Archive for Thursday, May 31, 2001

Longing for the old days of racin’

May 31, 2001

Call me old school but I like to watch contact racing. Dale Earnhardt's pass on the grass, off the track arguments and anything Cale Yarborough did in a race car epitomize the sport fans call racin'.
The landscape of the sport changed when someone realized it could be turned into a money maker. When a sport and/or subculture finally gets exposure in the public eye, it often loses its original grit, tenacity and especially, its authenticity. Nowhere was this cold hard fact more apparent then during a recent luncheon at the area's state of the art racetrack.
The Kansas Speedway enjoyed a kickoff luncheon inside the Speedway's infield. Some of NASCAR's most influential figures were there, including: Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, Benny Parsons and NASCAR President Mike Helton. Having an event with this many well-known NASCAR drivers and executives would make any racin' fan excited right? Well, not exactly. Each guest, including the King himself, walked up to the podium and announced how great it was to be in Kansas City. All of these well-respected NASCAR people reminded me of rock stars who scream to their fans "How are you doing, Kansas City?" These well-respected motorsports personalities didn't care if they were in Charlotte, Chicago or Walla Walla, Washington. The audience was an even more interesting mixture: Some of the 1,000 people attending the luncheon seemed to be true blue races fans who vigorously followed their favorite driver and weren't embarrassed to sport a NASCAR T-shirt. And then you had the corporate audience who decided to jump on the NASCAR bandwagon after big name sponsors and high television ratings made stock car racing an American craze. Some of these same people may have asked themselves a few short years ago, "What's the point of watching cars go around in circles?" NASCAR marketing experts should begin to market its own line of bathing suits during winter in Alaska because they were able to promote something that had a niche market in the past. They found a driver like Jeff Gordon and molded him into the clean cut, all-American driver that he is recognized as today. Gordon, who was raised in California and Indiana, blunted the line to the good ole boy image of NASCAR.
Even the veteran drivers have tailored their own personalities to corporate America because that is what they have to do to survive in today's racing world. "Sponsor speak" seems to represent a second language that all NASCAR drivers have to learn. Kyle Petty is one driver who can relate to both the corporate and blue collar race follower. When Kyle Petty jokingly said that if anyone didn't have Sprint Phone Service he wanted them to leave the luncheon tent right away, it seemed humorous to the long time race fans, many of whom are fed up with the "Sponsor speak." The good folks at Sprint, however, were pleased to hear Kyle cite their name in his speech. Even Kyle's father, Richard Petty, one of the most well-respected drivers in the sport, wore a jacket advertising the Richard Petty Driving Experience and ended his speech by telling the audience to remember the company's phone number, 1-800-BE-PETTY.
NASCAR is obviously a big name sport now fully complete with Entertainment Plazas and Hospitality Villages on site at the Kansas Speedway. For many of the drivers the expansion of the sport is a great thing but somewhere along the line the sport aspect got lost amid the sponsorship dollars and ever-advancing technologies. These days, the hoopla around racing is bigger than the actual race itself. Sure, there will be a few people who could give you an entire recap of what happened during a NASCAR race but many of the new fans focus their attention on the pre-race receptions, meeting a famous driver and sitting in their comfortable luxury seats.
This is how NASCAR fans view the milestone Winston Cup event that will speed into Kansas City in late September. They may go to the race but don't expect many of them to watch every heart pounding lap with their full attention.
NASCAR has finally caught up to many American sports and their debt to corporate America seems even more apparent than a high profile sport like basketball. While professional basketball may have an arena named for a company, NASCAR has primary sponsors for each car and dozens of co-sponsors and smaller decals on the cars. That's right, 43 vehicles driving around in circles for about three or four hours on a television network like Fox. Even if those mildly interested in racing turned on the channel, they would be exposed to many different product names. This is an advertiser's dream and corporate America should not be criticized for entering such an opportunity. Racin', a longtime midwest tradition, is still around as the fans know it. However, you might have to look closer these days to find it. Some of the smaller area race tracks are a racin' fans dream. Lakeside Speedway, I-70 Speedway and Heartland Park represent a variety of small tracks in the area. Kansas Speedway will be a great addition to the area's economy; nobody is doubting that for one minute. But if real racin' is what you want to see, you might want to head over to one of these racetracks.

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