Friday, December 28, 2018

COLUMN: NASCAR fail


You shouldn't ever feel guilty about harboring a guilty pleasure. I've got tons.

I know I'm a nerd, but a nerd with some fairly advanced pop culture credibility. I love esoteric and thought-provoking TV shows like Twin Peaks and Mr. Robot -- but I also religiously watch Big Brother. I love dark movies with detailed character studies -- but I've also seen "Bridget Jones' Diary" like fifty times. I thrive on left-of-center artists that push the boundaries of contemporary music -- but I also own the entire discography of Debbie Gibson.

There's nothing shameful about liking something you're not supposed to. Well, unless that something is illegal. Don't murder people, even if you like to. That's a no-no. But other than criminal activities, I say embrace your guilty pleasures and wear them with pride.

Except my guilty pleasure is dying off, and if quick action isn't taken, it might not be ANYONE'S guilty pleasure for much longer.

I like NASCAR. I can't explain why. I've never been able to. I realize it represents pretty much everything in life that I'm supposed to hate. Whether it's fair or not, there's a stereotype of people who like NASCAR, and it's not pretty. Just listen to the folks who call in to NASCAR talk radio and you'll know what I mean. The scarier takeaway here is that I sit around and listen to NASCAR talk radio. It is my guiltiest of pleasures.

I know there's plenty of great NASCAR fans out there, so please don't think I'm trying to tear you down. I am one of you -- and like me, I'm sure you hate the unfair stereotype that most NASCAR fans are uneducated drunken hillbillies. That's just not true. I mean, look in the stands at any NASCAR event and you'll find... well, you'll see a wide variety of... err, no one?

I just watched the 25th running of the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR's most iconic races. By and large, the stands were empty. No matter how positive the announcers sounded and even though they completely ignored the attendance, there was no hiding the empty seats around the track. In fairness, this year's Brickyard had to be rescheduled to a Monday after a weekend rainout, but still. Do you think Soldier Field would be empty if the Bears had to push back their game by a day? No chance.

The ugly truth is that fans are leaving NASCAR in droves -- and as fans leave, so are the sponsors. And when sponsors dry up, teams dry up. Last week, Furniture Row Racing announced that they're ceasing operations at the end of this season due to a lack of sponsor commitment. And Furniture Row is the home of defending Monster Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. If a championship team can't stay afloat, how are the others going to make it? Imagine if the New England Patriots went belly-up and gave Tom Brady a pink slip.

Strangely, though, as NASCAR flounders, they have yet to consult with ME as to how to fix things. Which is a shame, because I have the answers.

For starters, let's put the S back in NASCAR. Today's top level cars are far from "stock" -- they're aerodynamic racing machines that require a team of highly-paid engineers to perfect. I visited the Hendrick Motorsports complex a while back and it looked more like a science lab than an auto garage. The teams that routinely win are always the teams with the biggest engineering budgets. The new cars might be technical wonders, but racing was a lot more fun when it was souped-up cars you could actually see at a dealership. I'd rather see the best drivers win instead of the best pocketbooks.

Speaking of drivers, it'd be nice if they had some personality. Over the years, NASCAR has made a commitment to making their events family-friendly, and that's great -- but not when it's at the expense of racing. In order for NASCAR to captivate fans, it needs good guys to root for and bad guys to boo. It needs cars that bump and tempers that flare. NASCAR recently had a changing of the guard with the retirement of several older drivers who mostly couldn't adapt to the new high-tech cars. This new crop of drivers are talented, promising, smart -- and super boring to watch.

It's sad to say, but NASCAR's only saving grace right now is Kyle Busch. Most fans hate Kyle Busch. He's an egotistical jerk with a short fuse and a win-at-all-costs attitude. Best of all, he's a skilled driver who wins a LOT. Earlier this year, Busch and Kyle Larson were fighting for the win at Chicagoland. On the last lap, Busch intentionally spun Larson to take the win. Grabbing the checkered flag to a cavalcade of boos, Busch found the first camera he could and mimed cry-baby tears. The outrage was palpable -- and fantastic. Hating Kyle Busch is incredibly fun.

Today's combination of safety, science, and engineering is impressive, but it doesn't sell tickets. Nobody wants to see a race where elite cars get a half-lap jump on the rest of the field and everyone else politely drives in circles for three hours. I'm not saying NASCAR needs more wrecks -- if you're one of those people who goes to a race for the thrill of seeing a driver get injured or worse, you're pondscum. But now that the cars and tracks are MUCH safer, why not let drivers bang it out a little while balancing the technology to give all 42 of them a shot at winning? Once races get exciting again, fans will get emotionally invested and they WILL come back.

I know first-hand that NASCAR's not for everyone. My friends come over and I try to show them an amazing last-lap pass that I've recorded and their eyes roll before I can even grab the remote. But for a lot of us out there, Sundays wouldn't be the same without cars turning left all afternoon. Here's hoping they can figure it out before I have to find a new guilty pleasure. I hear pro wrestling's still a thing, right?

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