13 June 2007

A Good Sport's Success is Hard to Judge

As many of you know, I am an unapologetic NASCAR® fan and have been for many years. Even before that, I went with my Mama and Dad to the local dirt and/or short tracks (meaning 1/2 mile in length or less) on the weekends. It's a sport that I love, full of drivers and characters and history that I'm proud to recall or know. And unlike other sports, if you follow NASCAR® long enough, you feel you 'know' those drivers and teams you support...it's like an extended 'family' you always want to succeed, be happy, and win. I get a lot of ribbing about my support even here and now: good friends who I speak with almost daily are stunned I even know, let alone follow, this sport. I guess I don't fit the 'image' of what a typical fan should be, or perhaps I should have 'outgrown' my past hobbies by now in their eyes. Any explanation is unnecessary to me: I just love the whole noisy, dirty, and 'everyman' appeal of it all.

My recent trip to Lowe's Motor Speedway© in Charlotte (well, Concord, to be exact, right outside Charlotte) to see the Busch series Carquest Auto Parts 300® and Nextel Cup series Coca Cola 600® races over the Memorial Day holiday only reinforced this, as it was a rollercoaster of joy, recollection and awe for me. For years, I've limited myself to local venues like the times of old, and not making the sometimes long (and expensive) treks to the massive NASCAR® tracks. Needless to say, the massive crowds and hoopla surrounding the Memorial Day weekend races...complete with Presidential candidates, 2 blimps circling overhead throughout, Howitzer gun demonstrations on the front straightway, jammed parking lots, numerous driver-inspired apparel vendors, and the knowledge I had 165,000+ of my closest friends near me...took a little adjustment. And that was all before the cars even rolled out onto the track.

Believe it or not, it wasn't always this way nor this larger than life. Many drivers who are famous and successful in NASCAR® now, I also remember once scraping by back in Missouri and Arkansas on horrible, dusty dirt tracks with virtually no crowds...Rusty Wallace and his brothers Mike and Kenny, Kenny Schrader, Mark Martin...to name a few. These are men of whom I have followed their careers (in some cases) before I could even climb the stairs in the grandstand because my legs were far too short to reach. In one capacity or another, these men were still plying away at their chosen trade in Charlotte. Rusty's a retired legend, but is an TV commentator now, and his son (!) is now also racing professionally. Rusty's brothers have a hard time getting to make it to the 'big' races on Sundays, but still compete as they can in the Busch® series (like the AAA 'minor league' level of NASCAR®) races. Kenny Schrader will still race anybody, anything and anywhere, but has lost a bit of the edge and quickness I remember so well. And Mark Martin (my fave of all of these, who became my hero at age 4 when he kissed my then-golden curls at post race) is still highly competitive but is only running a limited number of races this year. Even in a world where the stopwatch is reset numerous times throughout a day, a weekend, a pitstop even...aging still marches on undeterred. Lord knows I've changed; I'm not sure why I can't readily accept they would, too.

It's easy to get lost in the memories at these things if you're a fan, a situation I couldn't escape as I thought about how much my Dad would have loved to been there. There was always going to be one more race...a big one that Dad and I were going to attend together, excited daughter and enthused father sharing a mutual love for racing. Some really good and big and rowdy place where we could cheer on our heroes in public without Mama nagging us about being too loud for the neighbours. It never happened, though, and to some degree I think that's why I stayed away for so long. (As utterly ridiculous as that sounds, especially as I live in the middle of NASCAR® country, but oh well...) It seemed 'improper' somehow to go enjoy something myself when he couldn't attend now. Maybe it was the 10th anniversary of his death, maybe I just did it without thinking about him this time...who really knows why I went this year when I skipped so many other chances. And it was good to go, although I don't think Dad would have recognized the current landscape. I sure didn't for awhile.

Welcome to Speedway Avenue, across from Lowe's Motor Speedway. This was hours before the race on Saturday, and actually this was as 'slow' with fans as it ever got.

I'm sure I'll get some flak on this, but here goes: I don't know this sport anymore. I honestly don't, and that admission comes rather quietly and hesitatingly. For all of the effort that has been put into making NASCAR® the fastest growing spectator sport in the world, I'm not sure if there is a place any more for 'old school' fans like me. Even the big races I remember from my youth were never this commercialized. One used to be able to bring the family and meet the drivers and see the cars before the races, but instead this time I ran a gauntlet of commercial product hawking to make QVC jealous. I turned away almost all of the sellers and product tents I passed from my distant parking spot to the grandstand and still had shampoo, salad dressing, detergent, and foam pillow samples in my backpack when I finally sat down. If I had been playing along, I could have taken in much, much more and also heard the recruitment speech from damn near all branches of the US military. Along that walk in, I passed I don't know how many dozen souvenir trailers for each and every racing team (and most were just for specific drivers)...something that's been there all along, but just not so over the top as it is now. You don't just 'walk' from your parking space to the race track any more; instead, you walk through a gravel-paved mall.

