September 6, 2006

NASCAR Moves Into Driver’s Seat

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“Boogity, Boogity, Boogity!!!”

The repetition of that single nonsensical word probably means nothing to the average sports fan. And no, it is not Stuart Scott’s new obnoxious, overused catchphrase that will undoubtedly, yet incomprehensibly, become a part of the American lexicon. Actually, every week millions of fans recognize those words as the commencement of the most important sporting event they will watch all week: a NASCAR race.

Spoken with the exaggerated Southern drawl of one of the sports greatest legends, Daryl Waltrip, this phrase, much like its hackneyed sister, “gentlemen, start your engines,” is quickly becoming synonymous with “Play ball!” in American sports terminology. NASCAR has become the popular form of sport-like entertainment for a colossal group of fans that includes people with full sets of teeth and who marry outside the family. And I am one of them.

Growing up I had heard of Dale Earnhardt and casually witnessed the growing legend and marketability of Jeff Gordon. I occasionally paused at page 713 of the sports section to see if I had heard of the driver who had won the John Deere Tractors 400 sponsored by John Deere. I even spent time walking through the Wal-Mart clothing section to make fun of the gaudy, tye-dyed t-shirts that people apparently bought to show support for their favorite icons. But I never understood the phenomenon of the left turn or fathomed just why the pit-stop was so important — it was all a mystery to me.

However, in recent years I have become drawn to the racetrack and have begun to appreciate the most nuanced sport in the world. If anything, the high level of hidden comedy, ready to explode at every turn, is reason enough to watch, practice your best redneck impression and just enjoy the intoxicating Southern appeal of grown men turning one of the most mundane aspects of daily life into a multi-billion dollar industry.

For one thing, NASCAR is appealing because it allows Americans to soothe our malevolent desires to watch the failure of others. In no other sport is catastrophe as commonly accepted and even celebrated as it is in NASCAR. Can you imagine getting excited over a torn ACL during a football game? It just doesn’t work well in our usual sports. It succeeds in NASCAR because we have, tragedies aside, replaced the human suffering with unmitigated vehicular destruction. There is nothing in any other sport that compares to car crashes — it is just that simple.

But this high-octane explosiveness is rare, and it’s not for everyone. Not even I have the patience to spend an entire afternoon in front of the television listening to the a steady stream of engine roar interrupted by somewhat infrequent pandemonium and frequent commercial breaks. That being said, I watch bits and pieces, experience the splendor, appreciate the spectacle and enjoy the action.

And if that is not enough — NASCAR is genuinely hilarious! Watching allows you to experience first hand all the realistic, albeit over the top, comedy that Talladega Nights offered. In many ways, all the stereotypes and jokes that surround NASCAR accurately portray the reality of this semi-sport — NASCAR is the ultimate self-parody.

As far as comedy’s concerned, the advertising and product placement is just mindboggling. Watching a sweat-stained winner of a race — after sitting for five hours in a billboard disguised as a vehicle that is as hot as Satan’s sauna — almost vomit after having to gulp down a warm Coke because Fiji water is only a low-level sponsor is side-splitting.

Along the same lines, the post-race interviews are almost better than the race itself. Allow me to demonstrate:

Interviewer with funny beret and oversized headphones: The race seemed to get away from you there at the end, it seemed like the car was running a little loose and you couldn’t gather yourself coming out of turn four.
Driver: Yeah, I’d just like to thank Miller Light, Energizer and Hostess Snack Cakes. They have really been great. We had a great crew today and the car was fantastic, so I’d just like to thank everyone at Penske racing and also my teammates.

Huh? Does that even qualify as a response? At no point in these sponsor-friendly, infomercial-esque responses do the drivers come anywhere near answering the question. The look on the sidetrack reporter’s face never fails to be priceless. Just once I want a smug, clued-up journalist to ask something like, “Without reference to any of your sponsors or redirected credit to those outside the cockpit, can you answer any question I might ask?” That would be classic.

And finally, the entire NASCAR nation seems to be mesmerized by a belief that car and driver have symbiotically fused to form one entity. Instead of saying names, racers almost always refer to the other driver by his car number, believing, possibly accurately so, that the synecdoche more precisely presents the nature of their sport.

Throughout the piece I have continued to refer to NASCAR as a sport, relying on the logic that if the highlights make SportsCenter, it qualifies as a quasi-sportish type of activity. By no means do I think that NASCAR should be the second most popular “sport” in America — which it is — but I do believe that NASCAR provides the thrills that we all seek from spectatorship.

With college football already started and the NFL soon to kickoff, NASCAR will soon become obsolete to many of us, as we become consumed by fantasy leagues, Heisman races, and John Madden’s nonsense. But for certain reasons — perhaps some of which I referred to above — when T.O. returns to Philadelphia on October 8th, millions of fans will instead be fixed on Talladega Superspeedway, where NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series will be in the middle of their version of the playoffs, known as the Chase.

While an obsession with racing may seem crazy to the usual sports fan, there is no denying that NASCAR has captured the attention of people everywhere and is now a part of our mainstream sport’s universe. Passion, energy, exhibition, mastery, and even skill are all on display every week at the track. Intriguing personalities, electric crashes, and drunk, overzealous rednecks are all part of what attracts the average American to this particularly odd, outrageously funny, and unexplainably popular form of sports entertainment — even those of us who are literate.

Patrick Blakemore is a Sun Staff Writer. Got Game? will appear every other Tuesday this semester.