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.
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.