It would be a glaring understatement to say that Speedweeks 2012 was one of the most unusual we’ve ever seen. Despite the excitement of the Budweiser Shootout (what feels like eons ago), the qualifying races, and the darkhorse winners we crowned in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events, the kickoff to the 2012 NASCAR season had a surreal vibe. Maybe it was the rain of last weekend – an ongoing dousing that pushed the Daytona 500 to its first-ever rainout in 54 years. Maybe it was the running of “The Great American Race” itself on Monday evening, when the sport seemed poised to show its stuff, capable of attracting unheralded numbers of curious new fans during primetime. Maybe it was the fact that Danica Patrick was getting her first real, points-paying chance to strap in, climb up on the wheel, and have at it in NASCAR’s premier division. There were so many compelling stories to follow – so many drivers and so many teams with so much to prove. Such is always the case when Speedweeks roll around come February.
The Daytona 500 is one of those sporting spectacles that falls neatly into the abyss carved out by the winter doldrums. One way in which popular culture scholars (like me) interpret the greater significance of an event like the NFL’s Super Bowl, for example, is to consider where the annual event fits into our national holiday continuum. Once the traditional activities of the recognized/established “holiday season” (Thanksgiving, Christmas and/or Hanukkah, and New Year’s) wane – the big meals, the gatherings with family and friends, the outpouring of goodwill, and such – there is a dormant period of reduced socialization. For many of us, this is the time when we try to shrink both abdominal girth and credit card debt. But since our focus come January 2nd is highly intrinsic or personal, it’s only natural for us to soon crave a need for activities that are more extrinsic or public in scope. The Super Bowl fills this need for social interaction because of where it lands on the calendar: at a point of communal downtime within the “TCE” (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter) period so often reviled by priests and pastors alike for its ability to fill our lives with diversions and commitments. Holidays tend to sap our energies through celebrations, but an event like the Super Bowl is necessary if we are to emerge from winter in some kind of emotionally healthy condition.
The Daytona 500 is also a necessary diversion at this time of year, and even more so now that “The Great American Race” has been bumped to a later week so as to not adversely interfere with professional football’s “Big Game.” While many people choose to watch the Daytona 500 in a relatively private setting – as in at home with family and selected friends, as opposed to in a more formal “party” environment with a larger group of casual acquaintances – the event’s relevance can be interpreted in very much the same way. The Daytona 500, along with its surrounding events provide an outlet for what would otherwise be a winter-generated state of depression. Like the first day of spring, the running of the Daytona 500 (and all of Speedweeks in general?) gives NASCAR fans hope for a better, brighter, and more exciting future; a new season has begun, and with it comes the promise of warmer days and competitive events at beloved speedways.
But then there was _this week’s_ running of “The Great American Race.” By the time the weekend of the 500 rolled around, we were all-too-clear on what we were likely to see once the green flag flew over the two Roush Fenway Fords leading the field. Showers of sparks and twisted sheet metal had become the common denominator of Speedweeks 2012. The seemingly-high number of accidents during the week had even trickled down into casual conversation with non-fans. My wife and I spent our Saturday evening with a small group of friends, who are not what you’d call dedicated followers of NASCAR in any sense of the word, yet the topic of general conversation eventually touched on the televised, six-o’clock news highlights of various wrecks during the week at Daytona (was it because I was in attendance?) Naturally, most of the attention was given to Danica Patrick and her last-lap, off-track excursion during her qualifying race on Thursday. That discussion soon led to a generalized declaration summarizing all of Speedweeks up until that point: “Danica seems very nice, but they all seem to be smashing a lot of race cars down there.” All I could do was look down at the table, slowly stir my bowl of chili – the spoon drifting to-and-fro like Kyle Busch in the Bud Shootout – and mutter, “Yeah.” What an astute response! “Quite the expert observation there, Captain Obvious,” I thought to myself, but what else could I have said without lapsing into a lengthy dissertation on the current state of NASCAR Nation? Any attempt at a more meaningful, analytical explanation would have fallen on deaf ears, so I kept quiet.
I guess I should consider myself lucky that these folks didn’t watch the CWTS race on Friday night, or the NNS event earlier that afternoon; one can only try to wrap their head around what those comments and questions might have been. But the rampant wreckage query seemed to be the impression created by the events of Speedweeks 2012. Monday’s rain-delayed running of the Daytona 500 during primetime, while putting NASCAR squarely in the national spotlight, also led to more finger-pointing in stunned amazement. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the fact that Matt Kenseth’s wee-hours-of-Tuesday-morning victory was the 300th NASCAR win for Roush Fenway Racing as the organization celebrates its silver anniversary, nor did it have anything to do with the fact that three winners of a combined ten Sprint Cup titles all finished lower than Danica Patrick in her big-league debut. Tuesday morning’s water-cooler topic was the fiery collision between Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 42 Target Chevrolet and a speedway jet dryer.
