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Beside the Rising Tide: Drive to Survive

Pity the poor internal combustion engine. Once upon a time, it was seen as a loyal servant of middle-class America. Starting in the early 20th century, it was a marvel of American manufacturing and ingenuity. Prior to the development of the Model T by Henry Ford, if your siblings or other family members moved 25 miles away from you, you’d likely seldom see them again. If they moved cross country in that era of the horse and buggy, well, maybe they’d send a card at Christmas and on your birthday.

In that era, the gas engine was sharing shelf space with cars powered by steam engines and early attempts at electric cars. As the auto industry evolved in America, the gas powered jobs took over the market. As roads and automobiles improved, it became commonplace for the family to pile into the family truckster and head off to destinations hundreds of miles from home for a vacation.

Think what you will of the styling of cars or the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, but they greatly shrank the distances between the cities, and eventually, suburbs of America. You didn’t have to chop wood or fill water tanks. You simply got in, turned the key and headed off to your intended destination — after a stop at the corner filling station, of course. (Well, it got a little more difficult than that last week for a while.)

Cars grew far more reliable over the decades, to the point when you set out on a trip, you just expected you’d reach your destination and get safely home far more frequently than not. You might suffer a flat tire or overheat a bit in traffic, but it was nothing the average American male didn’t take great pride in being able to set to right with his own two hands. Am I being sexist here? Perhaps a tad, but this is the era I grew up in, and I never saw my mom or one of my sisters change a flat tire or replace a radiator hose. Or walk into an auto parts store, that I can recall.

But the once-loyal internal combustion engine has become public enemy number one. Thanks (and you’ll rarely hear me say that) to the EPA, cars’ emissions have been slashed to a fraction of what they were back in the day when I’d be goosing the throttle on a tri-power ’66 GTO, warming the engine up enough that it wouldn’t stall at the first traffic light.

If appears the new darling of the American consumer is the electric car. Whether plug-in cars actually help clean the air depends a lot on how power gets to your home (or the local recharging yard). If it still comes from a coal-powered plant (and much of it does), you’re part of the problem, not the solution. From atop a hill down the street from my home, I can see the twin cooling towers of the nuclear Limerick power plant. We get a reminder it’s there the first Monday of every month when every siren in the county blares as they test the warning system. You wouldn’t believe the racket those tests cause. I don’t recall the environmentalists being particularly fond of Limerick, but then I guess when you need to plug in the Prius to get home from work, it’s any harbor in the storm.

I’ve mentioned this dozens of times previously: My first set of wheels (it was in the body shop getting painted on my 16th birthday) when I got my key to the universe, a valid PA drivers’ license, was a 1970 Mustang 428 Mach One. With a top loader, 3.91 Detroit Locker 9-inch rear, a set of Hookers, traction bars, N50 -15 rear tires and a double-pumper under the shaker scoop, it was a low 12s car at Atco. (And if the previous sentence is all Greek to you, more the pity for you.)

As such, you can imagine how thrilled I am that Ford has brought back the Mach name on an electric crossover said to be capable of 300-plus miles on a charge. No sale. I’m still one of those Mustang guys who will debate whether the four-headlight 1969 Mach One or the two-headlight 1970 model is better looking until I am blue in the face.

Well, it seems we’ve gone pretty far astray from my weekly effort at a column purported to be about NASCAR racing. I shall attempt to steer it back on course.

Among the casualties of folks beginning to despise the once beloved internal combustion engine is interest in auto racing. TV ratings for NASCAR events have been declining precipitously for years now. A 1.7 Nielsen for a Cup race at Darlington? Jeeze Louise.

So how do we turn the tide? Here’s one case study about new auto racing fans added to the fold that I never expected: If you haven’t heard, there’s been an explosion of interest in the Formula One series here stateside, at least as of late.

Among F1’s new fans are my beloved sister Maryellen and her husband David. It seems they began watching a Netflix series called Drive to Survive during that year-long period when new productions on network TV all but ceased due to pandemic restrictions. With a dearth of new content, there were fewer options when it came to original programming. Maryellen and David’s son Jonathon turned them on to his new “find.”

If you wish to debate the “nature” versus “nurture” question, I love my nephew Jon. He’s incredibly intelligent and hard-working and currently finds himself living in San Francisco with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from his rear deck.

To date, he has never owned a car.

