Race Weekend Central

The Education Of A NASCAR Fan

All the recent bickering over the ins-and-outs and thereabouts of the NASCAR Sprint Cup rulebook has led to some very interesting discussions amongst racing fans. The discourse, as you might expect has revolved around the confirmed innocence / implied guilt of Chad Knaus and his teammates / minions at Hendrick Motorsports. Much of this situation revolves around questions of ethics and the consequences of choice; did Knaus and company shape the C-pillars according to procedure “as usual” on their Lowe’s Chevrolet for Daytona? If not, and rules were broken, was the violation worth the cost if the team was busted by NASCAR inspectors? Was bending / breaking the rules necessary for Jimmie Johnson’s success at Daytona? When does creativity become cheating?

When does “what we always did” give way to “what we can’t do?” How do we learn such lessons?

Our actions always result in consequences. While this isn’t exactly breaking news, it’s quite often overlooked amidst the chaos of our daily lives. The obvious is usually taken for granted and treated as insignificant. Maybe it’s because this action-consequence continuum is deeply engraved within human nature; it’s easy to ignore the lessons taught through cause and effect. While we associate learning such lessons with formal education, we must also recognize that much of what we know comes from informal sources. “Book learning” is always supplemented by our enrollment in “the school of hard knocks” – the correlation between learning lessons and living them.

Why are these three men smiling? They just won a NASCAR penalty appeal, received their 25 points back, and get to keep the brain trust of the No. 48 team atop his throne for the next six weeks.

I consider myself lucky to have spent my entire life (so far) in-and-around the sport of automobile racing. While I’ve dealt with all types of motorsports – from the local and amateur to the professional and global – the vast majority of my time has been consumed by stock car racing. I’ve always been fascinated, in particular, by the people, the procedures, the influences, the events, the business, and the history of NASCAR. As such, many of the essential lessons I’ve learned about life have come directly from my connection with NASCAR Nation. It started in childhood, became a constant as I grew up, and eventually blossomed into a major part of my career. I may earn my salary as an English professor, but my area of specialization is motorsports history.

Teaching writing and literature at a small college is a big part of my job, but racing is a big part of my life.

One piece of popular literature that topped best-seller lists years ago was Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.” Fulghum is a “jack-of-all-trades,” having spent time as everything from a Unitarian Universalist minister to an artist, a musician, a teacher, and a bartender. His 1988 book on the importance of seeing life from the perspective of a child swept the nation as a manifesto for simplicity, blending the homespun observations of Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor with the philosophical musings of Buddha and Henry David Thoreau. Since its publication, over 16 million copies of Fulghum’s book have appeared in 103 countries.

The basic premise of “All I Really Need to Know…” is that uncomplicated and/or simple thinking trumps “high-content information” every time – that “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.” While the idea seems obvious, it’s rarely considered when it comes to the business of our everyday life. Especially in our instantaneous, technology-driven, information-centered society, the universally “common” gives way to the unnecessarily “complicated.” In the words of Robert Fulghum: “The examined life is no picnic.”

In thinking about Fulghum’s work since its publication, and in contemplating my years around the sport of stock car racing, I’ve come to the conclusion that most (if not all) of the essential lessons I’ve learned about life have come from speedways and race shops. Much of the credit goes to my parents, who gave me the chance to experience racing firsthand from my earliest days.

One of my first, truly clear memories from childhood is of sitting in the third-turn grandstands at Pocono Raceway in 1971 to watch qualifying for the “Pennsylvania 500” USAC stock car race. My father pointed out famous drivers like Lee Roy Yarbrough, Jim Paschal, and A.J. Foyt, among others hoping to make the field that afternoon. He also suggested that I watch how “Super Tex” took his ‘71 Plymouth through the flat turn before us; you could hear the Plymouth’s chassis creak under the strain of its struggle against centrifugal force. I remember looking up at my father; he was smiling happily and the words he semi-shouted to me that day still ring true: “Hear how he hardly lifted? He hardly lifted and look how fast he was! That’s what you do – stay on the throttle and trust your car….”

One of Mark Howell’s lasting memories as a child comes from the tight racing competition at Pocono Raceway.

My father’s comment regarding A.J. Foyt’s desire to sit on the pole at Pocono wasn’t one of those lessons that make a child a better, more capable, or more respected person; it was a comment about racing, but the point being made applied to other aspects of living a clear and purposeful life. Even today, being in a line of work that’s as far-removed from driving a stock car as one can get, the basic theory is a useful one – don’t give up, even when a situation seems intimidating, and trust the resources at your disposal.

Situations within NASCAR Nation can offer up valuable life lessons that address more than just the moving-and-shaking of a competitive environment. Learning through watching is possible, but learning through doing is even more relevant. Say what you will about formal education’s over-emphasis on “learning styles”, but a hands-on approach to anything is more beneficial than going with a less-engaged method.

What I’ve learned regarding the power of teamwork has been developed not from years in Little League or from playing high school football (I did neither), but from spending time with NASCAR race teams as both an observer and a participant. I was fortunate enough to spend three seasons (from 2001 through 2003) following Brett Bodine Racing for a book I was writing about the Bodine family for Syracuse University Press. To have access for interviews, photographs, and observational research, Brett made me part of his race team. I paid for my own NASCAR crew credentials each year and for all of my travel, but my license gave me full access to NASCAR through BBR’s then-Winston Cup operation. How could such a project connect to lessons learned regarding teamwork?

