Race Weekend Central

Denying a Thirst For Disaster: NASCAR TV Coverage Says More About Us Than Them

One of the peculiar things from last weekend’s coverage of Talladega Superspeedway on FOX came in the way its NASCAR Cup Series broadcast ended. The race itself finished in a manner that has become customary for pack racing affairs, with a wreck on the last lap; this time near the finish line, with a lot of destroyed cars, and fingers crossed that no one injured themselves in a serious manner. Such chaos is the state of this type of racing.

But FOX, in the network’s need to move on to other programming, gave little time to truly cover the crash and check with all the drivers. Instead, it looked like showing the replays became what mattered while finishing order, safety, interviews or other helpful tidbits stood as trivial information left to be discovered elsewhere.

The important aspect for the sport is FOX got the footage needed to again sell NASCAR as a crash-filled, hyper-adrenaline, super-drama race where disaster can unfold at any moment. This framework is the tool for selling the product, the ever-necessary promotion machine. Such a construct is borne from the basics of the human condition.

Somewhere, buried deep in the reaches of our amygdala, the thirst for and comprehension of violence is intrinsic to our existence. Skipping through history, ignoring the Romans and the gladiators, brushing past the Middle Ages and jousting tournaments, we can look at the colonization of North America as tribute for bloodlust.

When the Puritans first settled on the continent, they attempted to live in a pious fashion and thought any work that did not serve to glorify God was deemed troubling and outlawed. However, in the South, with the more liberal influx of Scots-Irish settlers and the Dutch influence in what became New York, a different attitude prevailed that supported recreational activities. Following King James’ declaration in 1618 that activities could be permitted on Sundays, outside of church, the roots for sports and entertainment were born. Over time, they became a recognizable cultural influence.

The cultural practices of the time meant violence was inherent in the early forms of sports. One popular recreational event in North America was bull-baiting – when a bull would be tied up and a group of dogs would be set upon the bull. Two kinds of bets would accompany this form of entertainment: how many dogs it would take to subdue the bull or how many dogs could the bull kill.

In a similar fashion, bears would be used. And then, when the settlers got more creative, they would have a bear and a bull fight. This practice began to be discouraged in the middle of the 1800s but until then stood as a formal event that brought townspeople together, the violence becoming part of the normative life condition.

While animal cruelty is one thing, the violence enacted on other humans also proved significant. A common form of fighting in the early republic was eye gouging, which is as terrible as it seems. Rather than fighting as we might think, with fists, the goal was to poke an opponent’s eye out.

The game soon evolved to include another part of the face: nose biting. In the South, it was not uncommon to run into someone who might be missing part of his nose. The practice was meant to be a way of doubly humiliating a person, by both showing a reminder they had lost but also making them ugly in the process.

And early boxing, whoa! Before the Queensbury rules in 1865, boxers fought bare-handed and there were no round limits. Basically, the fighters fought until a person could no longer fight. One notable event lasted nearly three hours and ended when one combatant died. It makes the current UFC/MMA rules seem like child’s play by comparison, right?

In the centuries since, Americans have become far more civilized; but even in modern times, we can never be fully removed from our bloodlust instincts. The rules that have been enacted to make sports safe have merely just changed how we enjoy our carnage. The introduction of safety measures to college football after 18 players died in 1904, for example, shifted the brutality away from death but did not change the overall violence surrounding the game.

Motorsports have enjoyed this same sense of progress. No longer are drivers dying on the track at a steady rate, nor fans being killed by wayward cars and pieces. Between catchfences, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, tethered wheels, and a slew of other designs, motorsports have become almost safe. (Erik Jones might beg to differ after Talladega).

The complex concept of human desire, however, pushes us to want to see a driver controlling an untamed machine with skill while also wanting to see the result of when such an endeavor goes horribly wrong. The speed is the beauty; the wrecks are thirst.

So when FOX cut away from the twisted sheet metal at Talladega Sunday (April 21), it was merely capitulating to our insatiable need for a fix and then the desire to move on. The footage from the wreck could be used to sell next year’s race at the track, or even Daytona or Atlanta, to show how dangerous pack racing can be.

