Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Percentage of NASCAR Fans Are Crazy?

I have decided that about a third of NASCAR fans are certifiable. I've thought that for a while but their take on the Jeremy Mayfield case elevated those feelings. An unbelievable number of NASCAR fans seemed to consider it perfectly logical that NASCAR, a multi-billion dollar industry, would risk their credibility, indeed, their very existence to fix a drug test to get Jeremy Mayfield, a minor league driver at best, out of racing (for whatever nefarious reason they might have had for doing that).

Now, those same conspiracy theorists are at it again, being sincerely convinced that NASCAR deliberately "threw" the Brickyard 400 by lying about Juan Pablo Montoya speeding on pit lane. They attribute a number of different motivations to NASCAR. One is that the sanctioning body is inherently racist and didn't want a foreigner to win. Two is that they have a deal going to only let Hendrick's cars win because Rick Hendrick pumps so much money into NASCAR. Three is that, well, if there is a three, I forget what it is.

I personally believe that the leadership of the sanctioning body probably wrung their collective hands in anguish over having to give Montoya a pit road speeding penalty. What a terrific headline they have gotten out of it if he'd won. "JPM makes history - first to win both Indy 500 and Brickyard 400". That would have made news all over the world. It would have brought in new Hispanic fans in droves. Instead what they got was: "Jimmie wins Brickyard...again", which happened to be my preferred outcome but , let's face it, was a far more ho-hum result.

As for NASCAR favoring Rick Hendrick, if they were truly going to fix races for HMS, wouldn't they fix them for Dale Earnhardt, Junior to win? What would excite the fan base more than Junior winning races? That alone would probably fill the seats and up the television viewing audience to its pre-recession levels.

The most obvious argument against NASCAR cheating on either drug tests or race results is that it would be stupid and NASCAR hasn't got to be the second most popular sport in America (after the NFL) by being led by stupid people. All it would take would be one iota of proof that NASCAR manipulated a drug test or fixed a race and the entire entity would go down the tubes. Without faith in its credibility, the sanctioning body has nothing. I don't believe Brian France etal have the slightest desire to do this but even if they did, they wouldn't.

I don't why know so many "fans" seem to have such a seething hatred of NASCAR, finding it logical to believe there is no evil of which the sanctioning body is incapable. And why do they even stick around? If I thought NASCAR was so inherently corrupt, I'd go find something else to occupy my time. If I loved racing, I'd go hang out at my local short tracks and get away from NASCAR altogether. Instead, they come to the blogs and message boards, wearing their tinfoil hats, and force the rest of us to listen as they spew their lunatic opinions.

Manipulating reality

Okay, I'm curious. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I paid very close attention to the apparel that people wore and the gear they carried. I was expecting to see mostly Dale Earnhardt Junior, because he's the most popular driver, and Tony Stewart, because he's from near by Columbus, Indiana.

It turned out not to be that way at all. If shirts and hats and jackets and tattoos and can coolers, etc. are an accurate indication of driver popularity, then Jeff Gordon was the overwhelming fan favorite at Indy. I'd estimate that we saw Jeff's face and number twice as much as everyone else put together. I was also gratified to see that Jimmie ranked right up there with Tony and Dale Jr. He might even have had a slight advantage but because my prejudice might have boosted his numbers somewhat, I'll say those three were pretty close to even.

There were only a handful of people advertising their support for any other driver - half a dozen for Kyle Busch, a sprinkling for Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards. Nothing for Mark Martin (I watched for him especially).

It was also pretty obvious where the most desirable stuff was being sold in the rain-softened souvenir hauler lot by the giant mud holes in front of Jeff, Jimmie, Tony and Dale.

These choices were echoed by the cheers for the drivers as they walked from the garage to the track. A veritable roar for Jeff Gordon, loud shouts for Tony, Jimmie and Dale. A respectful acknowledgment for the rest. (Except for poor Kyle. I'm not a big Kyle Busch fan but it seems to me that when you have a man trapped into running a gauntlet, booing him is tacky and petty).

