I never thought it was a sport, and I still don't. Any more than figure skating is a sport, or poker, or extreme dog steeplechase, or any of a dozen different things that make it to the SportsCenter highlight reel.
Auto racing is a competition, but don't dare call it a sport. I've seen the gut on some of those drivers. There's a reason they're sponsored by Budweiser and Miller and M&Ms and not the Broccoli Advocacy Council of America. I'm not saying there's not stress and strain involved in steering a steel brick around a track at 170 mph, but it's not as if they're running 40s up and down the turf.
That said, I like NASCAR. I don't love it. I'm not a crazed fan. I can't tell you who drives what car just by hearing the car's number.
(Okay, I know Jeff Gordon's the #24 car, Dale Jr. is in the #8, and Mark Martin's in the #6, but that's it, I think.)
I just like it, that's all.
And that's after years of expressing my utter disdain for these redneck rallies. I still can remember when races and teams still were sponsored by Goody's Headache Powders and Cletus' Frog Leg Palace and the like. Pretty much every track on the schedule was located in either North Carolina or Alabama. And sooooo-ee, the inbreeding and nepotism. For example, in 1983, all but five drivers on the then-Winston Cup circuit had the surname "Allison." Seriously — back then, there were only two ways to break into NASCAR: get born into it, or marry into it.
(Oh yeah, I just remembered: Jimmy Johnson drives the #48 and Greg Biffle has the #16. And Dale Jarrett drives the #88 car, but everyone wants him to race the truck.)
But times have changed and now the races that just got airtime on the local upstart UHF stations of my central Virginia youth are roaring across NBC, Fox, TNT and FX, and if that weren't enough there's SpeedChannel, which doesn't show the races but dissects just about every other aspect of auto racing. And I thought the Golf Channel was obsessive.
Thing is, as NASCAR started exploding nationally, some yahoo where I work decided that we should start covering it as a major sport. (Their word, not mine.) At the time, that was about as sensible to me as covering Major League Lacrosse or the Professional Bullriders Tour. But damn, if it hasn't paid off! I knew we had lightning in a bottle when we had a picture of Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt wreathed in flames on the cover of our very first NASCAR preview issue, and then just a couple of weeks later he smashed his car into the wall at Daytona and died on live TV right before my eyes.
Hey, when was the last time you got that kind of life or death drama at a baseball game? Maybe if Don Zimmer would've had a heart attack after Pedro Martinez chucked him off the mound a couple of years ago, but that's as close as I can figure.
(Tony Stewart - #20. Carl Edwards - #99. Just sayin'.)
Anyway, about that time, NASCAR started transmogrifying itself. Or in garage lingo, they got a new template to work from. Segregation laws were repealed, which meant that drivers from states not crossed by I-85 suddenly became eligible to race. Races were being held in California. Chicago. Arizona. Yeah, it felt about as weird as hockey in Tampa Bay, but somehow the enthusiasm kept growing.
Then, finally, NASCAR gave up smoking, and I felt better about the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I think cellphones are as potentially lethal as cigs, especially when combined (no irony here) with driving, but if that's a few more bucks out of the hands of Big Tobacco, I'm all for it. Nextel is a nice, family-friendly sponsor with oodles of money to burn. Now, if only we could get the junior circuit to switch sponsors from Busch Beer to, say, Yuengling Beer, then that's another great improvement, and one that can only benefit the sport, er, competition.
So now, as the years have gone by and NASCAR has become a huge part of my professional life (yes, I have NASCAR officials in my e-mail address book) I admit I've slowly grown to enjoy it. Call it assimilation, call it osmosis. Please don't call it a sport. You've heard of "Stockholm Syndrome," wherein hostages begin to develop a bond and even a fondness for their captors? I've got "Stock Car Syndrome." I've watched enough races now to actually appreciate what's going on, whether it's on the track, on Pit Road, or in the garage.
My epiphany came on May 1, as I watched the Aaron's 499 from my desk at work. The track was Talladega, but for me it was the road to Damascus. About 40 laps past the halfway point, there's one hell of an accident. Of the cars still running at the time (races start with 43 cars) 27 are knocked out of the race. It was magnificent chaos. An estimated $8 million in damage was racked up among the drivers.
But as cool as the crash was, it was nothing compared to the driving of Jeff Gordon during the final 25 laps. It was an showcase of determination as he held off challenger after challenger, blocking them out from passing on the inside. Repeated cautions and another substantial wreck -— six cars this time —- force restart after restart. Gordon holds them all off, until Michael Waltrip and Kevin Harvick bump draft their way to the head of the line, screwing up Gordon's aerodynamics and sending him plummeting back through the field. Undeterred, Gordon manages to do in two laps what it had taken Waltrip eight laps to accomplish: he battles back and takes the lead. And this time he does not relinquish it.
I suppose you had to be there. It was like watching the Red Sox battle back against a three-game deficit to clobber the Yankees, crammed into about two minutes. There was physics at work, strategy and timing and just plain balls-to-the-wall driving. It was exhilarating, and it won me over.
And now I'm looking forward to some of the other races this season. This weekend (June 26) finds the Nextel Cup teams at Infineon Raceway, one of the two "road courses" on the schedule. It's like a fusion of Grand Prix and NASCAR racing; the drivers actually have to make right hand turns. The following week is the Pepsi 400, held at the mother of NASCAR tracks, Daytona, which only serves to remind me that the official birthplace of NASCAR was not Dawsonville, GA or Bristol, TN or Darlington, SC, but Daytona Beach, FL, less than an hour away from my hometown. Practically in my backyard.
