For a sportswriter, even in this age of social media, I find myself a pretty private person. As I see it, you’re here for me to write about why Tony Stewart’s a little off this year, not about what I did on my off weekend. You want pictures of Kyle Larson’s Target car, not me buying groceries at Target or walking to my car right outside of it. For years, I’ve been fascinated by how people want to know these mundane details of what to me is a pretty normal life. I am a sportswriter the same way someone else is a secretary and another person thrives as a teacher. I feel lucky to have the career I do, covering people far more famous than I’ll ever be, and I’ve stumbled upon some pretty amazing experiences. On-air TV. On-air radio. Nine Daytona 500s attended in person. For well over a decade, my passion and my career have been largely the same.
And then, like a tornado, for the first time my personal life altered my usual routine. I got back from the Daytona 500 this year, pumped about a number of racing-related opportunities and instead, a tornado of tough times was sitting there waiting for me. There was a family situation I had to deal with, the end to a serious relationship I cherished, work chaos and a potential move. I was stuck juggling too many balls in the air, trying to keep it all in motion when I hadn’t even taken a juggling class. In the course of a few weeks, my private world had done what leaving NASCAR television, a few awkward claps, and even previous personal crises had never done.
My passion for the sport was gone. I could sense it in every word I wrote, every managerial email I sent. The albatross of indifference sat with me through Sundays where I had my hand on the Twitter button and just wouldn’t type a word. Branding myself, a necessity for any modern day journalist, had become a mixture of silence and staving off depression from circumstances that had nothing to do with cars going around in circles. It just wasn’t high on the priority list anymore, especially with NASCAR a smaller part of my overall career portfolio. Heck, it wasn’t even on the priority list.
Recognizing that, for the first time I stepped away from a website I have owned and put my blood, sweat, and tears into for the better part of a decade. The past few months away from the sport (aside from one small column for another client) had to happen; they were also incredibly difficult. A career where I had carved out tremendous satisfaction, one I once thought would be my life’s work was now sitting on a virtual shelf. On Sundays, my race weekends now came paired with next to no obligations for the first time since I was a senior in college. As a Type A personality, I was separated from my staff, left to sift through feelings and work on the most important part of life you’ll ever need be a fan of: yourself.
That’s what I’ve done, emerging back from a low point with a new sense of energy and resolve. It took time, and I have a brand new appreciation for those who have suffered through depression for major portions of their lives. Thankfully, I was able to emerge from my funk without the need of anti-depressants, but there are so many out there not so lucky. More than ever, especially in an age where technology breeds isolation, I urge you to take that extra step and ask a simple question to a co-worker, family member or friend that might be struggling: “How are you?” Life is precious, as we’ve seen with the passing of Steve Byrnes in the NASCAR community these past few months and no one should have to spend it in suffering. The more happy people can spread their happiness, helping those in need the better off we’ll all be.
But I digress, for like I claimed at the beginning you read me to read NASCAR, not my personal life. During this time period, especially with how the sport has changed over the last decade, I legitimately spent time wondering whether my passion for it would return. The NASCAR garage I entered in 2006, a wide-eyed 25-year-old ready to conquer the world, is now worlds apart from what we have in 2015. We’ve been through multiple tweaks of the Chase, ownership is consolidated and aero push remains a major hindrance to competition. Would watching races with nothing to manage give me the same sense of general excitement to be a part of the sport?
For me, as my personal recovery normalized the answer was a resounding yes. Watching Kansas, my last weekend off, provided the type of excitement we need more of on 1.5-mile ovals. You had the scintillating debut of Erik Jones, a rookie who looked at one point he could finish as high as third or fourth place. There was the saga of Martin Truex Jr., left for dead by the end of last year only to surge to second in the point standings in this one. The cars were capable of passing, not pretending and it was clear the rules package had produced some progress. I turned off the television ready to jump back into my management role, to put the effort back into covering this sport and helping my website grow.
The passion was back, and I mention that because in my time off, relegated to watching from the sidelines that appears to be what’s missing in NASCAR these days. When the Wells Report came out from the NFL, accusing Tom Brady of all these misdeeds, the heated debate on both sides has filled up sports radio. When LeBron James hit a buzzer-beater yesterday, people went crazy about a series of controversial calls at the end of that NBA playoff game which may have tilted things in the Cavaliers’ favor. The NHL playoffs have been a long list of overtime winners and heart-stopping moments that get fans amped up to watch.
When we compare that to NASCAR right now, where the ratings have sagged much of the season ,the storylines just haven’t carried that same sense of punch. The ones that have, like Kyle Busch’s Daytona injury and what we’re going to do about SAFER barriers come with the type of one-sided argument that doesn’t incite conversation. What, you’re going to argue that NASCAR racing is safe enough? We can never be too safe and the sport can never spend enough money to try and prevent those type of injuries. Other concerns, like Kurt Busch’s domestic violence case have challenged the image of stock car racing as a family sport. Those opinions don’t pump up the sport as much as fight against a negative perception to tear it down.
Passion, in the form of making the Chase, is muted these days with so many drivers guaranteed an invite. At the moment, none of the drivers in contention raises an eyebrow with the exception of Danica Patrick. The Jimmie Johnson – Kevin Harvick battle, played out this season on intermediates should be compelling in the fall but doesn’t have the same type of ring to it during the regular season. Without many photo finishes this season, fans have less to get up in arms about, less reason to spend Monday morning coffee breaks hyping up the sport to friends and colleagues they don’t know about.
How do we get that passion back in the sport? I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but I can make an observation. Taking a step back allowed me to appreciate the sport in a different way, taking it in as if it was brand new. Right now, so much of what we have in the sport is so… old news. Johnson? Six titles. Harvick? First or second every week. Other than Truex, the entire top 10 in points is littered with drivers you’d expect to be championship contenders. The manufacturers have been the same for years; the owners are simply getting older, not more diverse. That’s why the debut of Jones combined with Larson reemerging were important variables for the sport Saturday night. They were new storylines, exciting drives to the front that got fans to stand on their feet and start conversations as to who these young people are.
For NASCAR to capture a new generation of fans, that’s what they have to do: find some way to drive new conversation. Passion drives emotion, which is what connects someone to a sport for months, years, decades. Add in the “buzz” factor that is needed to capture a generation with too many choices and you’ll see the road ahead is not easy. But with the right plan, the right athletes and the right competition, it can be done.
In the meantime, I’m happy to return with a fresh outlook and a fresh take on covering the sport. Thanks to my staff for keeping the fire burning here; now, it’s time to pour some logs on myself all over again. And my wish for you, readers? You discover the same type of passion in your own life. Live each moment being the best you can be, pursuing the hobbies and personal connections you want because tomorrow is never promised to anyone.
Onward and upward.