Okay, so those were the results of my informal survey at the track. Fast forward to the next day. The Brickyard 400. In the pre-race shows, I heard from the announcers and reporters that the crowd was rooting for their hometown hero, Tony Stewart. Hmm, I thought, really? Because that's sure not what was reflected in what I saw. Tony certainly had his share of supporters but the numbers didn't begin to compare with Jeff Gordon fans. And Jimmie and Dale Junior equalled him at least.

Then those last 24 laps, the battle between Jimmie and Mark Martin for the lead. Now the reporters were convinced that "the crowd is cheering for the sentimental favorite, Mark Martin!" One announcer in a post-race show even said so to Jimmie - "the fans wanted Mark to win, he was the sentimental favorite". Jimmie, being Jimmie, answered politely. I don't remember exactly what he said. If it had been me, I might have been tempted to ask - "do you have figures to back that up or is it just what you want to believe?"

I never saw one Mark Martin thing on qualification day. Maybe Mark Martin fans aren't into buying gear or appearing at the track until race day. Whatever, they weren't in evidence when I was there but according to the media, they must have appeared en masse on Sunday.

I think its more likely that the NASCAR media, like the political media, have their favored story lines and they spin the truth to fit their memes. They thought the spectators should support "the hometown hero" and they thought the fans should cheer "the sentimental favorite" so they stroked reality to make it come out right.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Brenda and I went down to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see qualifying and practice for the All-State Brickyard 400. It was a day of peaks and valleys. No one asked us for any money although I'd been told tickets to get in for qualifying would be $25, so that was a peak. The rain that postponed qualifying and initially looked like it had set in for the day was a definite valley. No matter what had happened weatherwise though, just being at the venerable old track in its centennial year, with its pagoda and grandstands on both sides and beloved yard of bricks and all the racing history that has taken place there, would have been a peak.

We hiked out to the souvenir haulers in spite of the drizzle. I bought a Jimmie Johnson jacket on sale which I figured I was getting for free since I didn't have to buy a ticket. (Peak.) You could tell the most popular drivers because they had the biggest mudholes in front of their haulers.

We ate lunch. I would advise against an IMS breaded tenderloin which was a definite valley. Listened to the live band playing on the plaza, which were all pretty good. The sun came out, the dryers were on the track. It was announced that qualifying would start at 2:00 p.m.

We crammed against the fence to watch the cars being pushed out onto the track. They were followed by the drivers, crew chiefs and other personnel I've become familiar with via television. As Jimmie was walking out, a man stopped him and he stood right in front of me for a minute or two. He is even handsomer in person! (A big peak). All of this was probably more exciting for me than it was for Brenda who is only a second-hand NASCAR fan.

My discussion group friends have always told me that you can't really appreciate NASCAR until you've had the thrill of actually hearing the cars on the track and they were right. The roar of the engines is so loud, the grandstands practically reverberate. The noise affected me the same way the scream of rock and roll the guitars used to back in the day.

My cheerleading did not help Jimmie any in qualifying. He was sixteenth. (Valley). Mark Martin got the pole. (Deeper valley - Mark is one of my least favorite drivers).

We stayed for practice which made me think I might not choose the Brickyard if I was going to an actual race. At Indianapolis, with the grandstands on both sides, the cars are in sight only when they are on the straight-away directly in front of you, then they disappear for two miles until they come back around. Maybe it is my age but the television screens weren't clear and I couldn't hear the announcers very well so I had no clue what was going on in the others parts of the track. Of course, I'm probably lying. Give me the opportunity to get tickets and go with someone who knows how to navigate the raceday traffic and see what happens.

During practice, someone stole my jacket when I wasn't paying attention. So much for saving money on my ticket. (Valley).

I have been a NASCAR fan for exactly one year. The first race I ever watched was the 2008 Brickyard. I've listened to thousands of miles of the Sirius NASCAR channel since then. I've watched thousands of hours of NASCAR programming on t.v., not only the races themselves but the pre and post-race shows. (Although prior to NASCAR, my television needed GPS to know how to get to Fox and ESPN and SPEED). I've read millions of words about drivers and crew chiefs and owners and paint schemes and statistics and history. And now I've seen it all up close and personal. In spite of a few shallow valleys, I felt like I'd been to the top of Mount Everest.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Unions

My friend told me she'd been called in by management and informed that her job of several years was most likely winding down. She might work a few more days, or perhaps, weeks but being permanently laid off is now something she should expect. Not a pleasant prospect at 60 years old - too old to be employable, too young to retire. It's not that the company won't still have a substantial number of employees working but they are all relatively new hires. They make $9 a hour, quite a bit less than my friend earns. Ironically, her daughter got fired from her job on the very same day. And, guess what? Her employer is also hiring new workers and what is their new starting rate? Nine dollars an hour.

