Commentary

There are some NASCAR fans in New York, but you have to look for them

A check around town will quickly tell you NASCAR is not on the front burner -- or any burner -- of New York sports. But there are fans to be found and though they might be troubled by the sport's status here, champion Jimmie Johnson takes it all in stride, writes David Newton.

Updated: December 12, 2008, 11:12 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Jimmie JohnsonAP Images/Sprint NASCAR/David GoldmanJimmie Johnson's on top of the NASCAR world if not New York.

NEW YORK -- Sallick Harrinarine zips in and out of rush-hour traffic on Park Avenue, driving his yellow cab with more dare and precision than you'll see in most Sprint Cup races. He can get you to any address in the country's most populous city without thinking twice.

Ask him what he knows about Jimmie Johnson?

"Who is Jimmie Johnson?" he says.

Told that Johnson is the three-time defending Sprint Cup champion and that he is being honored Friday night at the Waldorf-Astoria during NASCAR's season-ending banquet, Harrinarine gets a puzzled look.

"Is he a cab driver?" Harrinarine says. "I heard NASCAR had a cab driver from New York."

Well, Benny Parsons did drive a cab in Detroit many years ago. So maybe Harrinarine knows something about NASCAR. He certainly knows of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the sport, right?

"Another car racer, I'm guessing?" Harrinarine says. "Is he a cab driver from New York?"

Harrinarine isn't alone in the Big Apple in his ignorance of NASCAR. Of the 50 people randomly stopped and asked whether they knew of Johnson, who was on the recent cover of Sports Illustrated, only nine answered with a reply other than "no" or "who?"

"They think he's the football coach, or the sausage guy," says Mark Blazejeski, a founding member of the Staten Island NASCAR Hopefuls, referring to former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson and Jimmy Dean sausage.

Says Margaret Echanique, also a member of the club. "Terrible. It's a shame."

It's also reality. Johnson shouldn't feel picked on, though. Most didn't know anything about Earnhardt or the France family or NASCAR -- period.

"Not in New York City," says Louis Pinto, the driver of a horse carriage in Central Park.

More people can tell you what caliber gun New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress "accidentally" shot himself in the leg with at a nightclub than the number on the side of Johnson's car.

It's 48 on the car, in case you don't know.

Johnson obviously recognizes this, cracking "Maybe I should shoot myself in the hip" at various stops on his weeklong victory tour.

But Johnson has no more desire to become a shooting victim than Burress has of becoming a stock car driver.

"I don't want to go to jail, and I don't want a hole in my leg," Johnson says. "No thanks."

Echanique is right, though. It's a shame a person whose accomplishments should rank with the three-peats in other sports, such as the 1998-2000 New York Yankees, isn't more recognized.

"When you're that successful in a sport that has gotten as big as NASCAR, you're on the cover of Sports Illustrated, there's no way you're not going to get recognized," says Johnson's teammate, four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "Jimmie is a great ambassador for sponsors and the sport. He should be recognized as one of the top athletes."

And he is in many places. During Johnson's trip to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus the week after wrapping up the title, legendary former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka greeted Johnson with, "I know who you are, champ. And by the way, you are a dynasty."

Cris Carter, one of the NFL's all-time great wide receivers, surprised him with a similar remark.

"He walked up to me and said, 'I don't really follow NASCAR, but winning three titles in anything, in a row, deserves a lot of respect,'" Johnson recalls. "So when people like that notice what we have done and compare us to other teams in sports history, that's special."

[+] EnlargeNASCAR Drivers
AP Images for Sprint NASCAR/David GoldmanAre these 12 angry men? No just the top 12 drivers in Sprint Cup, even if many in the city hosting them don't know who they are.

It is. Just not so much in New York City.

Blazejeski and Echanique have done their best to educate the people here. They started their organization to educate people when International Speedway Corp. purchased land on Staten Island with the intent of building a track.

But between unions and politicians and construction issues, that plan has been tabled and there are no plans to resurrect it -- outside of Blazejeski & Co.

"Really, the only reason we didn't get a track in Staten Island was ignorance on the part of elected officials," says Blazejeski, a Carl Edwards fan. "It's a special political climate we deal with where you are elevated to a level of infallibility -- which only is seen in Rome -- by virtuality of being elected.

"Staten Island is important to NASCAR and ISC because it offers a venue not only for advertisers and vendors and promoters but also because it opens the opportunity for people here to learn about the sport. It's an untapped world of fans."

He's got that right. Among the 400,000 residents of Staten Island -- which is only a fraction of the more than 8 million residents of New York City -- only 400 signed up to join NASCAR Hopefuls.

The only way people here see Johnson on Sundays is if they're paying attention to his Lowe's commercial during NFL games. Finding a bar with the race on a television is about as difficult as getting a taxi at 5 p.m. when it's raining.

"On a light day, you might see it," says Echanique, an Earnhardt fan wearing an AMP jacket.

Foley's, an Irish pub where Johnson graciously bought the media a round of beer at a Wednesday afternoon luncheon, is one of the few bars where you'll see NASCAR paraphernalia. It has groups that come here to watch the races.

Strangely, though, the most prominent NASCAR driver pictured among all the baseball and football stars is Michael Waltrip, a popular driver but not one that wins often.

"What can you do?" Echanique says with a sigh.

Says Blazejeski, "Inevitably, you'll find there are pockets of NASCAR fans and that's how we've survived until now."

Finding them isn't easy, though. Finding anybody who knows Johnson the day before the banquet isn't easy, either. Here are a few samples of how it went:

  • Joe Duno is taking a smoke break outside a major bank when asked whether he knows who the 33-year-old driver from El Cajon, Calif., is. "No."

  • Mohammad Elsyed is grilling shrimp at his gyros stand when asked the same question. "I have no idea who he is."

  • Shakit Ahmad, running a magazine stand, says, "Cricket is my game. After that, it's soccer and hockey. No NASCAR."

  • Willette Jenkins, a bank teller, is clueless. "Who is that?"

  • J.R. Martinez, an employee at Windsor Pharmacy, doesn't know who Johnson is. But when asked about Earnhardt, he perks up and says, "Of course I know him. His father was killed."

    Susan Weiner, behind the counter of the pharmacy, overhears the conversation with Martinez and interrupts.

    "C'mon," she says. "Jimmie Johnson is the NASCAR champ. I know that because my son follows him. I also know who Kevin Harvick is, too."

    But she didn't know that Harvick was in town or that the banquet was taking place, probably because the front pages of the New York sports sections are filled with Burress stories.

    "Maybe one of them will get sick and need something from the pharmacy," Weiner says.

Johnson did get a lot of attention at the New York Stock Exchange after ringing the opening bell Wednesday. Traders were stopping him for autographs and shouting, "Hey, Jimmie!" across the noisy floor.

Jason Weisberg of Seaport Securities knows more about Johnson than most because his 7-year-old son is a big fan.

"He runs around his playroom with a Lowe's car," he says. "It's amazing the brand recognition. You don't see the drivers, but he knows when he pops out of the car it's Jimmie Johnson."

But for the most part, Johnson and the sport still haven't caught on in New York. Most people, judging from the sample polling, are like Harrinarine the cab driver.

"I'm sorry," he says as he pulls up to his destination. "You are the first person I've ever discussed racing with."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

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