NASCAR Race Weekend Central

“Pure Michigan:” A Race For Revenue

The Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway was pure Kyle Busch. His pull-away win over Jimmie Johnson following a late-race restart solidified his top-seed chances for the 2011 Sprint Cup title, but – as we’ve seen during the Cup season so far – a strong performance is just that: a strong performance. The junior Busch’s six-car length victory may have looked impressive, but we’ve still got a lot of racing ahead. Despite his flashes of dominance, and a guaranteed place in the Chase, it’s far-too early to simply hand him the championship trophy.

The events surrounding Busch’s win at MIS last weekend were a combination of triumphs and tragedies, all connected to the ideology behind the “Pure Michigan” theme. I’m only stating the obvious when I write that Michigan is one of the most depressed (both emotionally and economically) states in America. The near-death of our automobile industry, and an overall loss of manufacturing jobs, has led to a near-mass exodus of residents. The urban area of Detroit is a mere shell of what it once was, with entire neighborhoods abandoned because of unemployment and the inability to pay mortgages. What used to be called “white flight” has become more like “life flight” in that diverse populations of Detroit residents are packing up and seeking new opportunities elsewhere. You want an example of this? Consider the statistic that Sunday’s race attendance at MIS was around 81,000 – down from last year’s crowd of nearly 105,000. The race was run not too far from Detroit, in what used to be a pretty populous southeastern region of the state, but the recent years of economic woes have led to fewer people with the surplus income to spend on a day at the races.

That said, the Pure Michigan 400 was a good example of how Michigan is hoping that positive publicity can breathe new life into an old condition. The race, despite what race fans may have thought about it, carried NASCAR’s momentum into the Irish Hills near Jackson. “Local” driver Brad Keselowski (a native of Rochester Hills, near Detroit) limped into Michigan on the heels (pardon that awful pun) of his storybook season; his victory at Pocono just days after a horrendous wreck at Road Atlanta captured the attention of even casual race fans all up-and-down “the mitten” that constitutes the great state of Michigan.

NASCAR’s battalion of “five fantastic first-timers” – Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, and Marcos Ambrose – were all on the entry list at MIS, bringing the nation’s sports pages to life, along with the more traditional “fan favorites” like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, the brothers Busch and some young guy named Earnhardt. After sharing several drivers with the Nationwide event across-the-border in Montreal, Sunday’s Cup event unfurled as was to be expected, with the usual schizophrenic weather conditions, numerous drivers slapping the wall, and a green-white-checkered finish. The late-race battle between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson had the potential to be a “Sunday Night Sport Report” highlight clip, but the final restart saw the No. 18 drive away from the No. 48; the photograph in Monday’s newspaper of Kyle Busch’s win was a picture of his No. 18 Toyota as it crossed the finish line of the Pure Michigan 400 – all alone – under the waving checkered flag.

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Given the current economic climate in Michigan, there has been competition to win over tourists at venues other than Michigan Speedway.

“Pure Michigan” is the name of the national marketing and promotional campaign created by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that tries to attract visitors to the state. Tourism is critical to the survival of the region in which I live and work (the Northwestern Lower Peninsula along the shores of Lake Michigan); our area is divided between agriculture (mainly cherries) and more tourist-centered attractions involving the lakeshore. When attracting visitors (and their wallets) is your primary industry, you try to do so by any means necessary. Any bright spot means a potential lure for catching additional guests. Just last week, an online poll conducted by ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” selected our area’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as “The Most Beautiful Place” in the United States, beating out other apparently “so-so looking” places like Newport, RI; Cape Cod, Ma.; and Aspen, Co.

Our region has built a pretty solid track record with “Good Morning America’s” online polls; just last year, a local creamery (Moomers Homemade Ice Cream) was voted “the best ice cream store in the country” by “GMA” viewers based on the popularity of its most famous flavor: “Cherries Moobilee” (a tasty combination of their homemade black cherry ice cream mixed with tart red cherries, swirls of fudge, and chunks of homemade brownies). Either this region has truly “best in America” attractions to offer, or we have a lot of residents with 1) free time on their hands and 2) internet access.