Hell, I had six of the damn things when I was in college. By swapping plates and siphoning gas from one to the other, I got where I needed to be, but I was constantly on the lookout for number seven. For Jon’s generation, owning a car in high school was no big deal and was seen as more of a hassle than a status symbol. He does have a drivers’ license and has rented cars to go on vacation, but he’s never owned one.

I’m not sure how Drive to Survive piqued his interest but it did. Netflix was promoting the series fairly heavily there awhile, and Jon had moved in with his parents in rural New Hampshire at the peak of the pandemic, so maybe he was bored and nothing else was on. Whatever the case, he now watches most F1 races either live or on tape. And here’s the stunning part. So do Maryellen and Dave. And they relate to me that they know of many other newly-minted F1 fans turned on to the sport by Drive to Survive. I started asking around and found many people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have gone through the same transformation.

They probably wouldn’t watch a NASCAR race if I paid them. As you might imagine, when we visit, I bring up stock car racing frequently seeing as this is my profession, but as least I’ve learned to shut up if their eyes get glassy or they get up to use the bathroom and don’t come back.

So I decided that I needed to at least give the program a shot. As it turns out, there are three seasons of Drive to Survive, all of them 10 episodes long with each episode about 40 minutes in duration. I’ve seen all of the first two and half of the third as of this writing. I must say all of what I’ve seen is extremely well done. D2S is a reality series shot at various races, team headquarters and driver’s homes. Those drivers’ wives and children frequently get some screen time as well, but it never gets cutesy. In fact, I hadn’t realized so many F1 drivers are not capable of completing a sentence in English without dropping one or more F-bombs. It’s a bit off-putting, but you get used to it.

I will admit, watching the series has returned me to watching the F1-style races, as long as they don’t interfere with NASCAR. I’d developed a mindset that F1 sucked because every F1 weekend seems to follow the same script. Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes wins the pole. Hamilton then wins the race, often after leading every lap. Eventually, Hamilton wins the title. I think he’s going for his record-breaking eighth title this year. I’d wonder to myself how F1 found 19 other saps to head out each race to serve as cannon-fodder to Lewis and his Benz.

That’s where D2S comes in. It’s all a bit more interesting when you gain some insight into who those other 19 drivers are, what their motivations are and frequently how they are struggling just to keep their jobs. Man, I thought NASCAR was brutal when it came to job retention. It’s nothing compared to F1. And often times when the driver receives the bad news, the cameras are rolling so you see their reactions live. In some cases, there seems to be almost a sense of relief after painful weeks and months of waiting for the ax to fall.

As I mentioned, there aren’t a lot of seats in F1. But once they’ve struggled, often since childhood, to find such a ride, most of them fight doubly hard to get back into the club even if they know the teams they are approaching don’t field competitive cars and the whole ugly cycle is likely to repeat itself. The drivers at once champion-caliber Williams (now the worst team on the tour) often seem borderline suicidal.

At team headquarters, drivers might hate members of their own teams and those team members might hate them right back. Well, except for a driver named Daniel Ricciardo, whom apparently everyone loves. Max Verstappen, on the other hand, seems an unlikely candidate for Most Popular driver award, though he does seem awfully fond of himself.  

As for the rest of them, their jobs are related to on-track success. If the wins aren’t coming, the driver thinks the team is at fault. The team thinks the driver is at fault. To date, nobody has blamed Lewis Hamilton. There are benefits to success, I suppose.

Some of the storylines on the program almost defy belief, but all are verifiable. Take, for instance, a Canadian billionaire buying what had been the Force India team just after they claimed fourth in the manufacturers’ standings (behind the Big Three teams; Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) but were facing legal and financial threats to their future. (How did he become a billionaire in Canada? In the fashion industry, apparently. Who knew there was so much coin in knee length shorts, flannel shirts and Birkenstocks? Oh and an ace tax attorney.)

Having bought the team, one of that fellow’s first moves was to release one of his drivers and replace him with the wealthy fellow’s son. No, it didn’t go over very well. Another young driver’s mom apparently did a six-year stint in prison for alleged fraud at a classic and exotic car dealership when the driver was all of 15.

So would NASCAR programing on Netflix boost stock car racing’s ratings, too? It would be odd for a subscription TV service to give any kind of boost to TV ratings for a sport presented entirely on network and cable TV. A previous attempt, The Crew, didn’t generate much interest.

But Netflix may have reality NASCAR programming in the pipeline down the road. They are said to be planning a program concentrated on Darrell “Bubba” Wallace and his efforts to advance his career in a Cup team owned (mainly) by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.

