If you’re much over the age of 25, you’ll recall baseball’s lost season of 1994, when player and owners reached an impasse. Some called the battle of “the millionaires versus the billionaires,” but fans felt they came out the real losers. When play resumed in 1995, the fans let the sport hear about it with attendance off by some 20 percent, and those showing up being none to quiet about their disdain for what baseball had become.
Not missing a game in nearly 14 years, Cal Ripken, Jr. closed in on history at a time when he was needed. As he honed in on one of baseball’s hallowed record of 2,130 straight appearances, Ripken came to embody what fans remembered loving about the game. After a long night out on the ball field, after speaking to the press, the unassuming shortstop signed autographs, spent time with the fans and would do laps around the warning track, as if to say “thank you for allowing me to make a living at doing what I love.”
NASCAR needs a Cal Ripken, a Richard Petty, or a Bill Elliott in his prime. Of all of NASCAR’s challenges, this may be the sport’s simplest, yet most difficult fix.
Sure, NASCAR drivers sign autographs, but have you ever noticed how many drivers never even look up at the fans making the requests? Is asking for a little eye contact too much to ask?
More and more, there is a disconnect between the driver and the fan. This comes at a time when there is a very obvious disconnect between what the racer drives and what the fan drives. I submit the former is the greater problem as the ranks of the “motor head” continues to shrink as technology advances and race cars are powered by eight cylinders in the day and age of four bangers, minivans, mini trucks and sport utility vehicles. If we can’t relate to the car, we ought to at least relate to the driver.
Who’d fit the part? Figuring that out is easier said than done. Jeff Gordon is more like Tiger Woods in more ways than one, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. acts more like the Prince Charles of NASCAR, except I think the next in line to England’s throne enjoy his life much better than the crown prince of auto racing. Jimmie’s too perfect, Tony’s too caustic, and the boys in Joe Gibbs’ stable- Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano- too often act like those irritating, spoiled nephews whose antics you have to endure at family gatherings.
Carl Edwards displays some of the gestures that show fan appreciation, but his challenge will be overcoming the perception he is a fake, largely in part due to many dust-ups with other drivers. Veterans like Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte command respect, but only Martin has managed anything resembling historic achievements in recent years.
This by no means suggests that these drivers don’t give anything. Nearly all of them have some cause they support, and they all make a number of charity appearances. That’s the rub, they all do it, and let’s face it, we get the feeling they do it as some kind of obligation or tax write-off.
Perhaps this fan expects too much. Maybe we’re all living in la-la land in terms of what we want from the drivers we cheer for. On the other hand, imagine what would happen if a champion came along who wasn’t perfect, so much as he or she was genuine.
It’s not impossible, after all, the presence of such drivers, like those mentioned above, have graced the sport before. We sure could use one now.