Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCARand produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five things that everyone watching a race should think about.
1. It’s not going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring.
It seems like if there’s not a finish like this one in each and every race, someone is going to say the race was “boring.” And while that ending at Darlington is certainly one for the ages, it’s not fair to hold every event up to those standards. It’s just not realistic to think every finish will be decided by a fraction of a fraction of a second. Not every race is going to feature a heated argument (on or off the track). There isn’t going to be what NASCAR likes to call a “game seven moment” every week. Heck, there isn’t a game seven moment in every game seven… some of those go down in pretty tame fashion, too. Yet if that’s the case, the entire World Series isn’t a wash.
And sure, some races are, well, less than exciting, especially if you fall for the television trap of only paying attention to the few guys at the front of the field, or one or two others who happen to be popular. That’s easy to do. After all, every fan can’t be at every race, so most people watch them on TV. But it can be avoided, at least to an extent, by muting the TV and listening to the radio broadcast, or by listening in to the teams online (which will cost you, but it gives a whole new perspective).
Often, when the leader is running away with a five-second advantage, someone is having a heated battle for position elsewhere in the pack. Someone is struggling with a car that’s plain evil. A team is making a strategy play that’s going to make them either the hero or the goat. Usually, there is something — even if the television crew doesn’t think you need to know about it. There is always a story — someone is having the run of his life, or racing with a heavy heart, or forging a new rivalry. There’s always a way to stay entertained… it’s only boring if you let it be.
2. At the end of the day, it’s about people.
Despite all the changes and the gimmicks designed to draw the ADD generation, despite the cookie-cutter tracks and the changing of the guard among drivers, the sport is still about the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into it every day. From NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver to its lowliest mechanic, it’s the people within the sport who drive it.
Unfortunately, many fans seem to spend their time and energy complaining about the drivers they don’t like instead of vocally supporting the ones they do. You can tell who some fans dislike before you have a clue as to who they cheer for. That seems backwards, especially when many of the people complaining the loudest don’t really know very much about the person they’re trying to cut down.
Not only that, but there is a group of drivers who are genuinely likeable, talented people, who most barely know of. That’s the media’s fault; most of them, especially on the television broadcasts, stick to talking about the same few contenders most of the time. Most feature stories are on drivers who are already popular, rather than introducing people to someone new. So everyone should take the time to learn the stories behind all involved in the sport… it will only make you love it more, because everyone can find someone to cheer for, and find some respect for the ones they don’t. It takes a little work to uncover the people that drive the sport, but that’s half the fun.
3. Don’t buy into the hype.
Again, many in the media, especially the ones bringing you the race on television, seem to want to tell you who to watch, who to cheer for. During a broadcast, they’ll talk up one driver or another like he or she is the best thing to come along in NASCARsince Richard Petty.
Sometimes, the talk is well deserved — if a particular driver is racing well or having an unusual day, then he or she deserves the attention. In other circumstances, not so much. This weekend’s race comes to mind — when Danica Patrick led six laps, it was talked up like she had done something truly historical. But while she was the first woman to lead a lap at Talladega, well, frankly it’s not that big a deal. 22 other drivers also led laps in the same race. In other words, leading that event wasn’t a big accomplishment in itself.
Again, it’s about finding the real stories among the ones everyone else is telling. It’s about understanding what’s truly special in the sport today (and in any era) while discovering what’s special to each and every viewer. At the end of the day, what matters to each individual fan is what matters, period.
4. Enjoy the victory lane celebration.
Some of the best and most unexpected moments come in victory lane, after the race has been run, and one driver stands above all others, at least for one day. Yes, some of it sounds scripted, and some of it is scripted. Remember, sponsors are paying a lot of money for this moment, and they deserve their mentions and their place in the hat dance. The driver who won would not have had that chance without them — so cut him a little slack when he thanks them all, says all the right things for their benefit. He’s just doing the job he’s paid to do.
But it’s the unexpected moments that make a celebration stand out. It’s the visit from another driver, the hug from a child, the pure emotion that makes each trip to victory lane different and special. You’ll never see more raw emotion than Jamie McMurray after his Daytona 500 win. Want to see Jimmie Johnson look the happiest he’s ever looked in the winner’s circle? Don’t look at his victories, but rather at the one that went to his best friend, Casey Mears. Want to see pride? Take a look at Dale Earnhardt, the day his son and namesake won for the first time. That’s the human side of racing at its best. It deserves to be looked at through fresh eyes each week.
5. Go to the track.
Finally, whether it’s the biggest Sprint Cup race of the year or a Saturday night special at the smallest local track, there’s no experience like watching cars circle the track in person. It becomes apparent that the battle is what’s important, whether it’s for the win or simply to finish the race. There’s something compelling in the song of the engines and the smell of the garage that you simply don’t see on TV.
So, before you write off racing as a sport whose ship sailed long ago, go watch a race, and remember why you loved it in the first place. Watch every battle, no matter what position it’s for. Listen to the engines and the stories. Cheer for a driver until your voice is hoarse, whether he wins or finishes last. Relish the simplicity of it all. Nobody can take that away. Nobody.
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