Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: NASCAR Fans Still Reviled Among the Elite

One of the biggest gripes about the new Chase for the Championship in NASCAR is not so much a break from tradition, but to what it represents: pandering to the masses. Every week, be it during the race, NASCAR-themed shows or in print, constant comparisons are made to other sports, drawing parallels between their postseason and the new “playoff” format that was introduced for the 2004 season.

NASCAR has a tremendous amount of time, money and effort invested trying to change the reputation and image of NASCAR. What was once thought of as a regional sport born of moonshiners and bootleggers had grown to the one of the most popular sports in the nation, ranking second only behind the NFL in attendance and ratings. Surely NASCAR had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the public at large.

That is, unless you work in our nation’s capitol.

Last week the Washington Times reported that the Democratic head of the Homeland Security Committee (the ones who try to find the best way to keep airplanes out of buildings and bombs off of buses), instructed aides to receive immunization shots prior to embarking on a fact-finding mission. Among the diseases they were most concerned with: hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus and influenza. Just what far flung, third-world crap hole that time forgot were they traveling to? Iraq? Sudan? The Ivory Coast?

Nope. Charlotte, N.C. Lowe’s Motor Speedway was their target objective.

Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from Concord, was more than a little steamed when he learned of this apparent public health menace in his hometown. “I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and as the representative for Concord, N.C., I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown,” Hayes said in his letter to Bennie Thompson (D – Miss.), who heads the Homeland Security panel. “I have been to numerous NASCAR races, and the folks who attend these events certainly do not pose any health hazard to congressional staffers or anyone else,” Hayes said.

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Well it’s nice to see we’ve made so much progress over the last seven years, isn’t it?

We’ve all had to endure these ridiculous pre-race spectacles, poorly choreographed rock concerts and monotonous pre-race shows that last over an hour so we can hear about how great of a race it’s going to be, and that Denny Hamlin has “a real good car today.” NASCAR has found a way to plaster drivers’ likenesses over everything from t-shirts and bumpers stickers to stuffed animals and video games. Jeff Gordon is routinely a guest on talk shows, the drivers make their yearly media blitz through New York prior to the start of the Chase, and the President has gone so far to even bring the top-10 drivers to the White House and park their cars on the First Lawn.

Yet race fans are now considered a threat to public health and safety? At the nicest facility on the tour no less!

Perhaps it is more of a cultural thing; if there’s anyone more detached from reality, it’s likely a member of the government in Washington D.C. However it doesn’t just stop there. Recall earlier this year when Washington State Representative Larry Seaquist, made the comment “These are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with junky cars in the front lawn and trying to slip around the law.”

This while Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty, among others, traveled there to make the case that the Pacific Northwest was in dire need of a track and a date in NASCAR’s premier division. House Speaker Frank Chopp when referring to the King, said that he looked like a drunken felon and inquired, “Isn’t this the guy that got arrested for DUI?!”

Further rejection came in the way of the delayed, if not abandoned, efforts to build a track on Long Island, N.Y.

Humpy Wheeler, never one to be undiplomatic, had a rather succinct response. “The very idea of immunization is laughable. It’s like taping your ankles to a mailbox. This is not some third- or fourth-world country. Never before in the 50-plus years of NASCAR has there been an outbreak of any kind at an event, other than a few headaches because someone’s favorite driver ran out of gas or maybe a morning hangover.”

Ah yes. The dreaded strain of Busch Lightitis. I too was once a sufferer.

While some may argue that this story has been blown out of proportion, partially because it was a Democratic member of Congress that was involved while NASCAR is typically considered a bastion of Republicanism, I think it speaks to the larger issue within NASCAR in general; no matter what they do, there is going to be a sizable segment of the population that sees race fans as a bunch of rednecks, hillbillies and dirt people.

There are the constant parallels drawn between racing and professional wrestling. Ratings continue to fall – this weekend’s race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway scored 2.5% lower than last year – and it was an apples to apples comparison, as the 2006 event was on NBC and this year was on ABC. Couple that with rebukes from the remaining two markets where NASCAR does not have a presence and you’ll notice a glass ceiling of sorts that we keep running headlong into.

Which brings me to the point that I always keep coming back to: Why do we go out of our way to change for everyone else, when this is how we’re viewed by so many? Why can’t we just go back to the original formula that produced unparalleled growth and spurred rabid popularity from 1948 through 2003 – attract fans by being different and not catering to others. Be yourself and people will gravitate towards you. It’s no different than in the real world or, God forbid, politics. Though I’m sure in Daytona Beach, Fla. as it does in Washington D.C., my brand of common sense and logic will fall on deaf ears.

In the meantime, here’s to getting a shot to immunize yourself from those pink hotdogs at this weekend at Martinsville.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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