So if I get the chance, I'll watch as much of the races as my schedule allows. I won't be guzzling Bud, but I might have a vodka tonic. I won't tailgate, but I might barbecue. I won't wear attire with the number or likeness of my favorite driver; the only thing I have remotely like that is an Albert Pujols t-shirt. But I'll sit on the edge of my seat and maybe even lean in a bit during the last laps if there's a frantic jockeying for the lead. I'll keep an eye on the Nextel Cup standings to see who's gaining or losing points. And I might just nudge my son to join me and Darrell Waltrip in seeing the drivers off the green flag with a boisterous "BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY! Let's go racing, boys!"
But I still won't call it a sport.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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6.22.05 @ 2:32a
Boogity boogity? Who are you, Ray Stevens? Watchin' the cars streak by?
NASCAR pit reporter Steve Richards is a personal friend of ours. He takes Matt with him to the Kansas City race and cruises the pit, the driver trailers and such.
About as close as I come to it all is listening to Steve on the Performance Racing Network. We listened to a broadcast a couple of weeks ago trying to catch Steve, and it was all I could do to tolerate 15 minutes of "NeeeeeEEEERUM" "NeeeeeeEEEEERUM" and pans from one reporter to another before Steve's turn.
'Course, that's on radio. Racking on radio is like golf on radio. But I feel the same way watching it.
6.22.05 @ 8:08a
Auto racing is a competition, but don't dare call it a sport. I've seen the gut on some of those drivers. There's a reason they're sponsored by Budweiser and Miller and M&Ms and not the Broccoli Advocacy Council of America.
LMAO! That's the funniest thing I've read this week so far.
Blech! Car Racing. There is nothing exciting about men or women driving around in an oval shape for hours at a time.
I grew up around stock cars and my dad was part of a pit crew. Maybe that is why I can't stand car racing today. One too many weekends wasted sitting at a track and having some slob's beer dumped all over me every other weekend. That didn't include the long 4 hour drive to get to the races, and the even longer ride home.
That being said, I agree that car racing is not a sport.
6.22.05 @ 8:35a
IMFO motor racing is a waste of precious oil which could be used to make plastic swizzle sticks, frisbies and hula hoops.
I used to race my Porsche in my wasted youth, but now I'm a crotchety old tree hugger. Takes all kinds doncha know.
Besides gasoline was twenty-nine cents a gallon then, the oil was never gonna run out, and OPEC wasn't even a gleam in an Arab's eye yet......
6.22.05 @ 9:18a
Rock on, Sandra! Porshe-racin' momma, you!
Yeah, the environmental factors are definitely an issue.
6.22.05 @ 10:46a
Triviatum: Darrell Waltrip owns a Honda and Volvo dealership here in the Nashville area. Like most dealerships, he also has a used lot. He urges listeners to his radio commercials, "If you don't see my star on your car, better come see ol' Dee Dubya."
Anyway, in order for NASCAR to become a sport, I would want to see them out on the streets I deal with every day in my work driving completely unmodified cars straight off of DW's used car lot. Make 'em deal with red lights, road construction, clueless cellphone talkers in big lumbering Escalades, and punk-ass racer wannabees in Bondo-colored CRXs with cheap body kits. I'd pay money to see that.
6.22.05 @ 1:04p
I do wish they were actually racing "stock" cars. There's nothing stock about them. Say, on the Saturday before a Sunday race, each team gets its choice of cars from the standard automakers — Chevy, Ford, etc., no Porsches, no Ferraris — and then the garage boys get up 'til 1 hour before the start flag drops to modify to their hearts' content, the only stipulation being, they can't drop in an entirely new engine.
From a safety standpoint, I understand the drawbacks, but it would seem more challenging than everyone having nearly identical setups and templates.
6.23.05 @ 9:08a
I do wish they were actually racing "stock" cars. There's nothing stock about them.
Yeah, I know. But what is a person supposed to call them?
It's like saying Harley Davidson is an American made motorcycle. While they may be put together here in the states, a high percentage of parts on them come from China. So they are not truely a "American made" motorcycle.
6.23.05 @ 9:57a
Do NOT indoctrinate your kids into this nonsense.
6.23.05 @ 10:13a
Yeah, I know. But what is a person supposed to call them?
Once upon a time, the drivers DID race "stock" cars, or at least the shells were from actual, recognizable mass-market cars. Now the shells are uniform, with decals and paint jobs to make the "grille" look like a particular make and model. But underneath, they're all the same car.
It just makes Lindsay Lohan racing a VW Beetle in the new Herbie movie seem all the more unbelievable.
6.23.05 @ 10:19a
Wait, an anthropomorphized car and digitally reduced breasts? That's REALISM baby!
6.23.05 @ 10:46a
Hey, I could accept Herbie going to Monte Carlo, but NASCAR? That's crazy talk!
6.27.05 @ 3:39p
Matt's going to an IMAX of NASCAR tonight.
HUGE HURL. I can't imagine having all that that close to my skull, ever.
6.29.05 @ 11:36p
My friend Connie is the most timid, sweet, ladylike person I know. A few years ago, her husband Scott made her secret dream come true, and took her to some kind of NASCAR training camp dealie, where she wiped the floor with real race car drivers. You'd never ever guess that inside that Ivory Girl exterior was a speed demon!
I like watching Indy cars, but never really got into NASCAR.
6.30.05 @ 6:56p
Great article, but did you really have to put down the MLL. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing SPORTS in the country. Sit around and watch a few games of that on TV and you would be equally hooked.