(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Teddy Roosevelt and Stock Car Racing: A Corollary

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who come short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

As one of those critics, and as a writer whose beat is not the big leagues but the development ranks of stock car racing, formerly the Xfinity Series and now, in 2018, the ARCA Racing Series, this is a powerful quotation that I keep in my trackside notebook. It’s a stern and constant reminder not only of my role as a writer, by definition an observer, but also of the constant tension that comes with covering the development ranks…and the perspective that one must maintain in doing so.

The majority of the teams racing at this level do not have millions of dollars in resources to continually develop new race cars. Many of the drivers do not have years of experience driving cars of comparable horsepower, in fields that often exceed the car counts seen at hometown short tracks. And be they truckers taking every waking moment they have off the road to come race, be it for two laps or 200, or youngsters fortunate enough to have backing come from friends or family, these teams and drivers are the men in the arena. Their efforts, in whatever form they take, are truly what matters, what counts.

This has to be balanced though with the reality that professional racing is a product that must be marketable to fans and sponsors alike. At day’s end, if there aren’t butts in the stands and TVs tuned in, racing for a living goes from a dream profession pursued by many to a hobby.

And even at the ARCA level, where weekly, one can see engineers and construction workers suiting up to race against accomplished extreme sportsmen, short trackers and those rapidly climbing NASCAR’s ladder, this is a professional entity. Half of the series’ races are televised on FOX networks. Half of the series’ schedule tackles, not local bullrings and Illinois dirt tracks, but the biggest and fastest superspeedways the United States has to offer. It’s single-A-ball, but it’s a professional sport. 

Covering ARCA this year has been a truly eye-opening experience as a writer. Much of the racing the series has put on thus far in 2018 rivals anything NASCAR has put on the track, be it Joe Graf Jr. and Zane Smith’s photo finish at Talladega Superspeedway or Christian Eckes’ out-dueling 15-year-old Chandler Smith to victory on the high banks of Salem Speedway. Much of what is heard on team radios would never be heard on NASCAR radios, be it line by line instruction-manual level guidance on how to use fans or secondary team channels that have crew chiefs, who seconds ago were cheerleading their drivers, cursing in exasperated tones to spotters and crews, begging for veteran feedback on what the driver and car is actually doing. And there’s no more polar extreme than racing 200 laps on a short track in Salem, Ind., only to five days later be running restrictor plate cars at Talladega. 

But as enjoyable of an experience as it has been, both as a race fan and as a writer on a beat a bit more off the beaten path, maintaining perspective has been a trying exercise at times. While listening to minutes of radio traffic about when to turn fans on and off can sound trivial and amateurish, it’s something that does have to be learned. While it can be frustrating and even amusing to watch a driver spin three times in a single event or miss marks lap after lap after lap (as half the field was doing in Michigan last week), driving cars this powerful and fast as is required to race at this level is really, really hard.

I got a kick in the teeth reminder of that this past weekend when I took a trip down to Nashville to partake in a Rusty Wallace Driving Experience at the now-closed Nashville Superspeedway that’s doubling as a parking lot for new Nissans built nearby.

Don’t for one second sit there and accuse me of equating this to making competitive laps in a race car. I’m not. My car had a 500-horsepower engine, not 800. The rev limiter was set at 4800 RPM in fourth gear, not 8800. And I was making laps with four cars evenly spaced around the track, not 40 actually trying to pass each other. Still, it took everything I had focus- and courage-wise to push the car on the concrete, to run speeds that were at best 30-40 mph below the last pole speed one at Nashville. 

My first thought exiting my race car, after high-fiving the crew that pulled my HANS-device off, went straight to the drivers I cover every week, in utter amazement of just how hard they’re actually driving to put on these shows. Credit to the men in the arena indeed.

There’s a corollary to admiring these skills, to taking the exploits of these drivers seriously…and that is considering the consequences their actions can have on a race. Credit to the men in the arena for their courage, for their efforts, for their passion to travel across the country and spend tremendous sums of money to compete in a sport that is a true risk to life and limb. But credit goes to the men in the arena for mistakes, for mishaps, for events that alter the impact of a race, and in doing so often impact the quality of the fan experience. Nowhere is this more obvious than ARCA.

It was on display on Friday in Michigan, when Con Nicolopoulos’ No. 06 car, laps down and off the pace, ran out of gas around the race’s midpoint despite there having been three opportunities to pit under caution for fuel. The No. 06 team, who for their lack of resources continually find a way to make it to the track (to their credit), was caught completely off guard by this, listening to their radio despite being less than 20 laps into a run. Had Nicolopoulos not been able to roll to the emergency backstretch pull-off exiting turn two, the end result would have been a race-altering yellow that would have erased a frontstretch-long lead for eventual race winner Sheldon Creed. Careless mistakes like that, especially by back-markers, can completely change races for all involved.

Lapped traffic can and has changed the result of races already in 2018. On a day where Darrell Basham Racing cut it so close in repairing their car’s engine that driver Mike Basham waved to the crowd for driver intros from under the hood (to their immense credit), Basham’s No. 34 car blocked polesitter Chandler Smith, by far the dominant car on the day, twice in the last 10 laps from capitalizing on runs exiting turn two to pass Christian Eckes for a win at Salem. The finish at Salem didn’t lack for excitement, but the argument that the right car didn’t win that Sunday could easily be made.

And then there’s the obvious consequences of causing multiple yellows in a single race. Cautions, even if they’re for solo spins, change race strategies every time they come out. And when cautions result in wrecked race cars, the damage is self-explanatory. It costs thousands of dollars to repair wrecked cars, even in series that have switched over to composite bodies. And while there may be fans out there that still go to the track just to see a wreck (I hate to say there were a lot of them at Talladega), there’s plenty out there that come to see a race. Wrecks don’t make for a good race, be it because of stoppages, thinning out the field and the most obvious consequence of putting other drivers at risk.

This is especially true for the ARCA Racing Series, which as of right now is headed to its fifth consecutive race in a stretch of 11 straight weekends hosting an event. As I write this and prepare to board a plane for Friday’s event at Madison, there’s only 19 cars on the entry list, meaning that barring a 25th-hour entry, tomorrow night will mark the first time since 1996 that an ARCA race takes the green flag with less than 20 cars on the grid. 

And while I write this article from the prism of my current work covering ARCA, much of it can be extrapolated to any form of stock car racing in this country. The sport still produces thrilling competition and entertainment. Car counts are down. The skill level the sport requires remains extremely high. Crowds are down. The gap in performance between top teams and those at the back of the grid continues to grow. One still must possess sheer guts to take to the track.

Good and bad, the credit goes to the men in the arena.

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