There have been few personalities in NASCAR considered as “good” or “bad” for the sport as Kurt Busch, whose career path has become symbolic of what not to do when one is a professional athlete. His profane tirade against ESPN’s Jerry Punch at Homestead last fall was filmed by a bystander with a cell phone and posted to YouTube. The footage went viral within days and cost Busch his solid (as in well-supported through both equipment and sponsorship) ride at Penske Racing. Kurt apologized for his actions, sought treatment with a sports psychologist, and looked to better days ahead as the new season approached.
As NASCAR’s traveling circus rolls into Northeastern Pennsylvania this week, the cars and stars of the Sprint Cup Series are facing an entirely new Pocono Raceway experience. First of all, the challenging 2.5-mile triangle is sporting a new coat of pavement – the first to be laid down in almost twenty years. Secondly, this weekend’s running of the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR 400 (a name inspired by NASCAR’s newly-minted relationship with Twitter) will be 100 miles (or 40 laps) shorter than previous events. The same will be true when the Sprint Cup cars race there again in August. One hundred fewer miles – according to public opinion – means 100 fewer headaches for teams and fans alike, but it also shows the lengths to which the folks at Pocono Raceway are willing to go to better meet the demands of their audience.
A key term heard regularly in-and-around NASCAR these past few months is “polarization.”
That has been the word-of-choice when discussing changes in the sport circa 2012. Danica Patrick’s full-time move to stock cars from open-wheel racing was said to have “polarized” race fans – reactions that brought another term, “hater”, into NASCAR Nation’s collective vocabulary. Responses to the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway also polarized fans; you either liked races at the “new” Bristol or you hated them (and there’s that aforementioned H-word again), so much so that Bruton Smith announced he was going to reconfigure the track (yet again) to better suit audience demands. NASCAR’s switch to electronic fuel injection in the Sprint Cup Series also “polarized” fans, in part because the change tended to divide drivers and crew chiefs down opposite sides of the EFI fence.
NASCAR’s recent announcement of signing an exclusive deal with Twitter should have me all….well…a-twitter, but I’m afraid I’m feeling more skeptical than anything else. While Twitter seems to be the social medium of choice among drivers, teams, crew members, and journalists, I can’t help but see the agreement as being more trivial than tremendous.
Don’t get me wrong; I have a Twitter account and post the occasional note, but that’s precisely my point: I use Twitter to post notes that typically communicate more noise than news. My most recent missive dealt with my discovery that my wedding anniversary this year falls on the same day as _Star Wars_ Night at our local Frontier League ballpark. Given that our children are huge _Star Wars_ fans, it’s almost certain that my beloved and I will celebrate our special day surrounded by Jedi and Imperial Stormtrooper wannabes.
Well…. here we are…. at the All-Star (but not yet mid-season) point of the NASCAR schedule. As the national touring divisions swing into Charlotte for a much-deserved homecoming, the collective attention of NASCAR Nation looks forward to the slams-and-bangs of this weekend’s Sprint Showdown and the Sprint All-Star Race. This no-holds-barred slugfest for big bucks is often touted as just that: a no-holds-barred slugfest for big bucks.
Last weekend’s running of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway was, for the most part, pretty typical as Sprint Cup events on the Alabama high banks go.
Drafting in various forms gave way to passing and wrecking in various forms, yet the race did manage to exhibit some unique traits by the time the checkered flag flew. Not only did Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Blue Deuce lead the entire final lap and win (a most uncommon occurrence at Talladega), but his victory put Dodge back in the winners’ circle after an absence of over 35 years. Not since journeyman driver Dave Marcis piloted his No. 71 K&K Insurance entry to a 29.5 second victory over the No. 15 Norris Industries Ford of Buddy Baker had the legendary marque celebrated a win at the 2.66-mile track. For all things appearing to be the same, NASCAR Nation was treated to something rather unique.
