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Everything happens for a reason, or so they say….
But then how does that explain the behavior of a fan at Richmond last Saturday night who climbed to the top of the catchfence near turn 4 and put not only his own safety, but the safety of Sprint Cup drivers circling the track below, at risk in what could have become tragic circumstances?
Maybe the tragedy already occurred. Maybe the man’s actions were motivated by the quality of the competition he paid to see.
Consider the facts as we know them. Friday’s running of the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 in the Nationwide Series was yet another edition of “The Kyle Busch Show.” Busch led all 250 laps in a thrashing of the field. File this race under “Ho Hum”…
Then, on Saturday night, Brad Keselowski dominated the Federated Auto Parts 400 in the Sprint Cup Series. “Bad Brad” kept the Blue Deuce atop the field for 383 of the 400 circuits, swapping the front spot four times with one other driver (Kevin Harvick). Given Kyle Busch’s performance on Friday, Brad Keselowski’s run the following night looked positively competitive – another car actually took the lead a whole two times!
No wonder James Dennis climbed the fence with about seventy laps to go…
Not to say that Dennis the Menace didn’t have a little liquid courage to spur him on. Most spectator misbehavior begins with the popping of a top; it’s not too long before a “Hey, y’all; watch this!” moment ensues. I don’t mean to rain on Mr. Dennis’ alcohol-soaked parade at Richmond, but the only thing he did right was to pull his stunt at a track where most folks along the frontstretch could see his ascent to NASCAR folklore.
NASCAR Nation is loaded with fans (pardon the pun) who lack better judgment when 1) they’re seated near a cooler of beer and 2) watching a race that’s so boring getting smashed is actually a positive alternative. Who wants to recollect a dull weekend at the track when you can relive drunken exploits through hilarious stories told by your family and friends?
As a native of northeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve spent most of my racing life around Pocono Raceway. Given that Pocono has been vilified in recent years for hosting dull events – so much so that Cup races there have been shortened by 40 laps – it should be no surprise that fans at the “Tricky Triangle” have been known to get a tad loose (in the non-racing vernacular). While that doesn’t say much about the current quality of racing in NASCAR, it does say a lot about how “mainstream” society regards NASCAR fans.
Many longtime citizens of NASCAR Nation will remember the fan who jumped the fence at Pocono back in 1993 and ran onto the track surface in front of Davey Allison and Kyle Petty. After dodging Winston Cup cars traveling 160 miles per hour, the man – Pennsylvania native Chad Kohl – ran and hid in a nearby swamp until arrested by police.
Kohl told police, according to several newspaper reports, that he overindulged on Coors Light before jumping the fence and getting up close and personal to the action. Hey, maybe it was the media attention Kohl received that inspired the brand to sponsor Sterling Marlin about a decade later…
Then, there was the woman who removed all of her clothing in order to meet Dale Earnhardt Sr. It was 1996, and I was shooting photos at Pocono for my 1997 book about NASCAR. Guys in the media lounge were laughing about this woman who staggered up to the fence near the garage area and started talking to a man in a GM Goodwrench crew shirt. The woman was a huge Earnhardt fan and she was willing to “do anything” to meet her favorite driver.
After assessing the situation, the man in the Goodwrench shirt made her a deal: if she removed all of her clothes right there, he’d take her to meet the Intimidator. The woman drunkenly complied, but never got to meet her hero. It turned out the man in the Goodwrench shirt only changed oil at a GM Goodwrench service center; he wasn’t on Earnhardt’s pit crew, but his work shirt sure looked a lot like the ones the No. 3 team wore. Another less than shining moment for NASCAR Nation…
Over the decades, I’ve seen shirtless fans wearing hollowed-out watermelons over their heads like masks, and I’ve seen impromptu mud bog races in infields that needed police intervention to stop the show. My mother and father were flipped off by a little boy at Atlanta back in the late 1980s, and I watched (in 2002) as a grade school-aged boy strolled with his parents through a Las Vegas casino at 11 p.m. – the boy dressed from head to toe in Viagra race team apparel.
Hence the way people tend to respond to NASCAR. Poor television ratings and decreased attendance aside, stories like that of James Dennis at Richmond last weekend make mainstream acceptance of our sport even harder to achieve. There’s a stereotype of NASCAR fans that is difficult to overcome whenever a spectator goes and does something stupid in front of the media. Toss in today’s smartphone society, and now everyone’s a reporter capable of filming bad behavior, then posting it almost immediately for all who are interested to see.
Not that NASCAR corners the market on fans behaving badly, but it seems like drunkenness matches drafting whenever the sport pitches its tent. If NASCAR wants to regain the prominence it enjoyed during its glory days of the 1990s, it can start by paying closer attention to the fans in the stands.
Or maybe NASCAR can start by giving fans more to watch once the green flag drops…
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