Time For A Change
July 20, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Another part of journalism is telling the story. As a writer, you’re supposed to be the one telling the story, but some writers get confused and think they ARE the story. Uh, no, the story, in this instance, is NASCAR.
And this story isn’t mine. It’s a man named Jim Franklin, and he lives in Morganton, W.Va. He’s a race fan, of course, but he’s not a happy race fan. Jim is an “old-school” fan, if you will, a guy who has been watching NASCAR for more than 20 years.
Jim wrote me the other day about his displeasure with the folks in Daytona Beach, Fla. Used to be, my e-mail address wasn’t on stories posted on RacingOne, but I talked the powers-that-be here into letting me include it. And one of the reasons I wanted it was for guys like Jim to vent.
I remember several months ago when I was sitting in traffic headed to race track when I blurted out a frustrated “Fans ruin racing.” When fighting crowds in the garage area, I jokingly repeated the phrase to colleagues, and they often laughed.
In a way, it’s true. But only when I act like a spoiled-brat reporter who wants everything handed to me on a platter.
The other 99.9 (OK, 99.5) percent of the time, fans don’t ruin racing. Fans ARE racing. Without them, none of us would be here.
There seems to be more and more fans watching Winston Cup racing these days, if you believe the TV foofs who tell us so. And those fans seem to be buying up all of sponsors’ products, if you believe the marketing foofs who tell us so.
Life is good, eh? Ratings are up, attendance is up, NASCAR karma is up.
So why in the world is Jim Franklin of Morganton, W.Va. complaining to me then?
“I am sending you this because I like your writing and I just need you to hear me out,” Franklin wrote.
I like him already.
“I am so tired of NASCAR, its drivers, sponsors, and even the Muppets!” Franklin continued.
You remember the Muppets? They were part of one of the endless marketing schemes in NASCAR, but a disagreement left the characters out of Chicagoland Speedway. Why is this news? It’s not. But the, ahem, “controversy” is telling.
“I watch racing because I enjoyed wrenching on sprint cars (my uncle was a CRA driver for years),” Franklin said. “My eyesight has diminished to the point that I am no longer very quick with the wrenches, so I now watch NASCAR every week.”
But Franklin clearly doesn’t like what he sees.
“NASCAR had better start thinking about the cars on the race track,” Franklin said. “The fans – most of us – don’t give a shit about the Muppets being kept out. Hell, NASCAR pisses on everyone. Why should the Muppets be excluded?”
I’ve read some sportswriters who weren’t as good as Franklin.
“Are you scared too that this sport is becoming so sick that one has to vomit twice to watch it?” Franklin said. “I mean, hell, show the cars on the track – don’t market the new NASCAR CD to me every commercial.”
And it’s not just the obvious marketing that bothers Franklin. Sponsors are so prominent that drivers have to watch what they say and do so much that it stifles their “creativity,” let’s say.
“I want Ward Burton to get out of his car and say, ‘This was the worst piece of shit I have ever driven’ and walk away,” Franklin said. “I want (Jimmy) Spencer to quit his whining and punch (Kevin) Harvick if he has a problem with him.
“I am so tired of the commercialized, watered-down version we get today. I love the racin’, man. Take the aero-push away, and the racing is better than it ever has been.
“Let these drivers and crews be men and women again – not corporate billboards. Fatback (McSwain) punching the war-wagon (at Dover) – great stuff. Some real emotion.”
But the sport has quashed much of the emotion. Even when it comes out on private, well, nothing is private any more. Kurt Busch was fined for cursing at NASCAR over his radio during the Pepsi 400 a couple weeks ago.
“This is really a load of shit, Lee,” Franklin said. “Six years ago no one would have heard what he said, except NASCAR, his crew, and the other crews tapping in. Now, with InDemand and more network intrusion, a driver isn’t even able to be himself in the cockpit – his workplace. That’s like telling you you can’t smoke or drink coffee while you write an article (assuming you smoke or drink coffee).
I don't, but you get his point.
“There needs to be a point to where the fans stop having access to things in order to keep the things we do see real,” Franklin said.
That’s quite a bold statement, given than Franklin is a fan, but he’s right. At some point, the monster has to stop growing. NASCAR fans enjoy unmatched access to drivers, and that has helped propel the sport to new levels.
But when will the drivers be pushed away? When will the drivers be so commercially sanitized that they are merely robots in a driving suit? When will all the money take over and force hard-working teams to shut down because of a lack of funds? When will NASCAR forsake the good of the sport for the almighty dollar?
NASCAR will probably never be the way it was when Franklin and I – and millions of fans – started following it.
Some say that’s the nature of the beast. Times change, and NASCAR has to change with it. True, but even NASCAR president Mike Helton was right when he said change just for the sake of change isn’t good.
Has the sport changed for the worst?
Jim Franklin thinks so. And I have to believe there are many other fans out there just like him.
“I know it’s a long shot for any of this to change,” Franklin said. “But if it doesn’t, it’s going to fall apart. Hell, if they can lose me, they can lose anyone. I promise you that.”
Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com