Boy howdy! Last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was one that fans won’t likely forget very soon. Both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races kicked it old school as the 2012 season wound down to its final events. Nothing like some blown tires and bent sheet metal to grab headlines. Fussing and fighting and whining and fining always put NASCAR squarely back on America’s sports pages.
That is, unless you’re the parent of a child in elementary school. If you’re dealing with backpacks and lunch sacks every weekday, your radar screen has likely been preoccupied with the motion picture Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
It’s an understatement of epic proportions to say that the Walt Disney Company is pretty much the lifeblood of global popular culture. From the big screen debut of Mickey Mouse in the cartoon short “Steamboat Willie” back in 1928 to the tourism and entertainment juggernaut we recognize today, one can argue that the Disney “brand” affects nearly every facet of everyday life. And it’s not just entertainment for children. Recent acquisitions by Disney have included such revered properties as Marvel Studios (think The Avengers) and – as of two weeks ago –Lucasfilm Ltd. (think Star Wars).
So is all this media movement important to NASCAR Nation? I’d say it’s plenty important.
Forget about the one-mile speedway that Disney built near its theme park/resort complex outside Orlando; that facility – to me, at least – will be remembered for only one thing: it was where (back in 1998) I took my first ride in a Sprint Cup car (the subject, perhaps, of a future essay).
As long as NASCAR has a contract with ABC and/or ESPN – both networks are owned by the Walt Disney Company – the sport will be tightly tied to Mickey.
And Mickey’s gloved grasp goes far beyond just network television, theme parks, and motion pictures; The Walt Disney Company has long been considered one of the “Big Six” worldwide multi-media conglomerates. As of 2010, according to data compiled on www.freepress.net, Disney ranked second in the organization’s “Stop Big Media” standings, coming in just behind General Electric, yet ahead of Fox/News Corp.
These companies own, operate, and control virtually all forms of media, including web content, radio networks, and publishing houses. When you consider the scope of these massive corporations and all of their access to global audiences, you see just how essential it is for NASCAR Nation to be recognized (and loved) by these multinational firms.
So there I was this last weekend – sitting in a crowded theatre at our local shopping mall with my wife and our almost-five-year old son. The lights dimmed and the three of us settled in to enjoy (hopefully) Disney’s latest masterpiece. I’m not a movie critic, so I’ll spare you my overall assessment of the film, but I can say that a fun afternoon was had by all.
For those who won’t have an opportunity to see Wreck-It Ralph, let me provide a brief summation. The story revolves around Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), an evil character in a popular video game called “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” For thirty years, Ralph’s “job” has been to wreak havoc on a high-rise apartment building. To repair the damage done by Ralph, players control “Felix, Jr.”, a handyman with a magical golden hammer who goes around fixing Ralph’s destruction while earning points. Winning the game means that Felix, Jr. earns a gold medal, while Ralph is tossed from the building’s roof. This pattern of activity frustrates Ralph to no end.
Ralph, we learn, is actually a pretty gentle soul who’s tired of always being the bad guy (he even attends group therapy sessions with other video game villains), so he sets out to become a better character. Since Felix’s gold medal represents victory, Ralph equates earning such an award with being good. He leaves the safety of his own game (arcade games connect to each other by a series of subway-like tunnels through electrical cords) to try and win a medal in another video game. As we’ve seen in countless other popular narratives, Ralph embarks on what the late cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell would call “the hero’s journey” – a tale of growth and personal discovery similar to what George Lucas created for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (the newest Disney property).
Very long story short: Ralph finds/”wins” a medal while taking part in a violent first-person shooter game and – during a hectic escape from huge cyber-bugs – winds up stuck in an Anime-inspired game called “Sugar Rush” where little girls race go-karts through a confection-coated landscape of candy and frosting. It’s here where Ralph meets Danica Patrick….
Well, not really. Who Ralph meets is a “Sugar Rush” character named Vanellope von Schweetz. Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) is a petite girl with long dark hair and hazel eyes who wears green clothing and craves the opportunity to prove herself as a racer. She’s been altered within the game’s computer code – through no fault of her own – to be little more than a technical “glitch”. Vanellope is too inconsistent to be treated as a valid character by others in the “Sugar Rush” game; her image breaks up and flickers occasionally, so she’s too dangerous to compete in the kart races that make up the game’s action. She means well, and has great ambition and self-confidence, but she’s unable to get the driving opportunity she needs.
Ralph uses his good nature and strong muscles to help Vanellope build a kart so she can compete against the other racers who laugh at her. After overcoming many obstacles (including having to learn how to drive – she “knows” she’d be a good racer – and an invasion by the aforementioned cyber-bugs), Vanellope goes on to indeed win the big race she enters in the kart she built with Ralph’s help. It turns out that Vanellope has actually been a central character in “Sugar Rush” all along (she’d been made into a glitch by another character who was jealous of her driving skills). Ralph is then celebrated for his helpful (and not destructive) talents.
