Wednesday , September 17 2014
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Holding A Pretty Wheel: Everything Has Changed

Holding A Pretty Wheel: Everything Has Changed

There’s a commercial for NASCAR which talks about how everything in the sport has changed, but in the end, how nothing has really changed at all, because the spirit of the sport remains unchanged. Drivers, after all, still want to win races more than anything, and fans still want to find their racing heroes on the venues on which they race. Nothing has changed, NASCAR says, and for just a second, you want to believe it.

If only that were true.

So much has changed in racing in recent years, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the Chase, different cars (which, not unlike their real-life production counterparts, are uninspired and generic), new rules, the eschewing of so much tradition. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which changes tipped the scales, but it’s hard to deny the growing discontent among race fans. It’s clear that something has changed, and not for the better.

The drivers are just one of the many changes NASCAR has experienced through the years. Credit: CIA

The drivers are just one of the many changes NASCAR has experienced through the years. Credit: CIA

One of those things is the drivers.

Nobody wants to think that the faces of the sport have fundamentally changed in recent years, and in some ways they have not and never will. They still have that deep, unending hunger to race, to win, to be that guy who does something truly special. That inherent, fundamental desire hasn’t gone away.

But there’s no denying that things are different now. I touched on it briefly in this week’s Frontstretch Five, but here it is: drivers just don’t come across as blue-collar heroes anymore. And really, isn’t that what fans loved? The notion that someone, not that different from them, really, could do something as cool as driving a racecar and do it so well that he could make a living doing something most people only dreamed of?

The stories were sometimes endearing, sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming. They ranged from the sport’s most successful drivers driving to races in the family station wagon with his wife and kids to late night antics where somebody inevitably ended up naked or in a swimming pool. Sometimes both. There were the drivers who put their last dime into a racecar knowing if they lost that week, they couldn’t feed their families. They did it anyway. There were the ones whose pedigrees were deep in the sport and there was little doubt they’d ever do anything but drive a fast car. There were all kinds of stories.

And they were, predominantly, real.

The men and women in racing could have been your next door neighbor, your kid brother, your fishing buddy. They weren’t that different from you and me except they had that really cool job. And they knew that. Many of them reached out to fans, signed autographs by the hundreds, talked to kids they saw at the track, took the time to be part of somebody’s most treasured memory.

Even then, there were sponsors to answer to, but the sponsors understood that the best advertising a driver could give them was to sign some photos and then go out and put the car up front on the track. The way they raced made the sponsor’s weekend, not the hands they shook in a corporate suite nor the carefully crafted words spoken in front of a television camera.

Then came the popularity boom, the big-money era, and sponsors changed their game. Sure, performance is still important, but it often takes a back seat to the meet & greets with clients, regional visits, and carefully controlled words and actions. And the drivers have to play the game, even if it distances them from the everyday fans. After all, one can’t sign as many autographs for fans if he’s visiting with executives in the suite instead. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And then there’s the money. A good race used to mean the driver got a couple hundred bucks, which paid for groceries and rent, maybe a car payment. It certainly didn’t pay for a palatial motorhome or a private jet, which are standard equipment for elite drivers today. Even the ones who drive for smaller teams have a motor coach that rivals some fans’ homes in amenities. There are seven-figure salaries plus a percentage of winnings. There are lakeside homes and apartments in the city.

Suddenly, the blue-collar heroes aren’t so blue-collar anymore. They’re not driving to races with the rest of us. They aren’t staying in the same hotels or sitting a few tables over in the local restaurants. Nobody is naked and in a swimming pool (though that might not be a bad thing…), at least not at the same time. Drivers aren’t just like the average Joe anymore.

Tony Schumacher, who drives fast cars in the NHRA, a world apart from NASCAR, can see the difference. In an interview with Frontstretch earlier this year, Schumacher said that NASCAR drivers have been separated from the fans by their salaries, no matter how down-to-earth they might be.

“NASCAR drivers are heroes because we’ve separated them from everybody else, as messed up as that sounds. You overpay someone and you make them a hero. Michael Schumacher makes 120 million a year. I want to meet the guy and I don’t even care what he drives. There’s a certain aura about these guys and we’ve built them into that,” Schumacher said. And that is true…that aura separates drivers and fans in a new and different way. Once, they were heroes because they were just like everyone else. Now, they’re set apart.