How will that play out? If the show is as well-produced and honest as Drive to Survive, I have no doubt it will generate a lot of interest. I am concerned that the new program will focus on just one driver not the entire garage area. My other concern is how the producers will handle Wallace’s self-admitted battle with depression. As a fellow sufferer, I understand the disease, its stereotypes and falsehoods, but Americans in general shy away from any mention of mental illness or its challenges. Which is why we still have laugh tracks in most of our sitcoms, I suppose.

I wish those involved good luck, but as of right now I am unable to provide you with even a guess-timate on when the show might start airing or even a working title.

Random Notes: The month of May used to feature the greatest weekend of racing over the US’s Memorial Day holiday weekend. Three great races were run on that Sunday; the Indy 500, the World 600 and the Grand Prix of Monaco. If Monaco was not often a great race, it certainly was the most picturesque event of the F1 series. In case you haven’t heard, the F1 race at Monaco was moved up to next weekend. Indy and Charlotte remain on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I haven’t heard anything about any drivers attempting the Double this year, nor do I know if such a thing is possible this any more. I’ll probably still watch Monaco though likely Hamilton will win the pole and the race en route to his eighth title.

I think Dover got the closest to the ideal original start time for a NASCAR event, 1 p.m., with the race going green at least shortly after 2 p.m. ET. But for the first time in recent history, Dover will only host one Cup race, not two. Why? The folks that own Dover also have an interest in the Nashville track, and the only way they were going to get a race date there was to surrender one of their own scheduled dates. Recall, only Indy, Pocono and Dover are not owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., or NASCAR on this year’s Cup schedule.

In watching Drive to Survive, I did jump ahead once to season 3 episode 9, “Man on Fire,” which gave a horrific up-close look at Romain Grosjean’s fiery wreck in Bahrain. Screw Freddy Kruger, various wicked witches, and Barnabas Collins, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on TV. I am happy to relay that not only did Grosjean heal up afterwards, but he finished a strong second at the IndyCar race Saturday on the road course at the track. He’s among the odds on favorites for the Indy 500 in some early polling I’ve seen as a result.

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Bill B

Hmm, so first you have to succeed as a reality television show and then the sport can be successful. All NASCAR needs to do is find rides for the Kardashians and the ratings will follow.

janice

Please NO!!!!!

Echo

F1 gets a full cast reality show and we get cry me a bubba. Nephew’s who have never owned a car is what it’s come to. I don’t believe Tesla when they tell me their truck will pull my 5th wheeler across the mountain ranges as well as my Duramax. I started driving the muscle cars prior to the era of Matt’s first car. The thrill of driving back then. My speedometer today says 140 and I still have pedal left as I briefly relive the thrill across the desert floor. Youth today don’t grow up with that in their blood. Nope, Nascar is winding down. IROC next, then electric cars, god forbid. We all take the watered down version Nascar gives us today because we remember.

Lauren L.

How ironic. How ironic. In high school, as I was growing up, having a hot car was important; the girls would flock to you. Uber, Lyft and state laws have killed the full license in many states until 18. By that point, our kiddos are worried about college and not a car. Even moreso ironic is that…and I am ALMOST thinking it’s the same person–I play a game called Second Life and in this game, I have a friend I have known since 2007, named JON who lives with his parents in NEW HAMPSHIRE!!!!!! WTFFFFFFFFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He has never owned a car and never had a license!!!!!! But this young man is smart and resourceful and has a hard work ethic, spending 12 hours a day building content for others and helping his parents. I think we are speaking of the same person.

Lauren L.

and another comment: this friend of mine is someone I adore and have for a decade. I’ve wanted to…be with him and marry him. He hates NASCAR but for some reason, over the last 2 weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time on Discord and SL. Why this article was published today I understand but it is so ironic that everything lines up with who HE IS. Thank you Matt, you inadvertently proved to me that there works, something greater, than all of us. I recently came into money (after buying Bitcoin in 2012 and forgetting about it) and now I can safely say that my “Jon” is gonna have an easier life. Give to receive. Forgive and ye shall be forgiven. God I love Frontstretch.

JD in NC

I hear ya Matt! I grew up a “car” guy. I went to car shows as a kid, attended my first nascar race when I was 5 years old, and put together a ton of nascar model cars that would be worth hundreds of dollars had I just left them in the box wrapped in their original plastic. I got my license the day I turned 16. I drove a Camaro Z28 in high school, my first three cars were v8s, and I still own two of ’em. Sadly, I see very few younger kids that have anywhere near that level of interest in cars, although I do know a couple. However, I don’t see that being enough to sustain viewership twenty plus years down the road. here are so many different facets of “media” these days that are vying for attention that it waters a lot of things down. I’m sure all this leads to lots of sleepless nights down in Daytona at the mothership.

