Daytona: NASCAR's zoom with a view
Give 'em credit for trying to sex it up, but is a return to racing's roots a good idea?
Not race this week but racing, in which the usual high-banked, high-speed nonsense from Daytona Beach was interrupted by a daylong home improvement project. Total broadcast time for the Great American Driveway Repair: 7 hours, 33 minutes.
After several consecutive years of waning public interest and sagging television ratings, chronic financial anemia and textbook overexposure, NASCAR desperately needed to bring some sexy back. This it did on Valentine's Day 2010 -- at least a little -- by making its restrictor plates less restrictive and by abandoning its rules for on-track engagement. Given a few horsepower and a measure of self-determination, drivers were then encouraged by management to recapture their full-contact, daredevil past by rubbin' and bangin' in the ancient manner of their ancestors. They did so with glee.
The result of which was a great deal of sideways excitement; a last lap charge by a re-energized (and thus remarketable) Dale Earnhardt Jr., a stirring win by affable matinee idol Jamie McMurray and a pretty good race from flag to flag, if you subtract the several hours of dead air it took to patch that pothole.
The whole of which for me seemed the perfect metaphor for NASCAR's past 10 years, its 21st-century story writ small: a slick, competent corporate entertainment empire that's never quite as slick or competent or corporate as it thinks it is.
Long a student of the form (the results of which can be found here), I watched this year's edition of the Big Burlesque with special attention. As always, there were the stories going into the race that were the same stories asked and answered in the original V-8 firelight. Who can win for the first time? Who might repeat? Which of the dozens of new driver/car/crew chief combinations looks hot? Which does not? How many luncheons and presentations and four-color "Drive for Diversity" brochures will inoculate us against never, ever achieving diversity? (OK, so it's a little about race.)
These moments come and go like solar clockwork, as annually reliable as the changing of the seasons.
Different this year were those changes in race etiquette, as NASCAR tried to reignite the old, pre-plate superduper speedway magic. This, the newspapers and the Web sites and the touts and the shills referred to as a "relaxing" of the rules. The France family's talking point was "loosening the reins." The actual phrase in English might be better translated as "trying to prop up our sagging popularity without actually killing anybody."
So, a phony new quest for the old authenticity.
Still, some things unrolled as one knows they will, as they must, entirely subconscious and thus genuine and revelatory.
Like Danica Patrick's arrival in stock car racing and her debut in the Saturday series, the Triple-A minors. Which, across a great, sad range of the coverage, was reported in the same breathless, empty-headed style as a fashion update from a UDC cotillion. That the phrase "little lady" continues to slip past copy desks does nobody in my business of any age or stripe or sex any honor.
Welcome to Daytona Speedweeks. Please reset your watches to 1956.
(Truth, however, demands that I stipulate Ms. Patrick does herself a grave disservice, too. She risks becoming the Anna Kournikova of motorsports. Does she want to be a racer? Or does she want to be a celebrity? The two aren't always, or even often, compatible. Win first, then sell. A lot more Janet Guthrie and a lot less Janet Jackson might help restore some equilibrium to her career and the coverage of it. She can be a terrific driver. But if you want to be taken seriously, be serious.)
In that spirit, undertaking a makeover of his own this season to avoid that same fate is the very face of NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has long suffered a career that set a harsh reality against our outrageous expectations. He is a good racer and a smart young man, a great guy, but in the long, cold shadow of his father's legend, he has grown only slowly. In part because he is reasonably good-looking -- and has thus spent years and years as the sexy, square-jawed billboard avatar of American beer. For which he was richly paid. And which no doubt, along with the swimsuit models and the photo shoots and the ad junkets, took the edge off losing.
This year, though, hollow-eyed and bearded and wearing a face like hunger itself, he looks like Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corporal just come off the banks of Chickamauga Creek.
He will succeed or he will not succeed, but he has about him now the solemn air and gravity of a man who has made himself a promise. Who knows whether he might keep it?
Like the rest of us here in America, he's just racing in circles, chasing a buck.
For those of you interested in how all that came to be; in the origin story of modern NASCAR and in how the three-ring speed circus of February at Daytona got its real start, a rare recommendation: My colleague and friend Mark Bechtel from Sports Illustrated has a new book out this week.
"He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back" is the first smart, funny, comprehensive telling of the 1979 Daytona 500, the race that birthed NASCAR's great modern age. Deeply researched and with scores of interviews, it is an indispensable and entertaining reference to the first season of the NASCAR we've come to know in the decades since. If you're a fan of racing, reading or excellence, seek it out.
Letting go of a long gone past while working toward a better, brighter future has been the default setting of the "New South" for 145 years. In the much nearer term, it is also what NASCAR calls (internally) its "historical problem."
How do you let go of the old fans? How do you abandon the antique fans in the chicken-bone seats, the sleeveless fans from the Grand National days, and replace them with the khaki-clad bobos and bohos and free-spending, discretionary-income suburban types?
You don't. Not really. Maybe that's what NASCAR has learned since it boomed and unboomed across the past decade.
NASCAR became a huge, empty branding instrument, a smooth, shiny corporate monolith, hollow at its core, that believed in nothing and valued nothing and honored nothing and betrayed the very people and practices that had made it so attractive in the first place. This it now tries to undo and correct.
Because nothing recedes like excess. Or maybe nothing recedes like success. Either way, be careful of the wishes and the promises you make.
Once NASCAR monetized its native genius and mortgaged its authentic hee-haw in order to broaden its appeal, it was sunk. NASCAR's trouble is not that it became successful.
NASCAR's trouble is that it sold its soul to do so.
Here's hoping it finds a way to win it back.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at email@example.com.
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