Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the “White Liquor and Dirt Tracks” event sponsored by Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
One of its highlights involved a group of racing’s old-timers assembling in one room to talk about NASCAR history and answer questions from the audience.
Among those present were Dale Inman, former longtime crew chief for Richard Petty; Rex White, who won the points championship in 1960; Dave Marcis, a competitor on the circuit for years; and a number of others who played a role in the history of the sport.
While none of them really came out and said it, one would suspect that many of those folks are disappointed with the NASCAR product today compared to earlier years. I know I sure am. And racing legend Junior Johnson told me during an interview last fall that stock-car racing is not as exciting as it once was.
Much has been said about how officials of the circuit — in an effort to make NASCAR a national sport — have gradually abandoned its roots in places such as North Carolina where racing really took hold.
As historic raceways at locations such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham have closed down, so-called “cookie-cutter” tracks have sprung up in places including Kansas and Chicago (Chicago? Give me a break). There also has been an emphasis on marketing a cleaner-cut image among the drivers themselves, as opposed to the beer-drinking, tobacco-spitting, liquor-running, hard-driving, harder-fighting figures of days past.
And the NASCAR hierarchy has made sure that even if some of today’s crop of drivers actually want to act like real people and not robots, they are beat down and forced to tow the line.
Modern drivers seem afraid to express their opinions, or emotions, and when they do, these rare displays of spontaneity usually are followed by a fine or reprimand from NASCAR President Mike Helton (who has done much to ruin a good thing). Kyle Busch is the closest thing to a real person in NASCAR today.
Generally speaking, fans have complained that that’s too much emphasis on show and not enough on substance (the quality of racing itself), and this has played out in lower television ratings and attendance at tracks in recent years.
In my opinion, the Celebrity Syndrome is serving to undermine stock-car racing as much as anything, which has been the case with other aspects of American culture, including sports. And this is amply evident as the 2012 NASCAR season prepares to kick off at Daytona this weekend, when one needs to look no farther than Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick for living proof.
Relatively little attention has been devoted in pre-race promotions to people such as Tony Stewart, who won the points championship last year in a fierce late-season rally.
It’s been mostly about Earnhardt and Patrick — the anointed icons of the sport even though neither of them has ever really accomplished anything.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Dale Jr. seems like a real nice guy who would be fun to knock down a few beers and shoot the breeze with, but the man has won only about one race in the past five years. His problems are always blamed on his crew chief and racing team, but no matter how many crew chief changes there are or which highly financed team he switches to, Earnhardt’s performance basically remains poor.
What’s more, he doesn’t seem to care. Whenever his car is wrecked or he has a bad finish, Dale Jr. just kind of blows it off in a casual manner — in stark contrast to the intensity his late father often displayed. While it is doubtful that Dale Jr. will ever win a championship (the elder Earnhardt captured seven), this hasn’t kept NASCAR and TV executives from holding Junior up as a star due to that genetic link.
And his status is being rivaled by the emergence of Danica Patrick, who has moved from the Indy Racing League to compete in NASCAR this year. I mean, she’s nice to look at, but the woman won only one race during her time as an Indy driver, and that was in Japan!
Given that Indy drivers who shift gears to NASCAR don’t have too good of a track record (pardon the puns), I would venture to guess that Patrick will stink on ice in her new circuit. Yet look for every race telecast to contain plenty of interviews with her and other coverage to highlight Patrick’s stature as an advertising shill — similar to what Dale Jr. has been reduced to — while downplaying her deficiencies as a race car driver.
We witnessed the same thing happen with the recent National Football League season, when the big story was not the fabulous turnaround by the New York Giants that led to their Super Bowl victory. THE story was Tim Tebow, who captured America’s attention despite being a mediocre quarterback at best.
This phenomenon also is occurring now with professional basketball and the emergence of Jeremy Lin, who was virtually unheard of three weeks ago, but now — similar to Tebow — has become a sensation due to late-game heroics.
Tiger Woods, the present version of him, also has become more of a celebrity and less of a golfing great since his fall from grace which surrounded his nasty marital breakup. Yet every time golf tournament results are shown on TV, Woods’ name is always included, even though he might be in 58th place at the time.
Perhaps the greatest-ever example of this was tennis player Anna Kournikova (also good to look at), who at one time was the most popular figure in the game despite never winning a singles tournament during her entire career.
But where sports of all types is concerned, I think that somewhere along the line excellence on the track, field or court has to be the important thing — not flashiness and glamour.
Tom Joyce is a reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.