Some pundits believe that this event – as wildly odd as it was – was actually good for the sport because it gave people something to talk about that did not begin with “Danica” and end with “Earnhardt.” It adheres to the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but does a major jet fuel fire involving a piece of safety equipment and a driver hustling to catch the field under caution shine a positive light on the up-and-coming popularity of our new-and-improved NASCAR? I find it ironic that the surreal (there’s that word again), “Theater-of-the-Absurd” nature of Monday night’s bonfire became the iconic moment of this year’s Daytona 500. Never mind that the race featured all manner of exciting moments during green-flag laps – including the near-return of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Victory Lane for the first time in almost four years – it was Juan Pablo Montoya’s wreck and Brad Keselowski’s “live coverage” of events via Twitter during the prolonged red flag period that caught the collective attention of the nation. While it’s true that jet dryers ran almost as many laps over the weekend as did race cars, is it safe to assume that violent accidents – culminating in Montoya’s frightening spin (and the subsequent blaze) – were symbolic of the overall Speedweeks 2012 experience? I’m afraid that, for many casual observers and would-be NASCAR fans, it will be.
A NASCAR weekend is full of unusual sights, and I’m not just referring to the infield here (there’s enough unusual sights in there to start a zoo!) One summer at Pocono many, many years ago, for instance, I watched the late Neil Bonnett coast down pit road with a deer’s severed leg impaled in the grille of his car. Remember when Dale Earnhardt (with the assistance of his Chevrolet Lumina) vaporized a sea gull during the opening laps of the 1991 Daytona 500? Anything is possible when you have more than forty cars traveling closely together in excess of 190 MPH, and driver aggression does not even have to be figured into the equation. As NASCAR president Mike Helton put it, “It’s a bizarre set of circumstances.” He was speaking about the Montoya/safety truck collision near turn three, but might the same comment also refer to the overall atmosphere surrounding the absurd nature of Speedweeks 2012?
Numerous opportunities for positive publicity were skimmed over during the last two weeks in Florida. Certainly, the fickle finger of fate had much to do with the strange assortment of bumps, rubs, wrecks, flips, slides, spins, storms, fires, and comments (Tweeted or otherwise) we observed at Daytona. We’ve responded by going about, assigning blame where-and-when we think it’s due. It was the new aerodynamics package; it was the new electronic fuel injection; it was the jitters of a pressure-packed new season; it was the constant quest for new sponsorship; it was the need to pick up where the 2011 Cup Series left off. It may have very well been all of these factors swirled together.
Let’s face it: 2011 was a great year for NASCAR, but one that seemed to be largely overlooked by the mainstream sports community-at-large. Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win captured headlines, as did Jeff Gordon’s return to Victory Lane at Phoenix the following week. Tony Stewart’s march through the Chase culminated with his season-finale win at Homestead and his third Cup Series championship, but Smoke’s successes went relatively unnoticed by the average man and woman-on-the-street. Mr. and Mrs. America may have heard of Tony Stewart, and may have even been somewhat aware of his epic battle with Carl Edwards for the NASCAR title, but they were also inundated with news about many other sports, including both college and professional football. That’s why the Chase came into being in the first place – as an attempt to compete with the broader popularity of the traditional fall pastime.
And now, here we are again – shivering through the bleak and bluster of late winter (I write this as my home is being pelted with snow and freezing rain, by the way). Our resolutions of New Year’s have long been broken, as have our collective spirits after months of darkness and cold. We turn toward the warmth of Florida, towards a familiar place where a familiar event reminds us that the optimism of another season lies just ahead. We bristle with anticipation as motors roar to life, as cars line up and head toward the waving green flag that signals the end of yet another winter…
And then rain clouds move in, torrents fall, and our Sunday gives way to Monday. With an entire nation watching – even more than we might have expected for a primetime broadcast (shades of the “Blizzard of 1979” and the captive audience that helped make that year’s Daytona 500 a part of the sport’s popular history) – NASCAR rolls into a brave new season. Less than two laps in, three of the sport’s most recognized names are headed for the garage. Forty laps from the finish, a flash inferno brings out a two-hour red flag. As drivers walk and talk and tweet, viewers think about the late hour and the blaring alarm clock that will jar them awake for work in a short while. As “The Great American Race” ends with Matt Kenseth’s overtime victory, the success of the No. 17 Best Buy race team finds itself relegated to “Tomorrow’s Online Sports Update.” This result was unfortunate, but it was also real life based on unforeseen circumstances. We can only hope that more focused/less surreal days lie ahead for NASCAR. Maybe then, new fans will find truly relevant reasons to follow the sport and become an essential part of its future.
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