Musings on the Daytona 500 from an IndyCar point of view

IndyCar commentary — By on February 16, 2010 6:30 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

If one is to provide a well-rounded position on IndyCar’s place in the world of motorsport, it’s necessary to sample the other products on offer from time to time.  It was in that spirit that I sat down to watch the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Wait a minute — or was that the Daytona 510?  Or 520?  Sorry.  I lost track.

Anyway, NASCAR has never really been my thing, but with the hullabaloo surrounding Danica and the newly modified green-white-checkered rule, I felt I would be doing Planet-IRL’s open-wheel racing coverage a disservice if I didn’t at least check in to see how things are going over in tintop-land.

For perspective, I’ve always kept an ear to the ground on Cup matters, but it’s probably been about 15 years since I watched a race from end to end.

The most important observation from an open-wheel perspective, of course, is that Danica got several mentions during the broadcast of a race she wasn’t even running.  IndyCar also garnered the occasional cursory citation as a result, though we’ll have a better idea of whether that means anything for us on March 14th.  One thing’s certain — IndyCar has never managed to harness Danica’s star power the way the folks at NASCAR have.

But at what cost?

The comment that most caught my attention came during a rare moment when my family graciously allowed me to flip back to the race coverage during one of the drawn-out pothole-repair breaks.

(I hope I wasn’t the only open-wheel type engaging in a bit of schadenfreude in that, by the way.  Way to look after your “birthplace of speed,” guys.  Like him or not, it looks like we may all owe Tony George a thanks for staying on top of things at IMS.)

Anyway, while filling time, the announcers were musing on the significance of having women enter the NASCAR ranks.  I wish I had a DVR because I hate to risk misquoting something like this, but it’s burned into my brain well enough that I’m confident I can do it justice.

In outlining his observations, one of the announcers said, more or less:  “Well, women have been registered voters for years and many of them have full-time careers, and now we have women driving in NASCAR, too.”

…Really?  Is it 1968?  I’m hardly a staunch feminist, but frankly, I find this statement to be overly simplified and downright offensive, and it wasn’t the only comment along these lines that we’ve heard over the last couple of weeks.  I can’t help but view Danica’s entire introduction into the stock car scene with images of her wearing a frilly pink little dress and being patted on the head while being told, “What a sweet little princess you are!  If you wish upon a star and believe with all your heart, maybe all of your wildest dreams will come true!

Now, don’t get me wrong — I truly have nothing against Danica, the race car driver.  I actually think she’s quite talented.  But what I do have a problem with is that very few people, particularly on the stock car side, seem interested in her talent so much as her anatomy.

In short, someone please give me a call when people get over this phase and start assessing Danica’s stock car performance based on her driving ability as it relates to the rest of the field — especially the other women, who have managed to become invisible in the face of all this hype.  Perhaps they need to consider appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

I truly don’t remember it being this bad when Danica started in IndyCars.  She got as much attention, to be sure, but I don’t recall it having this unique, misogynistic ring to it. Am I looking back with rose-colored glasses?  If so, someone please correct me.  I don’t expect anyone to let me be wrong just because I’m a woman.

The other major observation to be made about the Daytona 500 culminates in the updated green-white-checkered rule but permeates many other aspects of the broadcast as well.

Over the years, NASCAR has figured out how to capture the attention of the TV viewership by making its broadcasts look a great deal like football, the darling sport of the American viewing public.  It’s only natural — when a target market is identified and exactly matches that of another sport that’s successfully reaching it, it’s hard to question emulation as the best policy.  The huge studios done up in flashy primary colors, the noisy and garish sweeping graphics, and the expensive cut-away demo cars on giant rotisseries (though that last one’s admittedly pretty cool) all employ tricks that sports broadcasters — and the NFL in particular — have been using for years to capture the increasingly fleeting attention spans of television viewers.  Basically, they’ve learned how to take a simple sport and turn it into an over-the-top spectacle.

But the difference is that the NFL can justify it, while NASCAR has crossed a line.  The latter’s fundamental problem comes from the fact that it insists on running marathons week in and week out.  While a football game can easily become a blowout, it’s just as common for a pair of well-matched teams to make a thrilling go of it for a full four quarters and thereby justify the bravado.  A 500-mile race, on the other hand, rarely runs its course without a dry spell in the middle — everyone needs to dial into a rhythm for a while to have any hope of making it to the end.

And so, rather than consider whether the races are too long or the schedule is too drawn-out, NASCAR has taken to employing gimmicks to hold viewers artificially.

Your favorite driver just got lapped?  Don’t worry.  We’ll toss out a caution and use a made-up rule to let him get back up with the leaders.

Been watching for the last six hours?  Well, probably not — we’re sure that we can’t keep you interested for that long.  But be sure to come back for the last five laps because we guarantee that you’ll see a green-flag finish, no matter whether it unfolds naturally or makes the race run eight laps longer than it’s supposed to.

Not sure whether you can rely on seeing your guy in the championship running in the late stages of the season?  No problem.  We can control that, too.

It amounts to race-fixing, folks — and not only do NASCAR’s pundits not seem to care, but they’re encouraging it.  The latest change to the GWC rule is being hailed as the most significant in NASCAR history.  It will “alter outcomes,” we’re told.  Gee, you think?  And this is something that people want?  I can’t help but wonder when having someone win a race or a championship fair and square became bothersome.

For my part, I’ll have to keep watching NASCAR every once in a while — the penance of duty — but my allegiance will stay with IndyCar.  And I’ll cling to the hope that the powers that be in open-wheel can take on some of the positive things to be learned from how NASCAR captures its audience while continuing to honor the traditions of motorsport in the way the races are conducted.

But, more than that, I’ll also cling to the hope that we can watch this sport grow and that, by the time it does, it isn’t too late to re-educate the American public about what racing is meant to be.

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