This And That

Ratings- The ratings for the Cup race from Dover were released on Wednesday and if they weren't stellar they were a big improvement over last week's NHIS ratings. The Cup race was the second most watched program on basic cable with a 3.2 national rating and approximately 3.6 million households tuned in. Naturally the highest rated basic cable program was Sunday night's ESPN NFL game featuring the Buccaneers and Raiders. It's hard to draw any meaningful comparisons between last year's Dover race and this year's because last year the race was on NBC, not a cable station. That race had approximately 4.6 million households tuned in and garnered a 4.2 rating, but remember some households don't have cable. The 2002 edition of the fall Dover race was also on TNT and drew a 4.0 cable rating with about 3.5 million households watching.

My guess is NASCAR's spin will be 100,000 more households tuned in this year than in 2002. The latest I'm hearing is that this doesn't indicate any type of failure or loss of interest in the sport because in general major sports ratings are in decline. So if the C4C system was implemented to slow the decline of ratings rather than to increase, then in Alice's Rabbit hole, that means the ratings are better because they are not as bad. Or something like that.

Sunday's race may provide a clearer indication of where NASCAR is at with their ratings. For the first time the NFL and NASCAR will go Mano-on-mano with both events on broadcast TV and both of them staged on Sunday afternoon. And for casual fans of the sport the Talladega race is a good draw because of the three wide ten deep packs of race cars thanks to the restrictor plates. And for that small element of fans that only tunes in to see wrecks the Talladega race is heavily promoted with huge crashes, cars rolling over and bursting into flames and all that other scary stuff. Last year's Talladega race had a 5.5 rating.

So are the ratings good or bad? I guess it's one of those situations where you have to wait for the When men on the chessboard, get up and tell you where to go, and you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving slow. But Mike Helton did drop a hint about the reality of the situation earlier this fall. He noted that Richmond ratings, at least when considered as far as total viewership, were up 13% over last year and if the ratings continued at that level NASCAR would be pleased. The NHIS ratings were six percent down from last year which seems to indicate they were 20% below where NASCAR would have liked them to be. But you'll have to go ask Alice.

One thing is clear. After a humiliating loss to Sponge Bob Square Pants two weeks ago, the NASCAR race beat old Bob this week by about 200,000 viewers. Faced with the NASCAR ratings juggernaut the panicked producers of Sponge Bob have implemented a new system to energize fans of various characters. Each week one character will be voted off the program Survivor style, with the last remaining character getting to appear in an animated sex tape with Paris Hilton. If she's deemed sponge-worthy.

Jabba Spencer Erupts Again- On Monday night's Inside Nextel Cup program quasi-Cup racer Jimmy Spencer took issue with that network's Pit Bull program and said it ought to be canceled for being too negative. To no one's surprise Michael Waltrip, NASCAR's ultimate lap dog, quickly agreed. Of course as far as Spencer is concerned things couldn't be better with NASCAR racing right now. He hasn't won a Cup race in over a decade and he's currently running in an "Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?" 35th place in the standings. Despite competing in just 22 races Mr. Spencer has generated over 1.7 million dollars in prize money for his team. So naturally he's well content. Likewise the inestimable Mr. Waltrip currently sixteenth in points with just two top 5 finishes to date this season but with posted winnings of over 3.4 million dollars. To give some indication of how obscene that sum is, the late Dale Earnhardt won 3.4 million dollars during his championship 1993 season which featured six wins, and seventeen top 5 finishes in just 30 races. So naturally for the barnacles that hang onto the hull of the Good Ship NASCAR all is right with the world. Never has mediocrity bordering on futility been as lucrative. Don't rock the boat. Ignore the man behind the curtain.

Of course Waltrip would probably drive race cars for free (and God willing soon he will) he's lined up so many endorsement deals to keep his coffers brimming proving that there are bigger idiots on Madison Avenue than even Ma and Pa Waltrip tried to raise in Owensboro. Waltrip is to the point he's got so many endorsements he plugged the wrong sponsor on his Busch car during Monday's program soon after having worked in a plug for Holiday Inn before remembering that he's now backed by Best Western.

Both Waltrip and Spencer seem to have a fundamental disconnect with what's going on with the fans. Living in gated mansions will do that to a soul no matter how populist his hearts. The fans they deal with are normally in awe of meeting a Cup driver and quasi-TV celebrity so they're not going to blurt out "Why are the races so damned boring this fall?" or "Do you think this C4C nonsense is a bunch of crap too?"

If SPEED is going to make any programming changes I'd suggest they expand "Pit Hoggs" to an hour on Friday night and use it to replace "Trackside", a frankly intolerable hour long program of would-be-celebrities patting themselves on the back for painfully insipid attempts at humor and shamelessly plugging themselves. If CBS got fined a half million dollars for a one second glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast, just how much will the fine be for Trackside and it's panel of boobs?

