Sunday, February 15, 2009

Where there's Smoke...there's fire

I'm going to make a quick transition from endurance sport to motorsport...on just this one occasion, as the Daytona 500 hits the track today at 3:40 pm EST.

Many of us enjoy the master competitor lifestyle based on the personalities who cross our paths. The stories we tell incorporate interesting characters met on the trail. My most epic ultra tales include a strange character or two.

In the world of NASCAR, the characters and personalities who used to attract fans - and sponsors - have faded into the past. A few decades ago, races sometimes ended with a fist-fight at the finish line. But today in a homogenized version of the sport, drivers project themselves as cookie cutter personalities who are "excited" about most everything, and then shill for sponsors without passion or flair.

That isn't what built the sport. I worked on the PR effort of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. during his NASCAR championship seasons in 1986 and 1987, and I know with keen awareness that Dale, Tim Richmond, Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough and many others had personalities that ignited the crowd and sent fans into a frenzy. Championship racers are tough characters with heightened egos and this came through on the racetrack and to the media.

The gunslingers of old are for the most part gone with the exception of Tony Stewart, aka "Smoke." Tony has been bridled with numerous NASCAR fines and suspensions and on one occasion had to undergo anger management counseling. But nonetheless, Smoke always has something to say.

This past week, Stewart blew a (Goodyear) tire during a practice session and crashed himself and his new teammate Ryan Newman. Smoke was hot. When reporters gathered around after the incident, he wryly commented on that he had more problems from the guys in "gold and blue" (Goodyear's colors) and then stated that the defective tires must be part of a "marketing plan to get more press."

That is Stewart at his facetious best, lambasting when he feels it's needed and giving fans just a small taste of how NASCAR used to be.

So it goes this Sunday afternoon. I'll watch a bit of the race, but not all of it. The cars will circumnavigate the track, but the heart and soul of the sport will be absent. And in the midst of it all Tony Stewart will be part of the action, a pilgrim in a strange, new land.

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