We debated whether it was a coincidence or if business is making a concerted and cooperative effort to lower the standard wage for new employees to the neighborhood of $9 an hour. Are there websites where corporate managers hang out and discuss these things?

"Okay, Guys, it's decided then, we'll all pay 9 bucks to start. That's high enough that no one can accuse us of paying slave wages but low enough to cut costs. Of course, we have to find ways to get rid of our old employees who are making more. In a bad economy, it's a buyer's market and they'll have to take what we give'em and be damn glad to get it." And so it is and so we are.

America has hated unions for a long time. Even the most put-upon workers were contemptuous of unions. Was it jealousy, I wonder? They were working for lower pay under crappier conditions while the union elites were making the big bucks and receiving huge benefits. Instead of aspiring to at least part of what the Autoworkers or the Steelworkers had won for themselves, we wanted to bring them down to our level. God, fools that we were, we did management's work for them.

And how self-righteous were the employees of non-union plants that matched union wages? They thought they had the best of both worlds - all the benefits without having to picket or pay union dues. And their bosses patted them on their agreeable little heads and said, "you don't need no steenkin' contract."

And, of course, the unions didn't help themselves much because like all large organizations, the head honchos got greedy and corrupt. And, geez, in some of the unions I've belonged to, we voted in some of the most ignorant representatives we could find, like it didn't matter, instead of the ones we needed, the brightest people with the best negotiating skills.

Still, corporate America's leaders were greedy and corrupt too but management wasn't foolish enough to throw their cooperative partnerships away in favor of going it alone, like workers did.

At one time, approximately a third of us were unionized. Then, we voted in a series of Republican administrations, starting with Ronald Reagan who were aligned with the corporations and willing the help them by busting the unions. Sadly, no one clapped louder when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers than their fellow working Americans. Yeah, by God, they got what they deserved. The Great Communicator told us so.

There was a time in America's history when a scab was the lowest form of life. The members of my blue collar family would have starved before they crossed a picket line, realizing as they did that if working Americans didn't stick together, they would fall apart. We didn't stick together and we have fallen apart. My state, Indiana, is a right to work state. That means, as an employment attorney advised me when I was fired by the sheriff, that "if you're not working under a contract, your employer can fire you if you come to work wearing yellow socks and he doesn't like yellow socks." Lots of us are working without contracts these days and lots of us must be wearing yellow socks, or their equivalent, too.

When we lived in Houston, Texas, the first question you were asked at an employment interview was, "how do you feel about unions?" If you hoped to have any opportunity for a job, you'd better give the required answer. No one really minded much then. The Houston economy was booming, there were a lot of jobs available and wages were high. Maybe they did care later when it all went to crap and they were at their employer's mercy (and, in case you haven't noticed, the majority of employers don't have much mercy) but by then it was too late.

By now, it doesn't even make much difference if you do belong to a union. Little by little, organized labor lost numbers and clout. Only about 8 per cent of us belong to unions now when we need the protections afforded by collective bargaining the most. Eight per cent isn't enough to have the strength to take on management in a fair fight.

Except for the few who were willing to man the battlefields in the management/labor war, working America is, collectively, a herd of sheep. We are so easily manipulated to cooperate against our own best interests. Back in medieval days, we would have pulled our forelock when our Squire passed by, content to be one of his faithful little peons, probably selling out any rebels who tried to plot the overthrow of the feudal system. In slave days, we'd have been the ones who loved Old Massa, resenting instead of admiring, those courageous few who made a break for freedom.

Herd animals are vulnerable to predators unless they band together but we've been brainwashed into believing that banding together is unAmerican and so they pick us off one by one. We stand and watch without protest until it's us but by then, it's too late.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The O. J. Syndrome

Geez, NASCAR people are naive about drug testing. They act like it is brand new science instead of something that has been going on, without much controversy, for years.

