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Green: NASCAR: Racing for respect (Sept. 16)

Mary Green | Sunday, September 15, 2013

 

In an unprecedented move Saturday, NASCAR chairman Bill France announced that Jeff Gordon would be added as the 13th driver in the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He said the addition came as a result of discoveries of competing teams making deals with each other to fix the finishes of recent races as to gain enough points to make the 12-driver roster.

For any fan of motor sports, this is huge news. It is as if Bud Selig decided to let two more wildcard teams into the playoffs because he found out that two other teams had cheated to improve their playoff standings.

If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have heard the end of it. SportsCenter would cover each new discovery in the unending saga, the Sports Reporters would debate whether Selig made the right choices in how he handled the matter and every newspaper in America would feature the story on the front page of its sports section.

But that’s not the case. This isn’t baseball; this is NASCAR, and so the news was relegated to the insides of sports sections and a spot on SportsCenter only after all the major college football games had been covered.

So why don’t we care about NASCAR?

In most of the South and the Midwest, people care about NASCAR. But in the United States as a whole, racing is just a hobby, not a sport. It’s apparently not that worthy of our attention, seeing as a huge move like Saturday’s didn’t cause seismic shifts in the sports scene like it would have had the event occurred in football, baseball or basketball.

Jimmie Johnson won the Sprint Cup five years in a row from 2006 to 2010. LeBron James has won consecutive NBA championships, but you can bet that his two garnered much more praise and celebration across America than Johnson’s five. We couldn’t stop talking about James’s second ring for weeks after he hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but when Johnson won his fifth (fifth!) Sprint Cup in a row, it was more of a “Hey that’s cool, but let’s get back to football” kind of reaction.

NASCAR certainly brings in the big bucks, so corporate America finds it appealing. NBC signed a 10-year contract last summer with the league to put racing back on its schedule. And how much did NBC pay for that? $4.4 billion — and that doesn’t even include the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500, on which Fox has had a stronghold since 2007.

Some people say they don’t like stock car racing because it’s boring. They like the rough and tumble of “contact sports” and the element of danger they bring to each game.

Well, NASCAR brings that element week after week. Experts fear that football has become so violent that, sometime in the near future, a player will die during a college or NFL game. Since NASCAR’s inception in 1948, 52 drivers have died at some level of its racing, most notably Dale Earnhardt, Sr., at the 2001 Daytona 500. That seems like enough “contact” for me.

NASCAR drivers have to sit for hours in a hot car wearing a flame-retardant suit. They have to concentrate on themselves, their cars and their crew chief yelling in their ears for the duration of the race, all while other cars buzz past them at almost 200 miles per hour. If they lose concentration, the consequences can be fatal. 

Trust me, I am no NASCAR expert or superfan by any means. I don’t religiously watch races every Sunday, and I don’t tear up at the memory of Dale, Sr. I don’t have a sticker of the number three, 24, 48 or 88 on the back window of my car, and you certainly would never catch me dead in one of those ridiculous racing jackets.

But maybe it’s my upbringing in the South by family from the Midwest. Maybe it’s my understanding of how crucial NASCAR was for the growth in popularity during ESPN’s early years and vice versa. Maybe it’s because I know that Daytona is more than beautiful beaches on the Atlantic.

But maybe it’s just time I realized NASCAR deserves a little more respect than it gets.

Contact Mary Green at mgreen8@nd.edu
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.