Talk to Cup drivers and crew chiefs, and many of them will tell you that Michigan International Speedway itself qualifies for its own “best in America” honor. The track is popular for its length, its competitive nature (a wide, decently banked, non-restrictor plate facility), its proximity to the administrative epicenter of the automobile industry, and its demand for flat-out, all-day speed. Given all this, it compounds the sadness felt when grandstands at MIS go empty with decreasing attendance numbers. This has been an all-too-common sight at Cup events across the country for the last few seasons, but in a state such as Michigan – where the residents are such devout, vocal, and loyal sports fans – seeing smaller crowds at such a big track simply adds to the general feeling of recession-driven depression affecting so much of the state.

It has been a rough summer for Michigan public/tourist-driven attractions. About a month ago, two sailors from the state died while competing in the annual Chicago-to-Mackinaw sailboat race after a severe thunderstorm capsized their vessel late at night. The two racers died in Lake Michigan near the town of Charlevoix, close to sixty miles or so north of where I live. And on the same afternoon that Kyle Busch moved one step closer to his first Sprint Cup championship, a 48-year old stuntman from Ann Arbor died after he fell while trying to wing-walk from a biplane to the landing strut of a helicopter flying nearby. The second-generation wing-walker, Todd Green, died during an air show at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County; he fell 200 feet to his death before a crowd of 75,000 spectators. Such events might be regarded as part of “Pure Michigan”, but they’re also part of what might be considered “pure fate”. There’s a little bit of destiny out there for all of us, and even though our actions can speed up or slow down the process, fate is there to keep things real.

Maybe the crowds at MIS were smaller-than-usual because there were simply too many events competing for spectator dollars. In addition to the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday, there was a Detroit Tigers game at Comerica Park that ended in a bottom-of-the-ninth, once-in-a-lifetime double play that gave the Tigers a much-needed win against the Cleveland Indians. There were also plenty of art weekends, car shows and county fairs to keep people occupied. Maybe visitors seeking fun were more apt to find it by hiking along the lakeshore, swimming at a beach, or touring a nearby winery. Maybe we need to accept the fact that NASCAR has perhaps run its course as a nationally-beloved event worthy of packed grandstands and stuffed cash registers at hotels and restaurants. With football season close-at-hand, there’s going to be even more competition for spectator attention – not just in Michigan, but in communities all across the country.

While Kyle Busch’s victory on Sunday was something to behold as part of the “Pure Michigan” marketing blitz fighting for tourism dollars, it became little more than a small blip on our regional news radar. A double-play throw from centerfield to home plate, and the public death of an air show performer made sure of that. For all the attention that usually goes along with a Kyle Busch win in the Cup Series, his recent success at MIS was more of an afterthought. Maybe it’s a good thing, since Busch will be the center of attention this weekend at Bristol, where he’s five-for-five in NASCAR races and looking to sweep his way to an eight-for-eight run of consecutive wins. Kyle Busch is typically good for headlines, and this weekend will be no different.

It was rather odd, then, to see photographs of Busch during his court appearance in Statesville, NC, the other day. While he pleaded guilty to driving 128 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, which was the proper thing to do (to plead guilty, that is – not to drive that fast in the first place), and received kudos for his many benevolent works on behalf of his community, it was Busch’s off-track appearance that caught my attention. Seeing him standing before microphones and cameras in a dark suit and tie made me think, at a very quickly mistaken first glance, that Busch was one of the lawyers who argued the speeding case. It’s always strange to see drivers “out of uniform”, so to speak, which (when they wear business-type suits) makes them look like junior partners at a law firm or insurance salesmen. At least justice was served to the Cup Series’ points leader before NASCAR gets busy in Tennessee. T-minus three races and counting until the Chase…

From Pure Michigan to Traditional Bristol, this weekend should Totally Rock. If the weather is good, the racing should be, too. Even if the crowds aren’t large, the pressure on teams most certainly will be. From the Great Lakes to great stakes, the remaining eleven spots in the “post-season” are coming into focus yet still up-for-grabs. His win at Michigan may have earned Kyle Busch a guaranteed spot (and a top seed?) in the Chase, but it’s still an awfully long haul to November.

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