Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More drivers than sailors

The sport of sailing and car racing is frequently compared, often during those times when we want sailing to gain more television exposure. This past weekend I attended my first car race event, NASCAR's Sony HD 500 at California Speedway. And while I probably should hold my impressions until after I attend another car race event, I won’t since it is doubtful I will sit through another one again.

Pre-race introduction of the drivers
Pre-race introduction of the drivers

Let’s be clear on one thing: the cars in this race went round and round for 250 laps on an oval track… for four hours. That’s it. Yes, they haul butt the whole time, which means they fly by you at 170 mph. Don’t blink. Some cars are faster than other cars, and I saw the slower cars LET the fasters ones pass them. Very Corinthian. There were times when the faster cars were mixed with the slower cars that were behind a lap. Messy. No doubt there is amazing driving going on, which is hard to pick up in the stands, but would have been great in Hi-Def with my 56” Samsung. As for tactics, they seem to occur in the pits, which explains why the lead car with a lap to go, ran out of gas.

Maybe the fact that NASCAR is SO basic is part of its appeal. It’s also loud – really loud – which translates the action. Plus, could there be a better fan base than one where everyone either drives a car, or wants to? I have had my NASCAR moments. I have been late for appointments and weaved in and out of traffic. I have let the car crawl up to 90+ mph once out of the city limits. Car racing beats out sailing on all counts.

But there is one part of a NASCAR event where the sport of sailing can match up well: car racing fans like to party. Tailgating at a NASCAR event is the big leagues. These folks don’t show up the morning of the event – they commit their whole weekend to the race. As for the motor home industry, it is alive and well. More RV’s huddle on the infield to watch the race than a tornado could total. A section of the outer parking lot is sectioned off to create the NASCAR carnival, where each team is schlocking their gear from huge trailers, a rock ‘n roll stage blasts, food stands feed, and beer stands blitz the crowd (don’t go to NASCAR if you can’t drink domestic beer).

Getting ready for the start of the race
Getting ready for the start of the race

The car racing promoters have done a nice job enhancing the connection of the sport with the fans. Spectators can rent scanners and headsets, and listen in on the dialogue in the car for each team. When there is a problem with a car, you can turn the scanner to that car’s radio frequency to get the scoop (and hear the cuss words if the car crashed). The experienced fans own their own gear, with headset including little boom mics to make it easier to talk with your pals (cause it is so darn loud). There are loads of opportunities for fans to see and sit in the cars before the race, plus the pits are open to spectators up to an hour before race time. The drivers are all introduced amid cheers or jeers before the race. Most fans seem to have their favorite drivers, and are rooting for them during each pass of the race (I believe these ‘necks even think the driver can see them doing it).

Problem with sailing is that not enough people sail. Pretty simple. Sailing won’t ever lend itself to draw 90,000+ ‘necks for a stadium event, but if a quarter of as many people sailed as drove cars, then we would be watching this week’s Farr 40 Worlds in Hi-Def. A lack of television coverage is not the death knell for a sport, but it is a barometer for how well the sport is doing at creating interest in itself.
I am glad I went to my first (and last) NASCAR event. With the temperature in the 100’s, and everyone stripped down to their wife-beater T’s, it opened my eyes to how other folks spend their weekends. Sailing remains a pretty neat sport, played by pretty neat people, and hosted in some pretty neat places. The spectating stinks, and we need to work on the tailgating component, but the rest is there. As long as we keep working on ways to make entrance and access to the sport easier, sailing will survive and thrive. - Craig Leweck

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