Trackside exists due to a fundamental flaw in the contemporary American communal psyche. There is a certain percentage of folks, and they deserve our sympathy not our disdain, who feel their life is only validated if they appear however briefly on television. They will wear outrageous outfits, cheer sheer stupidity, wave signs and leap and caper about in a desperate attempt to catch the fickle eye of the TV camera as the Trackside program goes to break. This mental disorder is not limited to race fans. Watch your local evening news. Even as a grim-faced reporter tells the story of a family of four burned to death while sleeping in their home and a neighborhood in shock and dismay, in the background you'll doubtlessly catch folks jumping up and down waving their hands with grins like a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern on their face, while their more high tech counterparts use cell-phones to jockey themselves into better camera position with the help of someone watching at home.

The NAMRF- Folks down in NASCAR's Daytona Beach headquarters have got to be on pins and needles right now wondering about the motives of a group called the National Association for Minority Race Fans or NAMRF. Reports circulated late last week that NAMRF had applied to a permit to protest at the upcoming race in Atlanta and a member of the group is said to have contacted a sheriff in Talladega about the possibility of staging a protest at this weekend's race as well.

The group's website www.NAMRF.com is currently only available to members though by the time you read this it will probably be open to the public. (The site will open to all as Thursday night gives way to Friday early morning.) But looking at the front page of the site it seems pretty clear this organization is not planning on congratulating NASCAR on their work to date on various diversity programs. One link invites folks to "View the Class Action Lawsuit Commercial" with a graphic below of it of a Confederate flag with the words "Entitled to Damages" printed on it. Well, that doesn't sound promising. Another link features a cartoon Klansman in white robes holding a NASCAR flag above the words "What We're Up Against." Yowch. Other links invite folks to "Join the Lawsuit" or to view the "Boycott List." Then there's a graphic of a bunch of stock cars racing in the background with a burning cross in the foreground that will allow visitors to the site to "Watch the Documentary." Something tells me a DVD of that documentary would not be a good stocking-stuffer for Brian France this Christmas.

Several team owners and sponsor diversity managers say they've been approached by film crews in 60 Minutes ambush style and it's reasonable to expect that those film crews probably were associated with the NAMRF and their mysterious documentary. And if the group went trolling at various stock car races looking to find some racist willing and proud to make prejudiced statements on camera my guess is they didn't have to search too hard. But the same could be said if those same camera crews visited an NFL game, a rock concert, or even a wedding reception. It's deplorable but there are virulent racists among us at every level of society. But it's quite a reach to say that because some stock car fans are racist that stock car racing is a racist sport and it's unfair to say because fans like those exist all fans of stock car racing are racist. I'd draw some of those little circle graphs to explain my point but I don't know how to do that on a keyboard.

I guess I should preface my comments by saying I'm a middle-aged white guy so I probably don't get it. I'm a middle-aged white guy from Pennsylvania so if you rely on stereotypes rather than reality I guess I'm a little less suspect than a middle-aged white guy from Alabama. When it comes to denying being a racist I subscribe to the theory "Me thinketh he doeth protest too much." The more time you spend defending yourself against such accusations with some trite "some of my best friends…" defense the more likely it is you harbor such inclinations deep within you. So I'll just say I'm not a racist and leave it at that.

Speaking from personal experience I can truthfully say I've never been to a stock car race where I worried about the color of the skin of the fan that sits beside me. I just sort of hope I don't end up sitting beside some big fat dude who intrudes into my space, gets drunk by 10 in the morning, spends the entire race screaming profanities at a driver he doesn't like then tops it off by puking on my shoes. It's only happened once or twice but it wasn't pleasant.

Like many people I have seen boorish behavior by some fans at stock car races. In my general experience that loutish behavior is directed at fans who arrive wearing Jeff Gordon gear. I've seen such people cursed, berated, pushed, bullied and saw ice and beer thrown at them. When it comes to the vast savanna of stock car racing Jeff Gordon fans are at the bottom of the food chain. But perhaps that's not a fair comparison because obviously a white Jeff Gordon fan can change his T-shirt a lot easier than a person of color can change the hue of his skin. But in my experience, and I've been around this game a goodly while, a black person in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt is going to be treated better at most tracks than a white dude in a #24 shirt. But maybe when I watch this documentary I'll learn otherwise. Or at least be presented with evidence that's not the case.

