Whatever could be wrong with NASCAR is wrong (and whatever can be done?)

Between the local casino’s breakfast buffet ($23.65) and the Auto Club 400 (no charge thanks to a press credential), my Sunday was the lowbrow day I require a couple of times a year, as a sparrow must have the occasional dustbath.

prerace
Martin Truex’s Number 78 and Kyle Busch’s Number 18

Breakfast was incredible with coffee, a bagel and lox with cream cheese, eggs benedict (one with Canadian bacon, one with salmon), “country” potatoes, corned-beef hash, a cheese-and-mushroom omelet (too many mushrooms), French toast, and a chocolate brownie. I could have had prime rib, but I’m very strict with myself at breakfast. Two brownies from now on though.

The crowd in the casino had tattooed heads and averaged about 275 pounds. Another time I’ll tell you about the men.

The race at the big oval track in Fontana was a bit boring, yet I love being at the speedway. Where better to see a fistfight after three hours and a million decibels?

In truth, the decline of NASCAR was in shocking evidence today. The grandstand seats were about a quarter-full. And there’s not only a problem with assembling an audience but also the cast. One of the three leading drivers, Kyle Busch, condescends when he’s in a good mood and pouts otherwise. Today he finished third but was unhappy with his pit crew and couldn’t find a way to make himself available for a TV interview or take a seat in the pressroom, where the top three drivers always go. Instead we got fourth-place Brad Keselowski, whom I would prefer any day; but even he didn’t know why he was asked up to the microphone.

pacelap
The pace lap with Truex, Busch, and Kyle Larson (42), who would finish as the top three in different order (and with Busch’s ordure).

The racing is the same as ever, although they’ve contrived to make it more interesting by splitting the race itself into three stages, with winners being awarded points and candy hearts. It’s supposed to generate extra excitement about the “playoffs”–the last 10 races of the season, before the field of the top 16 drivers is whittled down to a champion by Thanksgiving. But the playoffs themselves didn’t generate the electricity that had been supposed. I for one won’t watch a car race on TV once football starts.

When I say the racing is the same as ever, I mean the cars were going this fast 30 years ago and have had to be restricted because laps at 175 mph are bad enough but 225 mph in these musket balls with wheels would be crazy.

There used to be big, swaggering personalities. Today’s drivers throw a couple of punches a year but otherwise are as domesticated as calico cats and “idiot driving”–uttered after second-place finisher Kyle Larson served as a bouncing pad for Kevin Harvick–was Sunday’s worst imprecation.

Indeed, the question whether Harvick could win today and make it four in a row was the big drama. After careening off Larson on Lap 22, he hit the wall on the back straight and eviscerated his car.

2nd&4thWhen the race resumed after the yellow flag, there were still so many laps to go. Defending NASCAR champ Martin Truex, Jr. dominated them, and the Furniture Row team–Barney Visser, owner; Joe Garone, manager; Cole Pearn, crew chief; and Truex, who is dignified but hardly a “character”–felt pretty good for themselves afterwards. The great story about this team is that they’re running just one car and the operation is in Denver. The rest of them are in Charlotte. This is like saying the Department of Interior should cut 25,000 employees and move to Lincoln, Nebraska. Well?

Besides the sameness of the racing–why not have these one-dimensional cars add some versatility in order to make a water jump on the front straight?–and besides the dullness of the drivers, NASCAR is a sham as a major sport. Take for example the finale of this year’s Daytona 500. Austin Dillon shoved the leader off the track and took the checkered flag first. It’s bad enough that he was allowed to get away with it. But it just so happens that Dillon is NASCAR royalty, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress. Dillon drives the revered Number 3, which was Dale Earnhardt’s number. Getting that number back to victory circle at Daytona was a nice branding exercise for all concerned. It was just too bad for the former leader, Aric Almirola. Sorry about all the cash and series points you lost, bud!

Another type of corruption is in the endemic media, the poor schlubs who follow along from one track to the next from late-winter (February) till the frost is again on the pumpkin. Today we suffered in a pressroom that stank of the overcooked beef served in the media lounge. Not that some of these people wouldn’t eat roadkill were it offered. NASCAR used to glory in coverage from Sports Illustrated, major newspapers, and all the car magazines. Automobile used to give cursory coverage, sometimes more, but I haven’t seen anything for quite a while and can’t imagine pitching my editors a story.

Maybe Pitting Outside the Box knows a good tale. Or Working on My Redneck. How about Motorsports Unplugged? That’s who’s covering NASCAR nowadays. I’ve just looked at the race report from one of the three named, and it’s gibberish. To wit:

“When green flag stops cycled through, it momentarily was with Ky. Busch but Truex was having nothing of it as he took the lead back.

“Kyle Larson threw his hat into the ring as he was battling Harvick for the third spot, this battled continued until the No. 4 tried to side draft the No. 42 and got loose. This put Harvick into the side of Larson and then slamming him (Harvick) into the outside wall.”

Woe unto us! And the couple of national newspaper reporters on the beat (who use the same jargon) won’t tell the truth in their reports. One wrote of the Daytona 500 that Dillon “got into the back of Almirola.” Yes, and the dog got into the baby’s dirty diaper, didn’t it?

As the Talking Heads sang, “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.”

TruexToward the end of the race I had a brief exchange with a marketing guy for one of the leading teams. He said don’t worry about the falling TV audience or dwindling live gate. Yes, Lowe’s announced last week it is leaving NASCAR. But look what’s happening in retail, he said. Meanwhile, his team has meetings tomorrow in L.A. with a large chemical company. And a global sponsor is interested for limited sponsorship. What a great way to do business, hosting your employees and guests at the speedway. This down phase is part of a normal cycle.

Nevertheless, knowing that Bozoma Saint John, the chief brand officer for Uber, was in attendance added to the feeling of doom. Are self-driving stock cars next? We can just cheer for the sponsors. Yay, 1000Bulbs.com!

 

 

 

 

 

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