The easy thing to do here would be to criticize FOX’s coverage, and really, at this point, that’s low-hanging fruit. Just check Twitter (still not calling it X, suck it Elon) and you’ll find plenty of people showcasing how often and how badly FOX has screwed up its NASCAR coverage this season.

See also
Couch Potato Tuesday: FOX Improves in Talladega, Strange Choices Remain

Instead, the thing to point out is at its core, FOX is doing for its viewers what we claim to hate but remains an innate desire within us — witnessing those nasty crashes that are inevitable within the sport.

The part of the brain that on some level enjoys violence has not disappeared. Laws, norms and practices have encouraged what we might call a more civilized existence, but the crashes, the UFC fights, the brutal hits in football and every other vicious collision still appeals to a fierce and wild side within. 

We can say we resist it, that violence is not acceptable. But our brain is hard-wired to find the curiosity within it. Admitting that is the first step toward humanity changing our trajectory going forward.

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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wildcatsfan2016

I don’t watch racing for the crashes. I have NEVER liked restrictor plate races because of the absolute carnage that almost always results. On the flip side of that (pun intended), it sboring to watch hours of cars driving around in circles if they cannot pass! That problem is squarely on NASCAR. They are the ones who restrict the cars ability to pass. Yes I know – no one wants cars flying off the track & into the stands – although that has happened RP or not. In short I don’t have the answer to the problem but I don’t want NASCAR and/or the media saying the fans love the crashes. I freaking hold my breath waiting to be sure drivers are OK.

Jeremy

Unfortunately, I think the TV ratings seem to bear out that people (not necessarily fans) tune in for the carnage.

I like good hard racing. Beating, banging, rooting and gouging for space on the track is fine with me – I loved the old Bristol. However, I don’t want a blatant demolition derby. Must be the influence of local dirt track racing I watched back home when I was younger. There is an art to hard racing without taking out your competitors, but with hard racing sometimes the line gets crossed and someone loses control. At least with non-restrictor plate tracks these incidents don’t wipe out 1/3 to 1/2 of the field each time.

Christopher

A ridiculous article filled with armchair psycho babble and third rate pseudo sociology/history lessons. Fox cut away for one reason only: advertising dollars.

gbvette

I AGREE (after the third paragraph I skimmed over the rest and then jumped to the comments).

I’m 69 and have spent most of my life around racing, a good bit of it crewing on race teams (even today I’m still on a crew but now in amateur road racing). I’ve gotten to know a lot of drivers, both amateur and professional, I hate to see wrecks. But when a wreck does happen I do want to see it because I’m usually holding my breath until I know every driver is out of their car and okay.

When a wreck happens and the broadcast pulls away and doesn’t show it my first reaction is Oh My God, it’s a bad one. My first thought is someone’s hurt and the broadcast is reviewing the playback and selecting what they can safely show. This was what was going though my mind at the end of the race Sunday. It has nothing to do with wanting to see carnage, but goes back to one of the biggest complaint’s I’ve had about race broadcasts for years, the networks not showing anything that happens after the checker flag. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a wreck or just the second, third and forth place cars finishing, I want to see everything that happens on the track till every car takes the flag. In my mind it’s much more important to see what happens with the rest of the field, then to see the winning crew jumping up and down, the Gibbs’ crew praying or the winner idling around waving to the crowd.

Nunya Effin Busyniz

I dread the pack racing tracks. Ryan Newman nearly died. Logano had a scare, and now Erik Jones broke his back. NASCAR pretends to be the bastions of safety, but they increased this dangerous garbage style of racing to 6 of 36 Cup dates now, and they don’t even allow practice, claiming it’s to save teams money. BS. No practice hurts the smaller teams that don’t have the shops or top sims. Practice gives them the ability to make adjustments, plus they should be allowed to make adjustments prior to the race without penalty for safety.

Pack racing is so boring. Two conga lines of cars til the big crash at the end. I personally wish they’d cut all three tracks from the schedule. They should’ve saved Auto Club/Fontana as a 2 mile track and marketed it better. Intermediates are by far the best tracks with the new car.

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