18 February 2007

Fans, locate your TV remotes...it's racin' time

...as today, NASCAR© starts its season officially again. Ahh, yes, the sign of summer will be here soon enough is on the horizon. Who needs a groundhog to tell you that when Daytona is still around?

Considering that last year's season only ended in November, you'd think that the most-watched spectator sport in the US would be approaching maximum exposure and possible fan-burnout. But, alas, no...and die-hards such as myself (a sport I learned to appreciate from my parents, although my addiction started as a child watching dirt track races throughout the Midwest) are all-prepared for today's big intro. So prepared in fact, I've arranged certain housekeeping and other misc duties today around certain parts of the race...it is, after all, 500 miles in length and that's not accounting for all the crashes, TV commercials, "I'd like to thank God, my Mama, Uncle Bucky's Transmissions, Silver Horse fishing tackle, your local Pancake Buffet, and everybody else that put the new Sparky 4800 horsepower dual quad Ghost on the track today..." speeches. I swear to God, I watch and/or listen to the race just for the ads/advertising plugs alone some days. Forget the NBA, forget Barclay's English Premier League football/soccer. These men (and I hope for a competitive woman someday, too) are the hardest working pitch people on and off the track of any professional sport out there. They pitch in taped television and radio ads, and during every possible break on-air they can, everything from snack cakes to insurance to automobiles (of course) to cell phones (NASCAR©'s main sponsor Nextel). (All links to video at YouTube, as usual.) And then they go run countless miles each week on a track, knowing that people like me are watching from home hoping for a crash, a fight, or a photo finish winning moment.

Or, if it's like this week, some additional drama. This week has been 'unprecedented' with offtrack drama, namely in the form of cheating/alleged cheating scandal by some of the teams. Now to those that are new to the NASCAR© juggernaut, this is a bit disconcerting. But to those of us who have 'come up' with some of the drivers, we are not terribly shocked. So many fans are like myself and have seen these drivers compete locally at our nearby dirt track races as amateurs and then followed them as they became pros...Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Kenny Wallace, Ken Schrader, and Jamie McMurray are all from my old stomping grounds and, by extension, get my support. Perhaps we fans are downhearted by exactly whom did the cheating, and many of us are quite furious about the unequal distribution and application of penalties, but this is nothing new to the sport. Why??? The proverbial catch-all quote we all know by heart: "It's just racin'." And, at the end of the day, it is. The long-term fans realize trying to 'outdo' the other guy is a cornerstone of this sport...and has become even more so since the 'big money' from US and now international advertisers has arrived.

For those not aware of the Sunday Afternoon Redneck Gospel, some pointers: NASCAR© is a strangely singular world, in that its biggest race of the year...today's Daytona 500...is also the first race of the season. So essentially teams take the 'off season' time of about 2 months to work on making the cars that will make and/or break them for the next season, and specifically Daytona. Additionally, NASCAR© is full of contradictions: it is the only sport still controlled by the family corporation that started and marketed (and how they marketed) it. So, as generations have come and gone, and star drivers have been crowned and retired, the rules (and specifically, the interpretation of said rules) have changed drastically. Whereas rules once favoured certain race tracks, they then switched to favouring certain car manufacturers (hence the outcry this year with the long overdue introduction of Toyota to the sport). Then the rules switched to the drivers (safety, especially), and now for the past several years, the rules have switched to favouring TV, advertisers, broadcast networks, and getting a larger female and international audience. And merchandising...sweet God, the merchandising...of all of this has taken over supreme. All the while it's still being promoted as a 'working man's sport' full of screaming fans, cheap domestic beer, cigarettes, automotive brand loyalty, and hundreds of good 'ole boys who can do masterful things with an engine. So when you come into NASCAR© in any capacity, you should know that traditional 'standards' and modern marketing and publicity 'needs' are going to clash...and some people adapt better to these than others, and some people will get caught for bending those ever-changing rules. It's just racin', dammit, accept it and move on...everyone's guilty of something here, sometime.

That said, it's intriguing to see where the sport is heading...and apparently that's international. Whereas most, if not all of the tracks were once located in the South, many multi-million dollar structures have went up nationally in some of the largest cities, with Denver and New York City in the immediate cross hairs. Tourism commissions, hotel chains, restaurant chains, everybody wants in. NASCAR© has tried races with good success in Mexico, and apparently would like to try others elsewhere, too (although the 'how' of this given the long domestic season already is still up in the air). Through relentless advertising, popular drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (aka as "Junior" to most everyone), are known throughout the world but have not done much racing in the international racing formats. Kasey Kahne recently did a promotional blitz down in my beloved Sydney over his 'break'. The much hated/much loved Robby Gordon (there is no middle ground with him) travels regularly to participate in all sorts of races in all corners of the globe. I'm not sure how this push to the international market will play out with the core, Southern-born and bred fan base, but it will be interesting to see in years to come.

As further proof of how far the sport has come and also from where it came from, yesterday I was listening to the MRN (the radio racing network owned by NASCAR©, natch) broadcast of the Busch© race (the Busch© races are one step down from the main NASCAR© races, generally held the day before, and are run by up-and-comers and some of the pros, too) and the interviewers spoke to both newcomer Marcus Ambrose and veteran Ward Burton. Ambrose pulled up stakes from road and endurance racing from Brisbane, Queensland, to pursue his goal of being an Aussie in NASCAR©; Burton is 'old-school' Virginia gentleman, devoted hunter and family man who got his start on local dirt tracks as a boy just up the road. Without even trying, you could not even get two more polar opposite interviewees. After I got over trying to understand both men with their accents (quite accidentally comical as Ambrose spoke at a speed almost twice that of Ward, not to mention their own phrasings, check out Ward in a rare TV commercial), it hit home again: this sport may actually have a chance on the international stage...if the marketers and supporters can figure out the right support system and schedule. Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya's fans, for example, don't even understand a lot of English, yet today's broadcast is expected to draw in thousands of international viewers. I can only hope, because it's a great sport with some great fans and even better drivers...regardless of the occasional controversy. And it's the one sport, for better than 30 years now, that I still will gladly watch and follow, even hope to attend in person some day. Too bad I can't say the same for professional baseball or basketball anymore.

It's only racin', after all. And with that: gentlemen, start your engines.

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