Saturday, February 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Eve of Daytona 500

I grew up in the South.

Regional stereotypes suggest that I should be a hunter, a fisherman, a devotee of auto racing.

Well, I guess I defy pigeonholes, but I have never owned a gun, I used to fish occasionally but it was never a burning passion of mine, and I have never been a fan of auto racing.

But I have an old childhood friend who tells me she has become quite a NASCAR fan. She admits she had her reservations initially, knowing NASCAR's reputation as a redneck activity.

And I can assure you, if you grew up in Arkansas (or, probably, any other place in the American South), you didn't need Jeff Foxworthy to come along to give you instructions in redneck culture. You already knew.

As I told my friend recently, I have always been proud of my Southern heritage. I may not embrace some Southern pastimes — like hunting or fishing or stock car racing — with the enthusiasm of many of my fellow Southerners, but I have always believed that there is a lot more "there" there than folks in other parts of the country would have you believe.

I've always resisted regional stereotypes, like the general impression that Southerners are ignorant. I don't think anyone would think my friend was ignorant. She was probably the most intelligent person in my high school class.

And, when we knew each other in high school, she wasn't a NASCAR fan. But it's been a taste that she has acquired as an adult. And now she tells me that she enjoys the "ins and outs" of the sport.

I don't know if I would call it a "sport." I live in a densely populated area, where seeing many cars on the road at the same time is nothing special. And "sport," to me, has always suggested some sort of athletic skill. I see no athleticism involved in sitting behind a wheel and pressing an accelerator with your right foot.

Now, I will admit that I've always enjoyed horse racing. Some people might argue that there is little difference between auto racing and horse racing, but I disagree. I think there is an element of athleticism involved in riding an animal, even if it is mostly a matter of being shorter and lighter than most people. And, at a time when there are heightened concerns about fuel efficiency and climate change, auto racing strikes me as being an almost unconscionable waste of nonrenewable natural resources whereas the energy that is used in a horse race comes from the crops that are raised to feed the horses.

Nevertheless, NASCAR certainly has a lot more followers now than it did when I was a child. It has its own website, which seems to be a sure sign that it has "arrived."

But it seems to me that auto racing needs something to put it on the sports map, to make it palatable for casual observers who typically may watch it for a few minutes while they wait for something else to come on.

I don't think auto racing, even in an abbreviated form, will ever be an Olympic sport.

But I think it needs a persona whose appeal can transcend its boundaries.

Like Tiger Woods in golf. Or Muhammad Ali in boxing.

Even major sports need a jolt from time to time. After the strike in the mid–1990s, major league baseball, long recognized as America's pastime, had no shortage of personalities, but it needed something special to attract alienated fans. It got that in the form of the single–season home run record duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

McGwire's recent admission that he used steroids during his career may taint that memory and lead to new problems for major league baseball. But, really, it isn't unusual for a boom in popularity for a given sport to disappear. It often happens when a big name leaves the scene. Clearly, boxing struggled after Ali retired.

But an appealing personality will bring in new followers, some of whom may stay even after that personality is gone. At least, that's the hope — kind of like the 1992 presidential election, when many people expressed their hope that Ross Perot's independent candidacy, although not successful, had brought millions of people into the political process who would continue to participate even after Perot left the scene.

So who can fill that role for NASCAR?

Today, I have been reading Bruce Martin's Sports Illustrated preview to tomorrow's Daytona 500, and he writes about many aspects of the race that my friend probably knows about but about which I am ignorant. However, he kind of touches on my point when he asserts that viewers will probably get tired of hearing about Danica Patrick.

My friend talks to me of Jimmie Johnson, who is the defending NASCAR champion. She is an admirer of his, and I have heard — largely through my friend — of his accomplishments, but, truth be told, the only person with whom I am familiar who has that name has silver hair and made his name as a football coach (and he also spells his first name differently).

As successful as he is, Jimmie Johnson's not the one to make NASCAR America's new pastime. In my opinion, anyway.

Other than Patrick, the only NASCAR driver I have known much about in the last couple of decades, Dale Earnhardt Sr., died in a wreck at Daytona nearly 10 years ago. Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR seems to have existed in something of a vacuum. Its fan base knows about Jimmie Johnson. Folks outside of its fan base are familiar with some names but not necessarily their achievements.

I tend to agree with Mike Freeman of CBS Sports, who says, "It doesn't take a Venn diagram to see Patrick and NASCAR need each other."

David Newton of says Patrick has been preparing for this all her life.

I know there are people who don't believe women should be competing in auto racing. But, in an era when a woman came so close to winning her party's nomination for president and another woman was nominated for vice president by the other party, it seems hopelessly sexist and, frankly, out of touch to suggest that a woman can't compete in any sport that does not require her to share a dressing room with a bunch of guys.

Well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

So I say ...

If NASCAR wants to attract a new generation of fans, it is time to give Patrick her chance.

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