As I was reading through the comments on this week’s Frontstretch Five (I like comments a lot, even if I don’t always agree with them), I have to admit that one thought came to mind a few times. The comments were varied, sure, and mostly thoughtfully written, and as I said, I enjoy reading through them. I enjoy connecting with race fans through my writing.
But that thought I kept having? Y’all took that column a whole lot more seriously than it was intended.
Honestly, I didn’t write it because there was nothing better to talk about, or because I think fighting in the garage is that big a deal most of the time. I chose those particular incidents because I thought they were funny. There really wasn’t a lot of analysis going on there, but there was some chuckling and the odd snort.
There’s a lot in this sport to laugh at, if you, like I, don’t take things too seriously. Life’s too short for that.
I’m not saying I don’t take racing – or my job – seriously, because I do. I genuinely care about the sport, the people in it, and their combined future. It’s infuriating, frustrating and maddening to see some of the things that have been done to the sport in the name of entertainment. If you read my columns regularly, you know I’m generally right there with you on the frustration level.
But like everything in life, racing has a lighter side. It’s usually small things, or ridiculous things, or just plain weird things. But if you don’t find something to laugh at, it’ll drive you crazy. Or at least that’s my theory.
I’ve always been a lover of stories told by a good storyteller, and racing has some great stories. From the old days when someone always seemed to end up either naked or in a swimming pool (sometimes both) to today’s crop of drivers (four guys, a kite tube and a frozen dinner come to mind; I don’t think anyone was naked and it was in the lake, not a pool, but you get the gist), there’s always something crazy to make me smile, even when the rest of the sport isn’t so funny.
At the end of the day, it’s why I still believe that there’s a lot of good to be found in a sport that’s been ravaged from within, its title tarnished and its players sterilized. It’s still about people, and people are funny, at least some of the time.
Frankly, we could stand to be shown more of the human side of racing. Not the over-edited soundbites thrown out on TV these days, but something more real. Whether it’s something small or borderline too much information, what people need to see is the human beings underneath the sponsor plugs and perfect families. What we need to hear are the stories of childhood antics, crazy wild days during coming-of-age, what happened on the plane after the race last week. What fans should see and know is their racing heroes not taking themselves too seriously.
That’s missing in racing these days. Sponsors seem to want fans to see only a squeaky-clean, almost monochromatic side of their drivers and crews. They want to hide the warts and stifle the genuineness. Is that good for anyone involved? Well, no, it’s not.
Take an incident that happened a few years back. Then-reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist during an offseason fall from a golf cart. Which is ridiculous enough, but realize that Johnson fell off the roof of the golf cart. Um, how? He was surfing on it. Because he was basically OK, it’s actually pretty funny. But instead of letting Johnson tell his story and letting fans laugh with (OK, more like at) him, his handlers instead tweaked the details in an apparent attempt not to make their driver look like an overgrown kid (which Johnson basically is). It was a missed opportunity for fans to connect with Johnson, who’s long been perceived as vanilla, through a completely goofy moment. Instead, he came off as the kid who fudges details when he’s caught doing something he shouldn’t, and that wasn’t the case at all.
How that situation was handled should have been a wakeup call that we’ve lost the personalities in the sport, and it’s not because nobody has one anymore, but rather because they’re kept more of a secret than the Colonel’s special blend of 11 herbs and spices. And at the end of the day, in a sport that’s about more than machinery, that’s been hugely detrimental.
During the NASCAR boom of the late 1990s, fans felt like they knew drivers personally. Whether through TV commercials or features in any of a dozen publications, fans were allowed to see drivers acting less than perfect and a lot more human. Drivers weren’t seen as vanilla, and they weren’t. They still thanked their sponsors, but they also allowed fans a glimpse at who they really were. That was all a big key to why people flocked to the sport: drivers were accessible and fun. They were approachable. Fans felt like they could sit down and have a beer with most of those guys and have a normal conversation about everyday things, sharing fish stories and laughs.
That’s changed. Maybe fans have changed, too. But in any case, when did it all get so serious? The sport itself hasn’t changed in its ultimate purpose: to see how fast a bunch of grown people can drive around in circles. The rules have changed, and that’s part of the problem. But the people have changed, too. And that’s a shame, because there are, perhaps, a number of fans who would have remained passionate if only they could have found someone to feel passionate about.
Maybe it’s time we saw the lighter side of racing once again. Life’s too short to take it too seriously. And that goes double for racing.
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