Monday, November 5, 2007

Some thoughts on the NASCAR circus. . .


Green! Green! Green! We're off for 500 miles of racing. . .

Just spent three of the past four days as part of the traveling NASCAR Nation road show as it blew through Fort Worth. We'd danced on the fringes of this sport for a while now, but the alignment of my last week of vacation, a little extra un-budgeted money, and a good deal on tickets for the race weekend allowed me to take in most of the fall weekend of racing at TMS. This was our first Nextel Cup race to attend (we went to a truck race last year), and as pre-disposed as I am to hate huge crowds (estimated at upwards of 200,000) and blatantly commercial, cash-sucking events such as these, I'll have to admit I had a great time. The weather was superb, the crowds weren't really too much of an issue, the racing was mostly pretty good, and the famous TMS traffic hassles didn't effect us much at all.


I ham it up with TMS' mascot, Sparky. . .


We posed in front of the Green Screen for a composite photo at the Bank of America tent. . .and, no thanks, on refinacing our home loan. . .

I. is right at home in the stands, cheering on "Dalhart Junior". . .


I'm scared at times by how much E. looks like a race team crew chief. "C'mon in next lap and take two tires. . . try not to tear-up the racecar, Bud!"

We bought our tickets through an e-bay auction, and got a great deal: three upper front-stretch seats for all three races (Friday's Craftsmen Truck, Saturday's Busch Series, and the main event, Sunday's Nextel Cup Dickey's 500) for only $300--face value of the tickets was over $700, and considering that the tickets for Sunday's race alone were worth $450, we did quite well. We didn't know until Wednesday if we'd be going or not; M. and I had planned on taking the boys to the (free) truck qualifying night on Thursday at least, to let them see some fast cars and do a little NASCAR shopping along the merchandise-trailer lined midway. With the tickets, M. and I made plans to take E. along, leaving I. with a sitter on Sunday. We decided to pass on the truck race Friday (probably a mistake, given that the race ended with two spectacular lead-juggling wrecks); I abandoned M. and the boys on Saturday to take my friends Mike and Lance to the Busch race. No use letting the tickets to go waste. . .


Jump in! You're among friends. . .


. . well, okay, maybe a few folks look like a stereotypical Southern Redneck Wifebeater Racing Fan. . .
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Lance is a motorsports fan, Indy Car and Formula One variety. Mike, Pacific Northwest Metrosexual that he is, dismisses NASCAR right off as a sport enjoyed primarily by redneck Southern Republicans who beat their wives and lack a high school education (at that, many NASCAR fans would be proud to wear that description!). Both of them enjoyed the race, but I feel their future attendance of NASCAR events will largely be determined by availablity of tickets from well-meaning friends. . .in other words, they enjoyed the spectacle of it all, but not enough to pursue going on their own.


Kenseth (17) tries to hold off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson, to no avail--but you knew it would end this way, didn't you?

Saturday's race had some good racing, but fewer cautions than you'd expect from a Busch series race, and the long green-flag runs tended to be tedious, leader Kevin Harvick hardly challenged for the last third of the event. Sunday's race was everything you'd want in a 500-mile race. . . several lead changes, a nice handful of wrecks, interesting pit strategy, and at least a couple of highlight reel-worthy banging-down-the-front-stretch battles for the lead and an amazing finish that saw leader Matt Kenseth hold off challenger Jimmie Johnson for nearly a dozen laps of side-by-side racing before finally being passed on the final lap. It was breathtaking. The fact that Johnson was second in the points standings, close behind leader Jeff Gordon with just two races left in the season, and wrecking while trying to win (and ending any chances at the Nextel cup championship) instead of laying back for a sure second place finish and the points lead made it that much better. You might not like Johnson (I don't particularly), but you have to respect his driving abilities and cojones in the way he went for the win instead of the place.

While the race goes on before him, E. is absorbed in FanView. . .
. . a handy gadget which combines video, audio and statistics in real-time. . .

It being my own first big-time NASCAR race, a few observations are in order:

* Whomever came up with the hand-held FANVIEW reciever is a genius. Imagine having a device that fits in your hand that provides real-time, multiple-angle video, statistics, and audio. Leave it to NASCAR, who always touts their sport as being the most "fan friendly," to come up with this thing. The viewer is given up to eight in-car camera views, the network video broadcast, and access to radio transmissions between drivers and their crews, NASCAR officials, and the live Motorsports Racing Network radio broadcast. I wasn't about to spend my whole race with my face buried into a hand-held television set, but it was cool to see the lap times on cars with fresh tires gradually get slower as the tires wore down, as well as listen to the drivers vent their frustration at each other. . . and get a heads up when crews discussed pit strategy. Definately worth $70 for the weekend.

