Friday at Darlington, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was asked in a press conference if he believed that attendance and ratings would improve if he won a few races. To his credit, Earnhardt answered the question and moved on, saying simply that it’s about more than one driver. As a question, it was awkward, and it put unfair pressure on a driver who already deals with too much pressure with grace. But it was something to think about. Because while it’s a stretch to think that one driver could influence ratings and track attendance to such a degree, it’s also a stretch to deny that drivers do influence these things. Drivers do affect the way fans enjoy the sport.
While it’s not as simple as one driver winning races being the sport’s savior, it’s safe to say that how a particular driver is faring at a given point in time does play a factor in many fans’ enjoyment of the sport. I mentioned this briefly in Big Six on Monday, but it warrants more thought. So much about racing comes from perspective.
I was surprised to see the complaints from fans about the long green flag run at the beginning of the race at Darlington last week, because from where I was watching in the press box, it featured some great racing. Because the race stayed under green for so long, it highlighted the racing in the pack-drivers spending several laps setting up a move and then executing it. Sometimes one would stalk the driver in front for many laps, sizing him up, watching his line and trying a different one to see if it could work for a pass. There were very few times when this was not going on; someone was always getting ready for the next move. To me, that is great racing. That manner of working each competitor in turn, sizing him up, knowing exactly where and how to make the move, and making it work when the time came was the reason I always loved watching Dale Earnhardt race.
Earnhardt, in his later years, played a race like a chess game. He reminded me of nothing so much as a big cat stalking its prey: one car at a time, methodical, efficient, and deadly. I know many people remember Earnhardt for his rough style, and that’s not something you can just forget, but I remember him much more for the way he approached each race, aware of who the next driver he had to pass was, and once that pass was made, who was next. That was the Earnhardt I admired, not the one who rattled cages and left opponents sitting in a cloud of smoke. And that was the kind of racing I saw from many drivers on Saturday night.
Perhaps part of the problem was that they simply weren’t the _right_ drivers. Because it seemed like we were watching two different races for much of the night, I spoke to some fans at Darlington, and while some said that they enjoy the racing no matter what, others said that if their favorite wasn’t in contention, it took a lot of the excitement out of the race. Some even said they’d leave a race early if the guy they wanted to see in victory lane crashed out or wasn’t a factor late in the going.
In other words, the race they saw was different from the one I saw, even though we were watching the same event.
Because I didn’t have a dog in the fight and was just watching what was in front of me, I enjoyed the race for all the battles that took place all over the track, whether it was a fight within the top 10 or one for position two laps down. I saw a lot of what I’ve always loved about the sport going on, a prolonged chess match with more than 30 players. And the fans who weren’t watching for any one driver agreed with my assessment.
On the other hand, some of the fans who didn’t enjoy the race said they were rooting for a certain driver, and that that driver hadn’t been doing as well as they liked. That in itself took some of the joy out of the race for them, especially if they disliked the drivers who ran up front. That made it even worse, like rubbing salt in a wound. Some have selected favorite drivers who usually run mid-pack, but those fans, too, wanted to see their guy in on some action. And if he wasn’t…well, the race was lacking something.
And because fans on both sides of the debate are absolutely right, no matter which way they watch a race, there isn’t anything NASCAR or anyone else can do about it. Throwing cautions when one isn’t necessary does nothing but give an impression of artificiality. Perhaps the schedule could be tweaked to favor tracks that offer more opportunity to race in the pack, like Darlington, Loudon, or Bristol, but that can’t guarantee that anyone’s driver of choice will run up front.
And television just adds insult to injury. If they don’t show the leader or the popular drivers, a huge number of fans will be dissatisfied. And if they don’t show the racing in the pack, the rest will complain. It’s a no-win situation.
For me, a couple of other experiences really shaped my opinion of the racing at Darlington. One, I was there, and because of that, I could enjoy the racing I wanted to see without being forced into an angle by the television broadcast. All of the fans I heard from agreed that being at the track gives a different perspective, and that it’s important to remember that on TV, you see only what the producers want you to see. All said the racing was better in person. If you can’t get out to a Cup race, give your local track a shot-you’ll see some great racing that’s not encumbered by a television producer.
The other thing that gave me a whole new outlook on the race last week was having the chance to ride around the track in the pace car with Brett Bodine. Those two laps really opened my eyes as to just how difficult the Lady in Black is to get around. Brett explained how the drivers run the laps, and though we never got as close to the wall as they do in the race, it was nerve-wracking just getting as close as we did. Getting onto pit road took all of Brett’s concentration, and we were going perhaps 50 to 70 MPH slower than the racecars. It gave me a deep respect for how hard those drivers, whether they finish first or 31st, work for 500 miles. If anyone gets the chance to do a ride-along at any track, from local on up, through a driving school or other program, even if it’s driving your car at 65 on the racing surface, it will give a whole new appreciation for what these drivers do every week-and they do it for hours on end.
Because fans watch races from different angles, expecting different things, it makes NASCAR’s job incredibly difficult. Because groups of fans are looking for different things from a race, the sanctioning body is put in the position where if they make the cars racier, it will make the fans who watch the whole race for the race happy, but not the fans who’s favorite drivers may struggle with a new package. And if they find debris to tighten the field up and give more people’s favorite drivers a better shot, the purists feel cheated out of an unmarred race.
What it boils down to is that there are several ways of watching a race, and often, these end up at odds with each other, someone is unhappy with the race and the outcome. No way is right and no way is wrong. In an ideal world, each fan would watch one race from the other’s eyes, but in the end, the best fans can hope for is that at the end of the day, there is something for everyone. And usually, there is. It’s all about perspective.
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