Money has changed the sport in many ways, a lot of them not for the good. The separation between drivers and fans is wide and deep. While most of them are still the kind of person you could sit and have a beer with, they no longer come across to fans that way. No matter how likeable or personable a driver is, he’s still criticized for not spending the time with fans his predecessors did. Many of today’s drivers are perceived as having had their careers handed to them, as having had unlimited resources to build their careers. In many cases, that’s simply not true. Some of the ones who get the most criticism for not earning what they have have, in fact, worked harder than most to get it.

But fans don’t see that. They don’t know the drivers like they at least felt like they did in years past. Increasingly, fans only hear what a sponsor, or NASCAR, wants them to hear from the men and women who drive the cars that are their bread and butter. A lot of the time, they blame the drivers for that. Sometimes, they’re right. Others, they’re wrong—if anything, it’s the sponsors and NASCAR who keep the drivers from speaking from the heart and risking not saying the exact right thing. Some of today’s drivers can tell stories that rival the naked, swimming pool stories of old…but you will rarely hear them, because someone has decided they don’t want that side of them to be seen, or the drivers themselves are too self-conscious, too afraid of what sponsors might think. That’s too bad, because it only widens the rift.

Whatever the reason, no matter who’s at fault, things have changed. Drivers aren’t like the common man anymore. And maybe that’s what some fans miss the most.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

7 comments

  1. Bill B,

    Your comments are well written. It’s the general rot of the American Society and the PC crap. It’s sad when you can’t be honest and speak your mind without someone getting offended even we know its the truth but we no longer accept the truth, only thing that matters today is it PC.

    I have noticed in the numerous comments you have posted that You were not born yesterday. Since I am a baby-boomer I find myself almost agreeing with your views in the broad sense of things.

  2. Nascar has become like golf…..A person doesn’t have to win to be a multimillionaire. Just get close, smile, give stock answers to stock questions, do a funny commercial, and have a great life. All part of the show.

  3. Great article Amy. Quite a breath of fresh air from the usual articles. Just yesterday I was reading some bio/interview articles on former NASCAR drivers on some racing legends site and when you read how the racing environment was in the 60′s through even the early 90′s you can quickly see how much NASCAR has changed from a drivers perspective. I do remember in the late 90′s/early 00′s you could call Dave Marcus’s shop and he actual would answer the phone,(granted he wasn’t as big as Jeff Gordon). I can’t imagine that happening now with even the smallest team at this point in time.

  4. It is nice to see a writer stay in touch with the fans. You may be becoming my favorite racing writer. What I, and I suppose many of us loved was a guy with grease under his nails that cursed at a frozen bolt and drove what I drove. Money does change everything, and not for the better. It always bothers me a little to see a driver destroy his carefully built car after a win by melting his engine while burning his tires off. I suppose when you make a zillion dollars you lose the ability to see the value in things. One positive, and it is a big one for me, is that unlike baseball, football, and especially basketball NASCAR drivers are almost without exception good people. Drivers that I do not care for at worst have unpleasant personalities. They are never the often violent anti social criminals found in other sports. That maybe the main reason I have not given up (yet) on NASCAR.

  5. Once again you hit the nail on the head Amy. Money changes everything. Many of the points you made could be applied to all sports. Prior to the 1970′s, most football players were blue collar regular guys as well. Many had to work jobs in addition to playing football to make a good living. You are correct, money changes everything and definitely creates a disconnect between the fans and their heroes.

    But there is something else at work here too. It’s the way society has changed in this age of political correctness and social media. If someone famous says anything that goes against the PC agenda or is in the least bit controversial, someone captures it with their smart phone, it’s posted on the internet and then blasted around the world within an hour. The next step is for the a small group who feels it’s their job to enforce the PC agenda to hit social media and make sure that whatever the celebrity said gets the maximum negative exposure no matter how trivial or out of context. It’s amazing how a relatively small but vocal group can now dictate the perception of the larger society. The idiots that used to stand on a soap-box on the corner and scream at the small crowd passing by now have a much taller soap box and much bigger crowd. And since everything seems to be dependent on Corporate America for funding/sponsorship now days, and corporations have no stomach for controversy of any kind, the repercussions are swift and significant.

    So, if I am one of these celebrities how do I react to that? Say as little as possible in public and insulate myself from the general public which includes those blue collar regular people fans. Hell, most of us experience the same thing at our jobs. Someone says something that isn’t PC, someone else reports them to Human Resources, they get called in and reprimanded and learn to just keep their mouth shut in the future.