The answer was all the time, adding to my life education consistently along the way. Bodine’s No. 11 Ford Taurus was constantly underfunded. Larger sponsors, like the Ralph’s division of Kroger grocery stores, Wells Fargo Financial, and the Hooters restaurant chain, picked up most of the team’s expenses, but BBR was always searching for more companies to provide more performance through more money. Potential deals collapsed with broken promises, and morale was often low as Brett raced each week against teams with annual budgets that were three or four times larger than his. This adversity felt insurmountable as the “natural selection” of motorsports took over. The teams with more sponsorship ran better, which got them on television more often, which made them more attractive to sponsors, who gave such teams even more of what they already had: financial backing.

Surprisingly enough, this lack of consistent major sponsorship only seemed to make the folks at Brett Bodine Racing work even harder. Complaining about a lack of money meant nothing when compared to what really mattered – a more-cooperative effort by everyone involved focused on achieving better performance. Instead of griping silently to themselves (and some of this happened, to be sure), the folks at BBR concentrated their energies toward running as well as possible despite a lack of sponsorship.

This lesson about the power of teamwork – especially when the odds were against you at most every turn – was a powerful one. Not only did the crew at BBR suck it up and do what they could with what they had, but they pooled energies and ideas to try and accomplish something with nothing. I observed the benefits of open and clear communication when someone suddenly had an idea for finding more speed, and I also saw how a simple miscommunication could affect the delicate balance of a race team where money was tight and tensions were great.

Spending time with BBR taught me other useful “life skills.” I learned the value of such qualities as humility, sincerity, pragmatism, humor, and grace under pressure – all important when balancing scant resources and trying to be competitive one minute, then dealing with fans, potential sponsors, and/or the media the next. As an owner/driver, Brett wore a lot of hats (often all at once), but watching him and listening to how he went about his life in racing taught me volumes about how a person might go about their life in general.

One lesson I’ve learned from NASCAR is that anything is possible once the green flag drops. The inherent nature of competition brings out the best (and worst) in athletes, and race car drivers are no exception. Oddly enough, some of the lessons covered by Fulghum in his book – the important traits we learned in kindergarten – relate directly to the lessons we can (or should) learn from racing. Fulghum’s book advises us to “play fair,” “don’t hit people,” and “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” While these lessons reflect ethics and equality, is it not a stretch to assign such lessons to NASCAR Nation? Why do lessons when encouraged change into lessons quickly disregarded once official input is provided?

Consider what we’ve learned over the past few days regarding “pillargate” and the No. 48 team: the fact that decisions concerning “legal” versus “illegal” actions can be readily appealed and summarily overturned with no clear explanation or reasons given. Fans can make generalizations based on past histories between participants and implied favoritism fostered by personal relationships, but what lesson does this teach us about “life” as seen through the lens of NASCAR? Maybe it teaches us that who we know and what we have has direct influence over anything “the rules” try to govern.

Sometimes you have to, in the words of Robert Fulghum, “Clean up your own mess.”

So, what have I learned from years of being around NASCAR? I’ve learned plenty. I learned about perseverance by watching drivers like Darrell Waltrip and the late Dale Earnhardt win the Daytona 500. Everything I know about the elusive nature of fate I learned from watching Derrike Cope in the 1990 Daytona 500, and from seeing Jeff Gordon at the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400 in 1994. NASCAR has also taught me that we should always expect the unexpected, no matter if it’s in a positive context (as in the “shower-of-sparks” driving exhibition of Kyle Busch during this year’s Budweiser Shootout), or in a negative one (as in the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001).

A life around NASCAR has taught me that the positive attribute of creativity can be redefined as negative when matched against the philosophy of an organization with something to prove. Consider Brad Keselowski’s “technique” for outsmarting the timing loops on pit road at Bristol last fall – being “creative” only goes so far when you’ve gained an advantage over the authorities. NASCAR has taught me that innovation often leads to agitation, especially when it comes to an unorthodox interpretation of the rulebook.

But NASCAR has also shown me the merits of such “unorthodox” behavior. One of the best ways to kill time in the garage during a race weekend (and there’s often a lot of time to kill) is listening to crew chiefs, car owners, and drivers swap stories about “the idea that almost was.” I’ve heard many a racer talk about grinding out rear axles, playing with weight distribution, and theorizing about ways to increase fuel loads under the watchful eye of NASCAR.

“I’m so happy you didn’t get suspended for cheating. Now build something awesome for Fontana. Just don’t get caught.”

Think back to Junior Johnson’s _“Yellow Banana”_ – Fred Lorenzen’s 1966 Ford with a chop top roof with arched fenders and hood, or to Smokey Yunick’s race car that was stripped of its fuel cell, yet could be driven back to the garage (with its engine running!) after an especially-thorough technical inspection by NASCAR. There are lessons to learn from stories about lead helmets hung in cars to manipulate weight between inspections and qualifying. Even the kind of paint used to coat the interior of a stock car can make a difference; I’ve been told the type of paint can add as much as thirty pounds to a car’s overall weight, and that’s a lot when you’re challenging the rulebook.

While Robert Fulghum’s book fills a niche in what we call “popular” psychology, it’s safe to say that NASCAR fills an equally important niche in our popular culture. If culture helps us to learn about roles, responsibilities, and reasons for acting like we do, then maybe the sport does us a service by teaching us about essential traits and qualities we need for satisfying lives. Did learning about life through NASCAR teach me to be a better person?

Probably not, but it sure did teach me to be suspicious of authority figures…

“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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