Wednesday , October 1 2014
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Keeping Priorities Straight

NASCAR drivers – like any other kind of professional athlete – do not owe their fans either time or attention during race weekends. The argument has always been that without the fans, there’d be no NASCAR, but that’s not really the case.

Sure, there was a time during the sport’s infancy when fans needed to be wooed and won over with autographs, photographs, and personal time; “King” Richard Petty earned fame, in part, because he would spend hours with fans after a race. Most of his Hall-of-Fame status came from his record 200 Winston Cup victories, but most of his legend was built on his reputation for meeting fans and giving them the attention they craved.

Such was the nature of big-time stock car racing during those early years, that era when the sport was still wrestling with its infamous legacy of “good ol’ boys” that went from outrunning the ATF to following the “benevolent dictatorship” of “Big Bill” France. It was important for NASCAR competitors (both drivers and crew members) to connect with fans because the sport was seeking to achieve a place within mainstream America. The theory was that as long as fans could identify with drivers and feel connected to them through personal interaction, fans could then better identify with the sport. Getting close to their favorite driver made fans devoutly loyal to NASCAR’s “holy trinity”: the sacred relationship that formed between the fan, their driver, and their driver’s sponsors.

It’s true that much of NASCAR’s success comes from a tradition of maintaining an “open door” policy with fans. It’s also true that much of the sport’s success comes from a tradition of serious competition. Drivers face dangerous challenges every time they show up at a NASCAR event. A driver has to focus on practice, set-ups, and qualifying, and that’s all before they strap in for the race itself. Any lap turned in search of a faster time or a better position can result in a wrecked car, an injury, or worse.

Expecting drivers to be at every fan’s beck-and-call seems irresponsible. Every driver – regardless of their series – has to make driving their highest priority. That’s difficult to do if you’re constantly besieged by fans seeking “just one more” photo or autograph.

Imagine if the tables were turned. Wouldn’t there be a problem if a lawyer, about to argue a case before the Supreme Court, was suddenly approached by an admirer seeking a photograph? What about the chief surgeon at the Mayo Clinic getting hit up by “their biggest fan” for a quick autograph while said doctor scrubs-up before doing open-heart surgery?

Let’s downshift a bit. What about the FedEx delivery person, or the elementary school teacher, who has to forsake their tight schedule (and long list of responsibilities) in order to “give a few minutes” to a loyal well-wisher? Such demands could be considered wildly intrusive, possibly rude, and maybe even illegal…. so why should we expect Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, or Dale, Jr. to put their race-day focus on hold while taking time to meet-and-greet the fans gathered along pit road?

NASCAR has tried to capitalize on its “open door” tradition by adopting a “pay toilet” philosophy – if fans want driver autographs, charge them for the chance. We’ve watched as tracks added “Fan Zones” and other limited-access enclosures to their renovated facilities, but while this lessens the amount of contact drivers have with autograph-seeking fans, it also enables the track to score a tidy sum of added revenue. Suddenly, drivers find themselves with an even-more distracting demand on their time and concentration…. the “racer-in-their-natural-habitat” exhibit. It reduces fan/driver contact, but it’s still an unreasonable expectation to make given a busy race weekend.

Should drivers be expected to sign/pose for fans away from the track? In that case, I say “Most definitely”. That’s typically why drivers show up at auto dealerships and supermarket grand openings; an environment away from the racetrack allows drivers to connect with NASCAR Nation and create memories for their loyal fans. It’s presumptuous to expect drivers to give time to fans at a speedway when their talents and energies are required elsewhere.

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