Jeremy

Couple of thoughts… As for cars and culture today, nothing is the same as it was. I’m a car guy, and unless you live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, just going for a drive SUCKS due to all the traffic, stoplights, and ignorant jerks out on the road. It’s no longer relaxing or fun, it’s a CHORE just to get from point A to point B in many areas. I totally get why kids would not be interested or excited about sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for hours at a time. What’s so fun about that?

As for F1, thanks for the heads up on D2S, I never knew it existed. I tried to give F1 a fair shot a couple years ago, and still very loosely follow it (might even watch some if I happen to be channel surfing and catch it), but I just don’t find the races themselves all that enjoyable to watch. I mean, like you said, the race is into turn 1, and even then you know that unless Hamilton is wrecked he will likely still win. I mean, it’s not all the car. I’ve seen the guy come from the very back after a mishap and win on more than one occasion – he just IS the best on the track right now (and quite possibly the best all time, but I haven’t followed F1 long enough to fully engage in that argument). Maybe D2S will change my opinion/view of the series?

For the last few years, I think Indycar has the best show on track and on mainstream TV. NASCAR’s problem, IMO, is aero. To some degree, it affects Indycar too, but it seems to me NASCAR has become “Ooh, please don’t touch my car or it’ll upset the aero!” and passes for the lead are too often only made in the pits during manufactured cautions. Indycar seems to actually have more elbows up, beating and banging, courageous (passion driven?) racing than NASCAR – although it’s generally banging wheels/side tubs as opposed to front/rear bumpers. Indycar has an amazing crop of young, hungry (and genuinely GOOD!) talent coming up to battle wily veterans who are still on top of their game. The broadcasts are pretty straight forward with (to me) a likable group of ex-drivers in the booth.

Maybe NASCAR’s next gen will help the on track product, but the rest of it needs to be toned down. Too many gimmicks, too many “add ins” that distract from the actual racing that is on the track. I don’t need to watch intro/outros of racing graphics every 2 minutes, just show me the ACTUAL RACING that is going on instead!

Meanwhile, I’ll keep tuning in to Indycar weekly while keeping a hopeful eye on NASCAR that they will find their way back.

JD in NC

I also have a moderate interest in F1. As for the actual racing, it ain’t great and is often a race to turn one on the first lap. Plus the fact that Mercedes has been crushing everyone else, winning the driver’s championship and the constructor’s championship every year since 2014. Just imagine how mad everyone on here would be if Gibbs or Hendrick had done that in nascar! Maybe the major 2022 rules change will level the F1 playing field a bit. It is fun to watch the new car reveals in F1 at the beginning of the season either before or at pre-season testing. It makes me miss nascar preseason testing in Daytona. I think part of the appeal of F1 is the technology. It’s interesting to go to some of the F1 message boards during the new car reveals and see fans discussing in depth aero analysis about such things as rake, sidepod packaging, turning vanes, s-ducts, etc.
I think one of the more entertaining racing series on the planet is the BTCC (British Touring Car Championship). They just had their first three races, same weekend, at Thruxton in early May. The cars are closer to stock than nascar, and they definitely will race elbows out. There are plenty of videos on youtube, including the Thruxton races from this month.

Johnny Cuda

Matt, the Mach 1 must have been an awesome machine. When I was in high school in the mid-late seventies, my brother had a Chevy 409. I could hear that baby a mile away. Nowadays, you can barely even hear an electric car when it’s right next to you. What would those sound like at the race track? I suppose hearing protection becomes unnecessary.
Weather up here in the Boston area is beautiful this week. Took the old Barracuda for a nice evening ride last night to burn up some petroleum.

Jo

“Odds on” means the horse/car/athlete has a better than even chance of winning, that is to say that the entrant has a greater chance of winning than losing. That rarely happens in motorsports with the large fields and unpredictable nature of racing. Maybe Lewis Hamilton is a legitimate odds-on in some of his races, but there is never an odds-on favorite in the Indy 500 or a NASCAR race. And there certainly are NOT multiple odds-on favorites in ANY race – that is a mathematical impossibility. You cannot have more than one entrant who is more likely to win than lose. If betting is now part of the sport, those who write about it need to understand how odds-making actually works.

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