NASCAR just instituted its new drug-testing policy in 2009. A few garage and pit crew guys came back with dirty drug screens and got kicked out of the sport. There wasn't any fuss about it. But then, Jeremy Mayfield, a Sprint Cup driver, tested positive and was suspended from racing and, Lord, all hell broke loose. Jeremy swore he was innocent, that NASCAR's testing procedures were flawed. First, he said that he was taking Adderall (for adult Attention Deficit Disorder) and over-the-counter Claritan and the combination of the two had caused a false positive. Of course, prior to a drug test, those to be tested are asked what medications they've recently taken so they can be accounted for but, for whatever reason, Jeremy failed to do that at the time.

Then Jeremy hired the most high-profile attorney in the NASCAR world. Well, maybe "hired" is the wrong word. I doubt if Jeremy hired Bill Diehl since he has barely enough money to fund getting his car on the track so I assume the operative phrase was: "will work for publicity". And there was a lot of publicity with Diehl filing a flurry of motions alleging that NASCAR had screwed up Jeremy's drug test and their lab was incompetent, etc. etc. Eventually, it was reported that the substance for which Jeremy's test had come back positive was methamphetamine. Jeremy's team produced a doctor who declared that it was very possible that the combination of drugs Jeremy claimed to have taken could have resulted in a false reading but then it turned out that Jeremy's doctor's wasn't really even a doctor.

In the course of time, Jeremy's legal team filed for an emergency injunction to lift the suspension. The judge agreed that more harm could come to Jeremy if he was innocent and didn't race than would be done to NASCAR if he was guilty and did - a decision not necessarily agreed with by many of the drivers who'd have to be going 200 miles an hour on the same track with him. The judge, however, did give NASCAR the right to test Jeremy whenever they chose.

In spite of the supposed emergency nature of the injunction, Jeremy did not appear at Daytona, the first race after his suspension was lifted. And he did not appear at Chicago, the next race. He said he planned to be at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis at the end of July. NASCAR then informed him that he was required to do another test. What followed next was a comedy of errors. First, Jeremy said he didn't hear his phone or read his voice mail in time to appear at the testing site in the two hours he was allowed. He finally got in touch with somone who told him to go to a closer location but he got lost and never found it. And then he couldn't reach anyone at NASCAR or the testing facility to find out what to do next. So he just went home. Eventually, NASCAR appeared on his doorstep with someone to administer the test, as well as a security guard. It still took almost an hour before Jeremy gave the sample. His attorney was incensed because NASCAR insisted that someone watch him urinate in the cup. He lawyer thought it was outrageous that NASCAR implied Jeremy couldn't be trusted. Anyone who has ever worked in law enforcement or the criminal justice system for as many years as I did knows that the most common method of beating a drug test is to substitute "clean" urine for your own. Some substance abusers have even been known to make their children provide them with urine.

Well, we waited a week and a half and guess what? Jeremy tested positive again. In addition, his step-mother gave a sworn affidavit stating that she'd seen Jeremy snort meth on several occasions. Did Jeremy fold his tent and admit defeat faced with such overwhelming evidence? Nope, now he believes NASCAR deliberately falsified results to target him and his step-mother is a lying bitch.

All this is exactly what I predicted at the start of this circus. I never believed Jeremy would ever race again. It seemed obvious that this court battle was all about pressuring NASCAR into a large settlement to make the negative, high-profile case go away.

What amazes me is how much so many NASCAR fans seem to hate the sanctioning body of their sport. They willingly suspend their common sense in their desire to believe that NASCAR is capable of falsifying records with the goal of destroying a driver although what the motive would be, I have no idea. None of this has been in NASCAR's best interest. The case has tarnished NASCAR's reputation right along with Mayfield's. But fans want so strongly to identify with the little guy against the powerful organization that they ignore what seems to me to be incontrovertible evidence of Jeremy's guilt.

Poor NASCAR. I think if the situation had been reversed and they'd only slapped Mayfield on the wrist, they'd have been accused of letting Jeremy get away with it because he was a elite driver while the lower level people got tossed out of racing. They can't win either way.

