Race Weekend Central

A Sun”day of Thunder”

Last Sunday afternoon, I partied like it was 1990.

That was the year when the movie Days of Thunder was released.

That was also what I seemed to be watching during the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville, Virginia.

There was Danica Patrick going all mano-a-mano with David Gilliland, and “Bad Brad” Keselowski slapping sheet metal with Kurt Busch and “Mad Matt” Kenseth. And we all know what happened when Kenseth suffered a handling problem going into turn 1 in the vicinity of Joey Logano.

Not that racing at Martinsville is all butterflies-and-bunny rabbits on the contact scale, but the parting shot heard ‘round NASCAR Nation sent a very clear message.

To borrow the words of crew chief Harry Hogge, as played by Robert Duvall, in the movie Days of Thunder: “You done it deliberate!”

Matt Kenseth’s actions last Sunday at Martinsville were three weeks in the making. Contact with Joey Logano at Kansas cost Kenseth the victory and put him in a must-win situation at Talladega the following race. Additional contact near the entrance to pit road at Talladega fanned the flames of the feud. Then came Martinsville….

And we all knew what was going to happen.

The problem is that what we expected to happen actually did. When Matt Kenseth got all “Rowdy Burns” on Joey Logano, not only did Logano’s Sprint Cup title hopes take a severe drubbing, but so did NASCAR’s precarious, often-questioned reputation within the universe of mainstream sports.

I have written about NASCAR’s delicate public reputation many times before, but it bears repeating once again given the fallout from Sunday’s race: if NASCAR wants to be accepted as a legitimate professional sport, it needs to present itself appropriately when bathed in the global media spotlight.

If we want to debate the philosophical question of “Were the good ol’ days really all that good?” the folks manning NASCAR headquarters need to look no further than to the epic cinematic experience that was Days of Thunder. If the movie intended to educate audiences about the inner workings and intricate nuances of big-time NASCAR, it swallowed a valve when it took the green flag.

While general audiences thrilled to the unfolding saga surrounding Cole Trickle (the “good” driver played by Tom Cruise) and Rowdy Burns (the “bad” driver played by Michael Rooker), NASCAR Nation (then in its infant stage) flinched with every spinning car, smoking motor, dented fender, and “redneck” cliché.

Kind of like what we’ve been watching during the last three weeks of the Chase.

When Days of Thunder hit theaters, racing fans were quick to make comparisons to “real life” particulars from the sport. The character of Cole Trickle was loosely based on the late Tim Richmond, the portrayal of Harry Hogge was inspired by the late Harry Hyde, and their tenuous student/mentor relationship was prompted by a Charlotte-area automobile dealer named Tim Daland and inspired by Rick Hendrick.

And Rowdy Burns, the no-nonsense, stuff-you-in-the-wall, “good ol’ boy” driving a black Chevrolet? Even the casual NASCAR observer recognized Hollywood’s take on Dale Earnhardt.

Mainstream America was encouraged, however, by the film’s characterization of stock car racing to reach another conclusion: that NASCAR was an ethically-challenged wasteland of aggression, revenge, and openly-reckless driving. Drivers settled their competitive and personal differences on-track with fenders and front ends. Penalties and probation gave way to a “Boys, have at it” attitude that has become the mantra for today’s NASCAR Nation.

Not that the sanctioning body in Days of Thunder didn’t try to intervene. In one scene gleaned from real life, NASCAR executive “Big John”, played by the late Fred Thompson, orders Trickle and Burns to discuss the effects of their escalating rivalry by sharing a rental car and driving to dinner. “Big Bill” France gave a similar order to Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine during the 1980s when their own relationship proved to be more conflict than competition.

So how did that turn out? On film, the headstrong drivers wind up trashing two rental cars and maintaining their status quo. In real life, we’ll assume that NASCAR will encourage better behavior heading into Homestead.

An added coincidence: Fred Thompson/”Big John” passed away on Sunday.

I thought about Days of Thunder as the events of Martinsville unspooled last weekend. As both Logano and Kenseth climbed out of their broken heaps, the grandstands were alive with cheering fans. “An eye for an eye” was enacted on that legendary little track in Southern Virginia, and it felt as though such behavior set NASCAR back about half a century.

Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, among other drivers back in 1990, believed that Days of Thunder promoted a negative stereotype about NASCAR, saying the film showed far too much “redneckery” than the sport deserved. In trying to make the movie look authentic, the filmmakers opted for over-the-top attributes that showcased much of what NASCAR strived for decades to erase.

It’s difficult to earn respect when all you demonstrate are embarrassing qualities….

NASCAR has often been defined by conventional society as being less than a sport. Races seem to be manipulated, teams “sell” themselves to corporate sponsors, and the new Chase format celebrates desperate measures by desperate drivers at desperate times. Even though racing fans, in general, may have been thrilled by what they saw at Martinsville last weekend, there should still be a feeling of Southern discomfort.

Does a sport improve when strategy morphs into spectacle? NASCAR fans knew that some kind of retaliation from Kenseth toward Logano was likely, but did it need to unfold in such an obvious way?

The late Steve McQueen, while filming the motion picture LeMans back in 1971, told reporters: “The racing world is no less creative an expression than film itself. It’s only an oddity because it’s a blood sport.”

And when that blood is encouraged to go bad, we get the kind of creative expression we witnessed at Martinsville during last weekend’s “Day of Thunder”….

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