It’s been said that “It’s good to be the king.” Nowhere is that adage more appropriate than within the world of big-time stock car racing, where Brian France and family govern NASCAR with an iron fist wrapped snuggly inside a velvet (and likely fireproof) driving glove. By being “the king”, I don’t mean as in seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty; by being “the king”, I mean it’s good to possess the power to create, administer, and police the laws that govern the folks beneath you.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
I have seen the future of automotive engineering. I have seen the future of design and styling. I have seen the future of machining and construction, and I have been privy to the inspiration of the innovations of which they spurred. These diverse advancements were being explored through another futuristic concept: the future of team organization. All of these are intimately related to the future of motorsports, and all could be seen firsthand at an isolated research and testing facility in rural Alabama this last weekend. I know this because I was there – at Baja SAE Auburn 2012.
My recent trip to Boston for the 42nd annual national conference of the Popular Culture Association was not only successful, but also quite revealing. Driving long distances is always educational, but more so this time given the region my family and I were visiting; our travels took us through parts of the Northeast and New England – areas familiar to me from growing up around there, but seen from a different perspective as both 1) the father of a four-year old and 2) someone who is constantly connected to NASCAR Nation. Racing was a significant part of my conference trip, but exactly in the manner you’d likely expect.
The trip to Boston meant driving roughly 2,200 miles round-trip over the course of six days. We split our drives to-and-fro with layovers in upstate New York (going east) and northwestern Pennsylvania (heading west), taking advantage of our New York stop to visit briefly with my father and stepmom. That much-needed-but-all-too-short detour (we hadn’t seen my folks over 18 months!) simply added to the overall nostalgia of what was already a trip down memory lane for me.
As missionaries and salespeople learn all too often, it’s difficult to share a message with an audience that has little experience with your topic. I’m about to undertake such a challenge. As you read this, I’ll be at the Copley Marriott Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts to present a paper at the 42nd annual national conference of the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association. The only thing harder to accept than my scheduled speaking time (at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday!) is the likelihood I’ll be facing a rather tiny audience of NASCAR neophytes. This is not always the case, especially when there’s a large panel of motorsports specialists on the docket, or when the session is given a more attractive time slot; late on a Friday is always good because it allows for further discussion over drinks and/or dinner afterward. With this early-Saturday morning assignment, I expect a room full of people looking to kill time until the breakfast buffet is served.
Last weekend’s controversy and excitement at Martinsville Speedway brought new attention to what is one of NASCAR’s oldest and most enduring facilities. Since 1949, when the half-mile oval hosted the sixth race in what would become today’s Sprint Cup Series, the little track in Ridgeway, Virginia has earned its place among automobile racing’s legendary locations. Wild finishes like the one we saw last Sunday are nothing unusual for the paper-clip-shaped bullring; Martinsville has enjoyed a long history of close competition punctuated by healthy aggression and mind-numbing frustration.
Just ask the folks at Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing if you need detailed examples to prove my point.
Martinsville Speedway has always been one of my favorite tracks, but it wasn’t until the other day that I realized the cause for this most-recent wave of nostalgia about the place: this month marks the twentieth anniversary of my first behind-the-scenes NASCAR experience, and that first adventure involved a road trip to Martinsville. Allow me to explain…
Despite what we tell ourselves, sports are entertainment.
While the competitions we watch are often instilled with virtues like honor, sacrifice, and courage under pressure, the underlying factor is that these events are little more than diversionary exercises. Escapism is what we need given the demands of our day-to-day lives, and sports serve to allow such an escape in the guise of athletic endeavor. We may be cheering for our favorite team (no matter what the sport), but we are – in fact – cheering for the diversion the event provides.
I can’t jump to my feet and roar out with a primal scream while in my office, but I sure can when in the grandstands at a football game; the thrill of the sport provides me with an emotional release that feeds my animal nature and refreshes my soul. The same can be said for a piece of music, a movie, or a good book; the same goes for NASCAR racing.