* At 500 miles, the Nextel race was just too long. This complaint isn't specific to Texas, either. The race took just under four hours to run, and while it had its exciting moments, it probably could've been shortened to 400 or even 300 miles without losing the drama. I've heard drivers aren't big fans of these long races either, and the savvy teams will use the first half of the race making pitstops to make handling corrections to their cars, then lay back until the last 100 miles or so before going all-out for the lead (certainly the strategy of Johnson's team). Is the middle 1/3 of the race as boring for the drivers as it is for the fans? M. was about falling asleep until the sun set, the racetrack took on new handling characteristics, and the real racing started.


Here's our Marketing lesson for today: If you want folks to stop at your booth, do you hire HER, as AAA did? . . .


. . or, as SpeedZone did, the woman in yellow? Thought so. . .

While the girl working the Crown Royal display no doubt suffered by wearing these heels all day, most race fans didn't seem to mind. . .
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*Initiates to NASCAR might be surprised--Mike certainly was--at how much the sport is Money Driven. The difference between NASCAR and the stick-and-ball sports is that they make no bones about it: the money, it seems, comes before the quality of racing many times. Simply mind-boggling to first-timers is the Midway outside the track, an endless row of merchandise trailers, sponsor displays, and advertisers trying to suck bucks out of your wallet. The tacky crap for sale, the Smith & Wesson traveling showroom (inside a trailer decorated with a guy kissing a shotgun--I shit you not--on the side), the free Bar-B-Que sauce samples, the Crown Royal "experience" hosted by Hootchie Mamas in spiked high heels--pure hell, I'm sure, on asphalt all day. There's the vendor hawking blue Croc shoes with the #24 on them, a Border Patrol booth wiuth a showcar used as an employment recruiting tool, the Virtual U.S. Army Experience (where it appeared that all those over age 18 who went in never came out), and displays of power tools, HD televisions, Chevrolets, and an inflatible seat cushion with a drink holder--as Mike correctly pointed out, it'll save your two most important possessions, your ass and your beer. Of course, the largest crowds were gathered outside the trailers for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.--probably not by accident were these always parked next to each other. You could almost picture tumbleweeds blowing past the trailers for the back-marker drivers like Dave Blaney or Tony Raines.


Yep, The Intimidator is Dead, but he looks down on his domain from NASCAR marketing heaven. .
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* The Intimidator is Dead, and NASCAR is Lovin' it: everywhere, the slightly-smirking, benevolent face of Dale Earnhardt smiled down on the masses, still a huge marketing factor six years after his death. In fact, he's almost become to racing what Elvis Presley is to music. "Still The Man" the t-shirts say. Not, "He May Be Dead, but he's still a better racer than Michael Waltrip" or "Got HANS?". It's almost creepy, like you'd expect some entrepreneur to be selling Intimidator sunglasses with bushy moustache attached. We've heard reports of seveal Dale Earnhardt impersonators that show up at the races. . .very Elvis-like.
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* What about that Drive To Diversity, NASCAR? Stock-car racing is still a VERY caucasian sport. Saw only a handful of Latinos and African-Americans; most of the minorities we saw--big surprise--were serving food or maintaining the facilities. Noted that Bill Lester and Erin Crocker, he black and she a she, were missing from this year's truck race. . . Juan Pablo Montoya was the only non-White driver at TMS this weekend. What's up with that?


You can see it all in the parking lot at a NASCAR race. A cooler with an electric motor? Ohhhh-kay. . .
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* Traffic wasn't much of an issue. Despite dire warnings about leaving early for the 2:30pm race, we left the house at 11am, and encountered next to no traffic til we got to the parking lot at TMS. Even so, we had a pretty good parking spot, fairly close to the track, and were headed to the midway by noon, passing the on-going parties in the parking lot. We met a guy who had managed to stick wheels and an electric motor into an ice chest, for whatever reason. It was amazing.


These just aren't FLAGS--they're banners unfurled for battle. . .
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*What Will The #8 Fans Do Next Year? Certainly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become the biggest money-maker in the NASCAR nation. His fans are intensely loyal to him, the #8 car, Budweiser, and anything else he endorses. A television commercial a couple of years ago proved strangely prophetic: Earnhardt announcing at a press-conference that he's changing car numbers, a move met by dismay and downright anguish by folks who'd tatooed his number on their body, painted their garage door in his colors, and trimmed their hedges in the shape of a #8. But Jr. is changing teams, sponsors, colors and numbers next year, joining the Hendrick Motorsports team of his arch-rival (and anti-Dale Jr.) Jeff Gordon. I don't know how The Nation will handle it. I'd imagine next year the Red #8 flags will still be in great evidence. They haven't forgotten his Daddy, and I doubt they'll forget Jr., the way he was, either.


Dusk at TMS is almost magical: the setting sun, the crowd, the flashbulbs, and speeding racecars. . .

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