A baby doll tee for the girlfriend with Matt Kenseth's number? Sure.

A lighter with Jeff Gordon's logo and image? No problem.

An orange rain slicker representing Tony Stewart? Right away. Is that cash or credit?

(Right) One of Tony Stewart's (Home Depot© #20) merchandise trailers; Jeff Gordon's (DuPont© #24) in the background.

I have no idea exactly when it happened, but the racing I once knew in person and thought I still saw on TV has been replaced as a merchandising and product placement circus in real life. The few discounted items were the ones of past victories and championships and stats...items that would have been gobbled up in minutes in the days of yore. No, the hot winners were the ones not boasting an accomplishment or even of a place or time. Rather that feature an image everyone buys into: mostly a stylized number set in bold colors that could be selling toys just as easily...nothing distinguished them as a race mementos, or hell some had nothing to do with racing, period. And that, frankly, as a long-time fan, was depressing to witness. We've not only sold out the sport to God knows how many companies, but we've sold out the pride the fans had in wearing something specific to their driver's loyalties and accomplishments. That hollowed out, 'the-Gap®-as-NASCAR®' mentality stuck with me through that whole weekend and even on my return. I found myself searching for something bigger than a bumper sticker that said something like 'I was at the 2007 Coca Cola 600®'...and I found nothing. Image, it appears, is everything. Stats are far less important now; but instead selling whatever people will buy...whatever that is...rules.

43 cars competing. 165,000 watching in attendance at the track, millions more watching from home. Pre-race laps before the Coca Cola 600®.

Furthermore, I'm not sure my fellow fans at these races are 'my people' anymore, either. I sat in a quiet (read: mostly over age 40) crowd in Turn 1 on the night of the Coca Cola 600®. Public Safety had their hands full even there: we had no less than two fights between rival fan groups (Jeff Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) which resulted in 4 people being thrown out for that, then another 2 people tossed for public intoxication (a high mark to achieve as Lowe's Speedway will let people bring in their own coolers and most everybody did but very few were tossed for being drunk), then 3 more removed for doing modified keg stands in the aisle, and then a female fan escorted out for repeatedly showing her tits (complete with neon orange paint, no bra) to a presumably grateful Tony Stewart every time he passed her by on a caution lap. And these were the people seated in front of me; security seemed to be working overtime in all sections to the left, right, and above as well. True, as it was happening, it was comical and so "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)", to a point...like a large honky tonk full of people looking to get laid or drunk or a fight or all three. But after the first hour or so, it also got a bit more than just simply distracting and/or amusing to the real racing fans who couldn't see while security did their jobs. These seats weren't cheap, but all of the extracurricular crap going on around them sure became that way. This isn't the racing I grew up on and have supported locally. And for the life of me, I'm hopeful this isn't indicative of what makes the tour with the NASCAR® circuit each week (although I suspect from talking to some 'regulars' it is).

(Left) The results of the first fight of the evening in my section, 22 laps into the race. The hatred between some Jeff Gordon fans and some Dale Earnhardt, Jr., fans spills over a lot into the grandstands.

There was a time, perhaps long gone now, when fans came to these races and could skip all of this nonsense...and could enjoy the action that was occurring on the track, as it was intended. There were plenty of those 'good' fans there in attendance in Charlotte, no question. But the constant 'something' going on in the stands (and I'm ignoring fan fights, as that has always happened), detracts from the overall experience. I'm contemplating taking in another race this summer relatively nearby to see if Charlotte was just some 'beginning of summer party' fluke. If that goes well, I'll be more than willing to give Charlotte another try again for the fall race in October. But if it doesn't go well in Richmond, I'll doubt I'll go back to Lowe's. I don't think I'm being a prude or anything here, but I'm a racing fan...and if I can't see and enjoy the race at the big tracks, why go at all?

So, the end grade for the weekend was about a 'C'...and it pains me to state the grade. Unfortunately, it's earned. And that's not aimed primarily at Lowe's; they probably did the best they could since so many people were there and a great percentage of them were drunk or had been drinking by race time. (And I enjoy a beer as much as the next person, so absolutely no judgments there.) Nope, instead it's aimed at the dear sport I love so much...NASCAR®...and how far off course it seems to have ventured in recent years. If NASCAR® truly wants to go as mainstream, international and multicultural as its leaders say they want it to, they're going to have a tough time of it based upon what I witnessed. My loyalty is, and should not be, measured in the dollars and cents promoters can get from me...but rather how great the experience was for me, and how badly I want to go back to see the next race...and the next...in the future. True, today's NASCAR® 'is not my father's NASCAR®' (to paraphrase an old campaign slogan), but the jury's still out to see if it deserves to be mine.

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