Driver Interaction with Fans
I’m not sure if my experience holds true for the rest of the tracks, but I’ve noticed over the past decade that it’s harder and harder to get near your favorite drivers. When I started following NASCAR twenty years ago, it was real easy to get autographs at Sears Point/Infineon if you had the time to walk up and down the chain-link fence in front of the haulers. In between on-track activity, the drivers would walk between the haulers to the fence and sign hats, cards, shirts and anything else. I got to see some really neat things, like practical joker Sterling Marlin peeking over part of the fence blocked by a tarp, waiting to see how long it would take for the fans to notice him, or the fans talking to the catering company barbecuing Dale Earnhardt’s chicken. Over the years more haulers showed up and they were placed closer together until the drivers couldn’t easily walk between them. Eventually the garage area was built and now the fans are nowhere near the drivers.
I think this kind of accessibility was one of the things that grew NASCAR like it did in the 90s, and I think the sport needs to return to it’s grass roots. I really like what Las Vegas has done with their Neon Garage, where the fans can look down on the crews from a second floor promenade. Other tracks have similar things: Daytona, Kansas, Kentucky, Nashville, Iowa, and Pocono. It would be great of other tracks could do the same thing.
The other part of this is actually being able to talk to the drivers. The only way you can really get a good autograph or take pictures with the drivers is at sponsor events or special signings at the track. These usually involve getting there early, getting a ticket and waiting in line. That’s not so bad, but you lose some of the spontaneousness that there used to be.
Something that has also been lacking in the past decade is new driver personalities. Owners are looking for drivers who are good, but who can also be a spokesman for a sponsor. Sponsors want someone who is perceived as a nice guy who stays out of trouble and can sell their product. NASCAR wants to get over the conception that their sport is for rednecks. This all adds up to drivers with little or no personality, or at least not much of a difference than the next guy. As the older drivers have left the sport, they’ve also take with them the diverse personalities of the sport as a whole. Few of the new guys are setting themselves apart from the rest.
What is missing? One of the big things we don’t really have anymore are villains. When Earnhardt Sr. was driving, the fans either loved him or hated him. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch all get (or used to get) similar reactions, but not to the level that Earnhardt did. He was not afraid to spin people out to win a race, and NASCAR didn’t penalize him much for it. If these guys did that week after week like Earnhardt did, you better believe NASCAR would be taking points away. So they’re not allowed to be the complete villain.
It’s not bad when a driver plays the part of the good guy, but there are too many of them, due to the sponsor reasons I mentioned above. They may have attitude issues or let their mouths run, but NASCAR is nipping that early on before they become another Tony Stewart. The sport needs more Tony Stewarts. It needs guys who aren’t afraid to get in the face of a guy who they feel wronged them. Denny Hamlin, for example, could have become a big NASCAR personality, but it fizzled. Is that his true personality or is it because NASCAR is keeping a close eye and wags their finger when someone starts to mouth off?
How does this get fixed? I’m not sure. It’s not totally NASCAR’s fault, as the sponsors tend to not sign deals with drivers who come off as jerks to some of the fanbase. They don’t want to be associated with them, in case they do something that would hurt sales. The only thing NASCAR can do is relax the penalties for off-track incidents and keep their hands off when drivers have beef with each other. We’ll never see another driver like Earnhardt, since NASCAR doesn’t want racers spinning out each other on the last lap every week, but they can look the other way so fans can get the other interesting aspects of drivers and their interactions. Most importantly, let the drivers be the wide range of themselves, which reflects us, the fans.