Time to encourage bad behavior
The night I got home from the 2009 season finale in Homestead, I put my head on the pillow and turned off the light when my BlackBerry buzzed off the bedside table and onto the floor.
Granted, it buzzes all night every night so this is nothing especially new, save for the fact that this time it happened to hit the carpet. And that irked me.
I flipped the light back on and picked it up to a text message from a buddy of mine, a lifelong Dale Earnhardt fan who professes his appreciation for NASCAR to a different crowd in a different town most every night of the year.
It read simply: "OK, I'm gonna say it. Racing has become BORING."
In the time it took to read that, I went from tired to wired to fired up. Maybe even a little bit pissed off. And this is someone I respect greatly. He tells it like it is. He came to the Charlotte race in October and you couldn't have wiped the perma-grin off his face with a 12-gauge.
I knew he wasn't bored, and I told him so. His ensuing rebuttal resonated with me -- and will with millions of NASCAR fans. Hence, I chose to share it with you:
"I wasn't bored," he said. "I'm just concerned for the majority of the fans. We need badasses!"
He's right. NASCAR's not as vanilla as people want to make it out to be in the Jimmie Johnson era, but it's not the NASCAR folks fell in love with, either. That's part inevitable progression. But it's also part corporate influence, and all that comes with it.
Unapologetic farm boys who raced to put food on the table -- and therefore had no qualms popping a competitor in the nose in the event his equipment was mistreated or his manhood was challenged -- are what built the current empire.
Roughnecks and rednecks were the ingredients that set NASCAR apart from everything else.
It wasn't polished. That's why it was beautiful.
Conflict sells. Always has, always will. You can dress it up with fancy uniforms and a bunch of zeros -- which invariably changes what's "acceptable." But the premise hasn't changed much. There are still some characters out there on that racetrack. Difference is these days they choose to reserve it because it's easier.
Today's NASCAR isn't conducive to it. Action versus Reaction versus Aftermath just doesn't add up.
Take Tony Stewart, for example. He told me just before the season ended that he skips out on most controversial battles these days because the aftermath is so taxing. Explaining to sponsors and media why he said what he said or did what he did is so dadgum annoying he just chooses to forego "Tony being Tony."
That's a shame. He's a beacon. He's the guy fans look to for validation that they're not being taken for granted. Not that I don't respect his position, mind you, because he's exactly right. Spending two full days on the phone cleaning up a mess from a verbal jab is no way to recover from a race.
So maybe a culture change is necessary. And it must be a collective one. I mean, are people really going to stop eating M&Ms because Kyle Busch is ticked off a lot? I'm sure there are some manipulated data-skews that say so, but I don't much believe in that mess. You make numbers say whatever you want them to say.
If Busch played this deal the right way he'd be the perfect villain -- badass behind the wheel and witty in front of the camera. But to play that role you have to be willing to stand up and tell it like it is. Every time. Don't walk away from it. Ever.
There's a market right now for folks who are willing to tell it like it is. It's a rarity these days. There's a distinct void there. And when you see and hear "real" it hits you hard.
Jim Beam just poured its advertising dollars into Kid Rock's tour, for the very reason that he does call people out. He is the American Badass. People admire his willingness to tell the truth.
Maybe I should sit down with advertisers for a lesson, because I don't understand why sponsors shy away from controversy, why they're terrified to move the needle with anything outside status quo.
Of course not every driver is wired to talk big and back it up -- or back it in the fence trying to back it up. That's fine. But those who are shouldn't have to be bashful. Not right now.
So today I offer an open request letter to NASCAR, its team owners and sponsor executives: If your driver runs plumb over another competitor in a race, and the boys choose to hop out and smack the fire out of each other or have a big ol' tickle-fight, don't get all spun out. Let it ride.
I know, I know, Fortune 500 companies can not and will not tolerate having men representing their brands who conduct themselves like Neanderthals!
Hooey. It all depends on why you're in racing in the first place. If you want exposure, embrace conflict. Let the media complain about it and question it and run it in the ground like a post hole digger.
Let the media question why NASCAR does what it does. (Or doesn't do.)
It makes people pay attention. It makes people want to see what all the fuss is about.
I wish like heck that Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya got out of their cars in Homestead and had a good ol' fashioned belly-bumpin' sumo match right there in the garage, right in front of the cameras and media.
And I wish they'd lobbed some verbal insults at each other -- both are so quick-witted they'd have undoubtedly been instant-classics, and you can bet they'd have gotten mileage throughout the offseason, too.
We complain a lot these days about what's wrong with NASCAR. Some of those complaints are undoubtedly valid. There are some things that need fixing.
But there's a heck of a lot going right, too, including the penchant for good ol' rivalries, which due to circumstance are all but extinct.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.