Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tell Me Why I'm Wrong - NASCAR and Jimmie Johnson are the Best

I'm frequently told by non-NASCAR fans that they don't understand why I enjoy "watching cars going around in circles trying to wreck each other." It's usually said with an air of elitism, as if only an ignorant redneck could be a NASCAR fan. My first response is usually a snotty - "why would you think I care whether you understand or not?"

My second answer is an even snottier - "I probably enjoy it for the same reasons you enjoy watching a bunch of muscle-bound men chase each other back and forth across a field trying to wreck each other."

My third answer (if they are still hanging around by then) is that of all the sports, I believe NASCAR is the most complex. Saying it is simply "cars going around in circles" is like saying your local kindergarten and Harvard are the same because they are both schools.

NASCAR isn't a person against a person or a team against a team. It is 43 teams against each other, all running at 100 to 200 miles an hour only inches apart. It isn't as simple as: "who will come in first" but 43 stories within a story with 43 different goals and every driver clawing and scratching to gain as many positions as he or she can. There is the front-of-the-field story with champion caliber drivers vying against each other for the win, the mid-pack story (perhaps with a rookie driver) where a 15th place finish feels like a victory and a backfield story with cars there due to poor performance, a sub-standard qualifying effort or bad luck. Watching a superb driver charge through the field  to get to the front (while passing other cars trying to keep him from it) is a thrilling sight.

Unlike the balls and bats of stick and ball sports, every race car is individual and customized. Manufacturers develop their own racing engines; owners fabricate their chassis to their own specifications, crew chiefs all set up their cars differently. Even within NASCAR's strict parameters, there is room for ingenuity and autonomy, in contrast to other sports in which the regulations are uniform for all.

A race track isn't a static entity but a constantly changing environment. An asphalt surface when temperatures are at their peak is completely different than the same surface in the chill of the night. A car which is so sloppy loose on a hot, slick track that the driver can hardly hang on to it becomes so tight, it doesn't want to turn when the asphalt cools (or perhaps it is the other way around because nothing in NASCAR is predictable). A 500-mile race requires a crew chief to make constant adjustments, hoping they are the right ones, to keep the car handling for his driver.

Furthermore, while every football field, baseball diamond or basketball court is almost exactly like every other field, diamond or court, NASCAR tracks are all different. They are different in length - from 2 1/2 miles to 1 1/2 miles to 1 mile to a half mile to several miles. They are wide ovals and tight paperclips and D-shapes and road courses (which require turning both left and right). The banking ranges from flat to several stories-high. Some tracks are old and uneven while others are newly-paved and smooth. The degrees of the turns vary from hair pin narrow to wide and sweeping.

And even if the driver and crew chief are at the top of their game, there are still pit stops to contend with. Cars jockey hurriedly to get to their pit stalls while trying not to get a pit road speed penalty (which results in being ordered to make a second pass down pit road). A good pit stop takes roughly 13 seconds-  to change four tires, fill the gas tank and possibly make adjustments in air pressure or track bar height or wedge.  The crews that go over the wall on pit stops are athletes themselves, with pressure and danger being constants. A pit stop is a precisely choreographed, high-speed dance during which a two-second delay can be devastating.  As a fan, you watch anxiously to see if your guy lost or gained track position in the pits.

Out on the track, the drivers face a diverse set of challenges. They must be fearless in the face of maneuvering through a pack of 43 cars weighing 3400 pounds at almost 200 miles an hour, making crucial decisions on the fly. They must charge forward, never knowing if there will be a wreck just ahead that will be impossible to avoid. They must be able to manhandle a race car on the verge of sliding completely out of control. They must hope a blown-out tire doesn't send them hurtling into a wall. They must maintain their stamina after 4 hours in a 130 degree cockpit with no breaks. (By contrast, how long does a football, basketball or baseball player have to engage in sustained effort? Several minutes, at most?) They must calmly hit their marks despite the distractions in every direction. While all this is going on, they must be able to communicate what the car is doing to the crew chief so he can, hopefully, "fix" it on the next pit stop.

NASCAR fans "know" their drivers more than the fans of other athletes. Most NASCAR tracks have some kind of fan zone. For instance, from the Neon Garage in Las Vegas, fans can watch inside the garage as crews work on the cars and drivers wait to go out on the track. Pit passes can be purchased that allow fans to mingle with crews and drivers. Oftentimes, the drivers will stop and sign autographs as they pass by. (Do Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant do the same?) The drivers all have their own souvenir haulers where they frequently appear to sign whatever piece of memorabilia a fan has purchased. Teams offer "driver availabilities" so fans can ask questions. Fans can purchase headphones to listen to the in-car audio between driver, crew chief and spotter (although these are "private" channels, with the conversation frequently larded with ef bombs in the heat of the moment, so listen at your own risk). Most NASCAR drivers have become Twitterers, tweeting comments and pictures directly to their fans about what is going on in their lives.

As a general rule, NASCAR drivers are the boys next door of sports. You rarely hear of drivers taking drugs, assaulting or shooting anyone or or being unfaithful to their wives. Yes, they are rich and live in a way that reflects their success but they are more into family than jet-setting with rich and famous celebrities. NASCAR drivers also don't leave their fans high and dry by going out on strike for more money. NASCAR itself is a monopoly but anyone with dollars and drive can join the party and race. NASCAR is pure capitalism compared to the subsidized exclusivity of major league football, baseball and basketball.

When I first became a NASCAR fan, I was told that it is more fun if you have a driver to root for. I decided whoever won the first race I watched, which was the 2008 Brickyard 400, would be my driver. That turned out to be Jimmie Johnson. Lucky me. JJ turned out to be exactly what I admire most.  The drivers are an fascinating mix of personalities and driving styles. Jimmie, for instance, is cool, calm and collected. He epitomizes grace under pressure. Some fans label that vanilla. They prefer to follow more fiery drivers, like Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick. To each his own.

I admit that I, a 64-year-old woman who has never been a fan of any sport before, sometimes feel rather foolish admitting to having developed a passionate attachment for a race car driver in a logo-covered fire suit. The pre-NASCAR me was a voracious reader, a political junkie, a non-television watcher. I'm still a voracious reader, still mildly interested in politics, but I just bought a 42-inch, high resolution flat-screen t.v., the better to watch NASCAR in high definition. I attended the final race of the season in 2010, the race to determine who won the Sprint Cup championship in Homestead, Florida. I stood and screamed for Jimmie in a way I hadn't screamed for anyone since my own son played high school sports. That same son looked at me and said, "who are you, really, and what have you done with my Mom?" having never seen me with my fan gene on display.

You don't enjoy what you don't understand and it takes commitment to understand NASCAR. You need to be able to recognize 43 cars and drivers and sponsors to know what is happening on the track. You need to care enough to learn the characteristics of all the different tracks. You need to familiarize yourself with the basics of car parts and terms.

To me, NASCAR engages all the senses in a way that no other sport does. It is the thunderous roar of 43 engines firing, the multi-colored spectacle of 14 million plus pounds of metal collectively totaling 36,500 horsepower thundering down the front stretch, it is the smell of gas and burning rubber, it is the feel of your heart vibrating in tune with the action on the track, it is caring desperately about where your driver is in that wild mix.

Those are all the reasons why my favorite words in sports are - "green flag, green flag!"

Tell me why I'm wrong.