By the film’s end, we learn that Vanellope was originally intended to be a princess in “Sugar Rush”. Her eventual race win causes the game to “reboot” itself, which returns von Schweetz to her rightful position as an avatar that’s popular with the young girls who play “Sugar Rush” at the video arcade. Ralph returns to “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” and continues to play “the bad guy”, but everyone understands that it’s simply the role he was intended to play…. it’s not who Ralph really is deep down inside.
While watching Wreck-It Ralph, I couldn’t help but discover a direct connection between Vanellope von Schweetz and Danica Patrick. Vanellope von Schweetz’s almost-desperate need to prove her worth as a driver echoed Patrick’s own desire over the years, especially as Danica tried to make a name in Indy Car competition.
Patrick’s mere presence affected her relationships with other drivers, much in the same way that Vanellope’s presence affected her connection to her fellow racers. I was reminded of the T-shirts that Patrick’s open-wheel teammates wore following her rookie run at Indianapolis in 2005. Buddy Rice wore one that read “Danica’s teammate”, while Vitor Meira’s was emblazoned with “Danica’s other teammate”. The attention given to Danica Patrick at Indy that year prompted the late Dan Wheldon to wear a T-shirt that read “Actually won the Indy 500”. Vanellope was similarly treated (by the other drivers in “Sugar Rush”) as a source of derision, but also – to some extent – by their inherent fears that she might actually be a serious competitor.
As Danica Patrick’s stock car fortunes continue to climb (10th in NNS and 17th in NSCS races at Phoenix last weekend), so will the media surge her presence gives to NASCAR. We saw this happen in open-wheel competition, so why won’t such recognition and devoted page space occur again once Patrick runs a full-time Cup schedule with Stewart-Haas Racing come Daytona in 2013? Her improvement in NASCAR seems to be more than good luck; it appears as though getting seat time has led to better slightly performances this season.
The learning curve in motorsports is steep and difficult, and perhaps nowhere else is it as harsh as the weekly grind of NASCAR. If Patrick continues to struggle and learn – as all new drivers and teams are wont to do – why can’t she return some of the favor and bring in new fans, new media coverage, and new enthusiasm?
Like Vanellope von Schweetz, Danica Patrick capitalized on her innate desire to climb behind the wheel and compete. At the age of ten, Patrick drove in her first kart race at Sugar River Raceway (I’m not kidding) near the town of Brodhead, Wisconsin. Not to say that Vanellope and Danica were separated at birth, but they share some very unique qualities that speak clearly to the notion that motorsports are an essential part of popular culture.
This connection grew even more tangled when it was announced that Patrick will be featured as a “playable guest character” in the new “Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed” video game that’s scheduled for release early next week (just in time for holiday shopping!). Danica will drive a “Danicar” designed for her by Mattel (the makers of “Hot Wheels”), and her avatar will be able to compete against – of all possible characters – Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph.
I guess such a tie-in is only fair since the video game character Sonic appears in Wreck-It Ralph (he appears in a public service announcement warning video game characters that they will die for real if they get killed in a game other than their own – a dire warning to Ralph!). Given the popularity of 2010’s “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing”, launching a sequel so quickly – and so laden with crossover character connections – makes perfect corporate sense. It’s like a page was stolen from the Walt Disney Company’s playbook….
Rule number one for understanding popular culture: pay attention to artifacts that encourage the largest audience possible to consume the largest amount as possible. Economic forecast notwithstanding – people will spend money on what they want (not need, but want).
So I left the theater feeling pretty good. Wreck-It Ralph was fun to watch, my wife and son enjoyed it, and I had made a discovery that felt original in its perspective on the character of Vanellope – not always easy to do when you work in the area of popular culture. As I began to write my column, I thought I’d check to see if my reasoning was, in some sense, relevant.
That’s when I stumbled across a movie review from November 1st written by Fiore Mastracci, a self-proclaimed “conservative film critic” who seeks to “cut through the Looney Liberal Left agenda in Hollywood.” Part of his negative response to Wreck-It Ralph, as published in the Pittsburgh Film Industry Examiner, included the following:
Disney is not content with simple tales and creative scripts. The agenda must be followed! Wreck It Ralph soon turns from a character’s trek of self-discovery to an affirmation of woman power and the age old Disney postulation that a princess hides inside every girl. Ralph becomes secondary to instilling in the children’s audience the superiority, physically and intellectually, of women. The thrust of the film shifts from Ralph to Vanellope and her quest to prove she is a premiere race car driver. Must be the delusional representation of the fantastical life of Danica Patrick.
I immediately thought my observations had been “pre-made” by another writer, but then I considered the focus of Mastracci’s critical comments; his concern was more about the pro-female/”girl power” perspective of the film’s plot, not any specific metaphorical connection between Vanellope von Schweetz and Danica Patrick.
The tie to Patrick, it appeared, stemmed from her everyday recognition as a female race car driver. It was a reference made in the same way that someone might refer to a fast-driving man as “Mario Andretti” – it’s not who they are, it’s simply how they act.
So, will Vanellope von Schweetz be on the starting grid for next year’s Daytona 500? Maybe it’ll depend on when Disney decides to release Wreck-It Ralph on DVD. Look at how profitable the film was at the box office last weekend.
Maybe the sequel will be titled Wreck-It Jeff….