so far, the season resembles much of what we’ve come to know and love within the business of stock car racing.
We’ve seen the escalation of rivalries, something that’s vital to the highly-personal nature of the sport. We’ve also seen typical behaviors from teams that exist within a sport so closely tied to corporate interests. We’ve seen teams find victory lane, we’ve seen teams struggle to stay afloat, and we’ve seen “old” teams find new success through an infusion of new faces, new ideas, and new enthusiasm. Even though television ratings and event attendance struggle to find traction in this current era, the stories we’ve witnessed so far in 2011 have been the stuff of “old school” NASCAR, the sport as so many of us came to know it over the years.
Maybe that’s why the county fair analogy works so well here. A county fair lets us celebrate our past while acknowledging our present. It rewards accomplishments with ribbons and accolades, while entertaining us with spectacle and a glimpse into what our lives could be. For every blue ribbon-winning pie, for every new piece of farm equipment, and for every dancing chicken, there’s a touch of celebration and a bit of much-needed escape. Without such diversions, we’d be lesser people, less of a community, and less apt to step away from the pressures of our everyday lives. The present condition of NASCAR Nation 2011 looks pretty healthy, and we still have 22 weekends of fun yet to go.
Guess it’s time to grab another corndog….
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