What confounds me most though is the smoke screen that this case has thrown up around drug-testing. Folks, we've been doing this for a long time. Jails and probation departments around the country order thousands of drug screens daily and judges invariably accept those results. As a consequence, thousands of Americans lose their freedom, not just the chance to race a car. Most of them don't protest their fate.

It is a sad fact of our legal system that if you have access to high-powered counsel (a la O.J.), you stand a good chance of beating the rap via attorneys who swamp the court in a tsunami of paperwork. They hire paralegals to comb every document for the smallest inconsistency or innocent error to protest. A misspelling or a misplaced comma can be the cause of an indignant appeal. Definitions are twisted, statements are distorted, witnesses are tormented.

And you are oh-so-much more likely to make the court of public opinion work in your favor if you are well-known. If O. J. Simpson had been O. J. Jones, he probably would be in prison right now for murder. If Jeremy Mayfield, Sprint Cup driver, had been Jeremy Smith, garage mechanic, nobody would likely give a damn about his future, or lack of, in auto racing.

NASCAR nation wants to root for the underdog but Jeremy Mayfield isn't the underdog any more than O. J. Simpson was the underdog. The underdog is that anonymous little garage guy who fails the test and doesn't have a team of attorneys to help him beat the system.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lagging Behind

I can get just so far with modern technology and then I crash painfully into the limitations of my age face first. This blog is a perfect example. I don't remember exactly when I started it but it's been a while, a couple years maybe. It is labelled a blog, but it isn't really, because blogs have pictures and links and videos and other neat little extras. What this is, is an electronic column. The same thing I've been doing for 30 years only on the computer instead of paper.

It's the same with my other technological possessions. I dip a toe into the 21st century and that's as far as I get. I use my fancy digital camera to take pictures. Okay, I've got that down, but I flunked my Photography for Beginners course, slinking out in shame after only two classes. So I don't add borders to my pictures, or shadows or captions. I don't enlarge them to poster size or shrink them to make my own postage stamps. I don't blend two photos into one. I don't create electronic albums to share with internet friends.

I make and receive phone calls on my cell phone. I've never checked a stock price or located myself on the earth via GPS. I've never texted or twittered. I've never set an alarm so I don't miss an appointment (I have a calendar in my purse that's quicker). I've never downloaded a ringtone or played a game. I did take a picture once, accidentally. It's a shot of my office floor, in case I ever want to remember what that looks like.

My latest venture into the wonderful world of technology involves my membership on Facebook. I was told by B. J. at the Courthouse that I had to join.

"Why?" I asked.

He explained that lots of people I knew were there - people from the Sheriff's Department and the Courthouse and the City Police, people I'd worked with and been friends with. It was a great way to stay in touch and keep up with the news. B. J. told me to open a Facebook account and then shoot him an e-mail. He'd send me an invitation to be one of his Friends. One thing would lead to another.

So, I did all that and sure enough, it was gratifying to get lots more notifications from people inviting me to be their friend and to have personal messages posted on my "wall". And it is fun to keep up on what everyone is doing now and what is going on in local government.

But once again, Facebook is making me feel inadequate. For one thing, there is an impersonal gray silhouette above my name where everyone else has pictures of themselves or their kids or their favorite cartoon characters or some symbol, like a badge, that represents them. I have no clue how to download (or is it upload?) a picture so I'll probably continue to be a silhouette for the foreseeable future.

I did participate in one of the little quizzes Facebook offers and discovered that if I was a hotel in Las Vegas, I would be the Bellagio. I'm not sure how important knowing that is in the scheme of things. In fact, I doubt it's validity. If I really was a hotel in Las Vegas, I'd probably be one of those older, shabbier ones - that some entrepreneur is looking at to buy and implode so a new sleek one can be built on my spot.

You can look up old classmates on Facebook but I haven't tried to do this. I attended 12 schools in 12 years. I don't have the energy to enter them all into Facebook's "Search" box.

In addition to individuals, you can look for Facebook Groups. I joined a Jimmie Johnson Fan Group. There seems to be a Group for every conceivable interest. I wonder if there an "Senior Citizens Falling Behind the Technology" Group?