To digress for a moment, and when do I not, the term "documentary" when applied to a film is somewhat confusing. If the NAMRF were to wish to film a "documentary" on how minorities are treated at NASCAR events they would start with a premise like "How are minorities treated at races?" They would then film evidence to show what the situation was like, both positive and negative to document reality. Now if the group starts with a premise "Blacks are mistreated at NASCAR events" and shoot only footage that backs that claim then they aren't documenting reality and as such what they produce isn't a "documentary". It's propaganda. Not that filming propaganda hasn't proved lucrative for some filmmakers lately.

To cite an example there was recently an ugly racist incident here in Philadelphia and it was interesting to see how two rival local TV news operations handled the story. A mixed-race couple moved into a neighborhood and days later some fool (or fools) formed a foam cross on the alleyway behind the couples home and set it ablaze. One station decided to sensationalize what had happened. They got an interview with a racist fellow in the neighborhood (one of the suspects as it turned out) spouting hate. The other station showed the other side of the story, angry neighbors doing their best to scrub away the marks that remained when the fire was extinguished and telling the reporter that there was no room for that sort of racist crap in their neighborhood. They also interviewed a black resident of the block who said he was shocked because in the time he had lived there he'd been treated as just another neighbor. Viewers of each station were left with a distinctly different impression of that neighborhood and whether they'd want to live there.

And it would seem likely the whole crux of the argument is once again going to come down to the Confederate flag. For some people, black and white, that flag has become an instant flash-point symbolizing racial intolerance and hatred mostly because the flag has been mis-appropriated by groups like the Klan and the Nazis. I don't see it that way. To me a Confederate flag is a symbol of rebellion against an increasingly intrusive federal government that wants to tell me where I can ride my dirt bike and what I can do under the hood of my car. In high school, and we're talking Radnor PA here not someplace in the deep south, a lot of flew rebel flags from our car's antenna to thumb our noses at the school administration, the cops, and parental control. Increasingly the flag has been adopted by people who believe in a way of life that includes rugged independence, non-conformity and old fashioned social values that hearken back to a simpler time not when blacks were segarated from society but back in the days when neighbors pitched in to help neighbors in need, where society was somewhat more polite, and when hard work was the expected lot of a man. To many Southerners the flag is a symbol of heritage not hate. Am I to presume that the Dukes of Hazard was a racist TV program because of the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee?

So let's say NASCAR were to issue an edict that flying Confederate flags are banned from display in the infield. Where exactly is the line drawn? Would a fan showing up with a Confederate flag on a T-shirt not be allowed to enter. What if that flag was in the background of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tour T-shirt? What if a fan were to arrive with a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm? Would he only be allowed to enter if he put on a long sleeve shirt?

A flag is a symbol. You see what you want to see. To digress again I am of Irish descent two generations off the boat. In the nineteenth century the English tried to starve the Irish Catholics. (Contrary to the "Potato famine" myth there was no shortage of produce it was all just being shipped to England.) The English tore down my ancestors homes and sent them to wander the country-side in the dead of winter. My maternal grandfather was born in New York but his family went back to Ireland because of prejudice against Catholics here. As the young father of four and the family's sole breadwinner he was arrested by the British for treason due to his active support of the IRA. He was scheduled to be hung. Only my grandmother's approaching the US embassy in Ireland with proof that my grandfather was an American citizen by birth saved him from the rope. He was deported and forced to leave his wife and four children behind until he could earn the money to send for them. And when he initially arrived in Philadelphia and sought work he was greeted by "Help Wanted" signs that included the legend "NINA" or No Irish Need Apply. My grandmother went to her grave with a deep hatred of the English for what some English people did to her family. But you know what? When I see the Union Jack I don't think about the Great Starvation or my grandfather sentenced to hang. I don't feel the English owe me any reparations for what happened 50 years before I was born. I have no hatred in my heart for the English. I would not be uncomfortable visiting England even with Union Jacks flying hither and yon. Heck, I might even visit England one day if they get a clue that beer is best served cold not warm.

No, I don't know what NAMRF's agenda is. We'll all know soon. And under the first amendment they have every right to speak their mind even if I find what they say repugnant and false. I will admit however that the tone of their website's front page bothers me. A lot. I've been a fan of this sport for four decades. There was a time not all that long ago when I told people I was a stock car racing fan and they'd look at me funny. They'd think I was a possibly in-bred, poorly educated, bigoted moron who liked to watch cars wreck. Being a stock car racing fan wasn't the sort of thing you bought up on a first date or at a social function like a wedding reception or a birthday party. It wasn't really until the 90s that stock car racing fans got a little respect and occasionally a stick and ball fan who saw something about racing on ESPN's Sportscenter would approach me to learn more. If because of the efforts of the NAMRF I am once again stereotyped and thought to be less of a man so be it. But that's no more fair than any other sort of prejudice or stereotyping.

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