(EDITOR’S NOTE: 51’s X-Factor is a new, weekly feature on Speed51.com that features opinions from 51 columnists on racing’s hottest topics. Brandon Paul, the author of this editorial, is the Editor for Speed51.com. The views which are expressed in the following column are his own and not necessarily the views of Speed51.com and/or its partners.)
The four most famous words in motorsports may be, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Besides that famous command, another four memorable words may be those that rippled through televisions across the country during the first ever live broadcast of the Daytona 500 back in 1979.
“And there’s a fight…”
Those words spoken by the legendary TV broadcaster Ken Squier will be remembered and passed on to race fans for decades. The excitement of two competitors fighting on the ground after a drama-filled ending to “The Great American Race” is a moment that will never be forgotten.
That moment grabbed the attention of those who were already fans of the sport of stock car racing, but also pulled in a new audience of fans because of the nationally televised drama.
In racing today, we often lack those moments. We also lack the personalities to provide us with those moments. We lack the “bad boys” and rivalries that put more fans in the grandstands.
Too much focus is now put on drivers to not act like themselves, but to instead act how others want them to act. Although that mentality, which drivers are forced into due to sponsors and their aspirations to get to the next level, is completely understood by this writer, it isn’t a mentality that is going to bring new fans into the sport.
The sport of racing needs more Dale Earnhardts. It needs more short track warriors like Ted Christopher, Keith Rocco and Tim Brown to ruffle feathers and create excitement. It needs more drivers that care less of what people think of them and more of drivers that will do whatever it takes to win, as well as get fans on their feet.
The recent documentary “I am Dale Earnhardt” on Spike TV brought me to write this piece today. In what was one of the better racing documentaries I’ve ever watched (and I was no way ever a fan of Dale), the producers brought the “bad boy” side of Dale to the audience.
Here was a guy that didn’t care about what anyone else thought of him. He didn’t care if you were a great friend off of the race track. If it came down to the final laps of a race, he would do whatever it took to win the race. That mentality earned him many rivals throughout his career, but it also caused many fans to fall in love with him.
At the same time, his mentality on the race track brought him a large group of fans that loved to hate him. But whether you loved him or loved to hate him, when “The Intimidator” was in town, nobody wanted to miss the show.
Short track racing and racing in general needs more of those personalities that make fans not want to miss the show. Sure, it’s great watching natural talent at the local level. But natural talent doesn’t create drama and excitement, nor does it give fans the highest level of entertainment they are searching for when they pay their way through the gate.
Two prime examples of race tracks that have done it right in recent years are Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut and North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium. While the contrast between the two tracks is large, they both provide fans with excitement week in and week out. That excitement results in return customers and life-long racing fans.
Stafford Motor Speedway has created their excitement through their weekly SK Modified class, which is widely considered as one of the most talent-filled weekly divisions in the country. The track has helped itself by taking some of the battles and rivalries on the track and turning that in to something that fans can become attached to.
In 2014 after a drama-rich championship battle between Ryan Preece (the good boy) and Ted Christopher (the bad boy) throughout the season, the track brought the excitement to a whole new level at the Fall Final championship event.
As fans entered through the gate that day, they were given a choice of signs: #TeamPreece or #TeamChristopher. When the SK Modifieds rolled onto the track, those fans were on their feet proudly holding up their signs, yelling when asked by the PA announcers which driver they were supporting and booing when the opposing driver was introduced.
The attachment that fans in the grandstand felt they had with their driver that day is what short track racing needs more of. It’s great to cheer for your favorite drivers, but it’s even better when fans are so attached to the product that they have a driver they love and a driver that they love to hate.
There’s no better example of that than Saturday nights at Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium. The tight quarter-mile oval, which has earned the nickname “The Madhouse,” is considered to be one of the most well-attended week-to-week short track racing programs in the country.
One thing Bowman Gray never lacks is drama, even if that drama sometimes does push the limits of going too far.
While this writer doesn’t consider Bowman Gray Stadium to be the quintessential short track racing facility because of the shenanigans that sometimes go too far, it does carry a number of traits that make it a successful and entertaining race track.
It has a few bad boys. It has rivalries. It has on-track drama. It has generations of all of these traits filling the pit area and the grandstands every Saturday night. Because of all of that, it has fan interaction that is incomparable to most short tracks.
When fans show up to Bowman Gray Stadium, they show up because they’re attached to the product. While at the track, fans proudly represent their Burt Myers, Tim Brown and Junior Miller t-shirts while treating the established short track rivalry like it was Red Sox-Yankees, Duke-UNC or Earnhardt-Waltrip. It’s commonplace to see fans leaning over the outside wall to give the drivers they love to hate a not-so-nice hand gesture.
Some may consider that to be taking it too far. Some may consider it the wrong way to introduce the next generation into the sport. I consider it to be a pure display of passion for the sport of short track racing, something that the sport greatly needs more of if it is to thrive moving forward.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com