NASCAR is a sport of machines, but it’s also a sport of people. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is which, though, because there is often very little emotion involved. It’s almost jarring when a driver does show emotion, because it’s a rarity.
I’m not talking about being excited they won but rather the human side of the sport. You often see it when something goes horribly awry, as was displayed by the drivers who were close to Bryan Clauson after his death, but even that seemed scripted at times. Human beings feel things, but sometimes it seems as though sponsors, or a person’s own inhibition don’t want anybody to know that.
And to a large degree, it is because of sponsors. These days, if you want to race at NASCAR’s upper levels, you have to bring money, and lots of it. And in order to attract it, drivers have to act a certain way.
They hire entire firms to help them cultivate an image. And somewhere along the way, someone tells them they can’t do the things that endear them to fans, which seems like bad marketing to me, but I’m not making six figures telling people to be totally boring, either. One reason NASCAR appealed to fans for many years was the impression that the drivers were like them, sometimes a little coarse, a little wild. A little naked in a hotel swimming pool. OK, maybe we don’t need to go that far, but when drivers come across as white collar and wealthy, it changes the way fans see them…and not for the better.
2. All those guys
Several years ago, when NASCAR was riding the wave of being the latest fad, there was a push to introduce people on the teams other than the drivers to the fans. That seems to have largely tapered off, which is too bad. There are so many people who contribute to a team’s success or failure, and they should be a part of the show.
There are lots of crewmen in the garage who are outgoing and personable. Some take time to talk with fans who are interested, which is excellent, especially when those fans are kids. Driving isn’t in the cards for everyone, and showing possible future crewmen a glimpse behind the scenes, decidedly less glamorous in the garage than a driver’s motorhome but infinitely more interesting, would give them a complete picture of a sport that’s exciting even in the garage. The more connections fans feel they have with the sport, the better it is for the sport, and spotlighting the crewmen more would be a great way to forge them.
Nobody likes an innovator. Fans tend to call them cheaters, but the reality is that crews have been pushing the envelope since the dawn of the sport and it’s part of the game.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying NASCAR shouldn’t punish heavily when they get caught, because they should. The difference is that back in the day, there was a slimmer rule book with more grey area and now every little thing is spelled out in black and white. Teams have less choice in things like suspensions, gears and geometry than ever before, and the on-track product suffers.
Now, some areas shouldn’t be open to creative engineering, like engines and mostly bodies, but others should. No, teams shouldn’t be allowed to do anything and everything, but more areas with a wider workspace would make the competition better at the end of the day.
The other thing that the wider workspace teams used to enjoy was a higher risk of attrition. Sure, you could try that ultra-fast gear, but it might not make the finish. Those great shocks might help the car turn like it’s on rails, but if they only last 450 miles and it’s a 500-mile race, well, it’s a risk a team might take in order to win.
Teams took chances and gambled and sometimes it paid off, while other times it didn’t. But because not everyone was doing the exact same thing in all areas, fans could believe that the right strategy could help their guy be successful. Now, fans tire of the same teams doing the same things week after week, but they have little choice in the matter because the choices and gambles are fewer each year.
The risk of attrition adds to the excitement of watching a race. The question mark of whether that team with the super-fast car can make it to the end is a story worth following. That team might dominate all day and win in a runaway. Or, they might see the day go up in a puff of smoke a hundred laps too soon. Uncertainty makes races interesting, and today’s ultra-durable cars leave very little uncertainty.
5. Big-ass coolers
Yes, there are some practical reasons for the post-9/11 fan guidelines, but let’s face it: Some of those were awfully convenient for the race tracks too. By limiting fans to a small, soft-sided cooler, they can add to their concession sales when the fans’ stashes run out. Once upon a time, there were cooler dimension rules, but as long as they didn’t encroach on the neighboring fans, enforcement was generally fairly lax. And even then, if the cooler was shared with those neighboring fans, there weren’t many complaints.
Racing is expensive, and it would go a long way for tracks to allow fans to bring more of their own provisions. Bags are inspected anyway, so safety is a pretty lame excuse for not allowing fans more choice in what they bring in. Glass bottles and umbrellas are no-brainer no-nos, and an argument could be made for limiting the quantity of alcoholic beverages accepted, but fans were bringing in bigger coolers and backpacks full of snacks and extra sweatshirts and the like. The stands were shoulder to shoulder packed when they were allowed, and it still worked out fine. Most crowds are lighter, so there is no longer a reason not to let fans bring their items in as long as those items are safe.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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