Editor’s note: Matt Gross is a longtime race fan who attended Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway and has been a frequent tweetup participant. He sent me an email and I asked if I could post it to the site. Here are his thoughts:
I’ve made all of the defensive statements.
“Real race fans don’t go for the wrecks.”
“It’s more than just cars driving in circles, there’s a level of skill and strategy you have to learn to really appreciate NASCAR.”
“It’s not wrestling on wheels, it’s a real sport.”
Even now, living in North Carolina, the most common reaction I get when I tell people I’m a huge NASCAR fan is one of confusion. They always say, “You don’t seem like someone who would be a NASCAR fan.” I usually laugh it off and start explaining the reasons for my fandom, hoping that while these people will probably never become fans themselves, they’ll have more respect for the sport. I’ve been saying things like this for over 25 years, and I’m starting to think I’m the one who has been wrong this entire time.
I became a NASCAR fan in 1990 after seeing Days of Thunder. This probably isn’t unusual for where I live now in North Carolina, but I grew up just outside of Washington D.C. where NASCAR rarely even made the sports section of the paper. My dad was an executive for an international computer science company and my mom has her Master’s in education. It’s safe to say I didn’t fit the mold or environment for a “typical” NASCAR fan.
I also didn’t care. I loved NASCAR from the moment I saw it on the big screen, and I loved it even more when I saw the real thing. For over 25 years I’ve spent all week waiting for race day. I’ve been to over 100 NASCAR races. I visit the race shops two or three times a year. I have more diecast cars than I’m willing to admit, but I’m starting to think I’m not what NASCAR wants in a fan.
What I have witnessed over the past few years has disgusted me, and it’s all been done in some relation to winning the Chase. MWR’s Spingate was really bad, but in my mind not nearly as embarrassing as what we’ve witnessed in the last two versions of the Chase.
The norm of the 2014 Chase was post-race brawls. That was topped off with Ryan Newman’s body slam of Kyle Larson to get into the final round. This year has managed to somehow be worse with Kevin Harvick wrecking half the field to make it to the round of eight, and now Matt Kenseth pile-driving the leader into the wall just to try and eliminate him from the championship.
Drivers have intentionally wrecked other drivers for decades in NASCAR. I’ll admit I was in the chorus of 80,000 cheers when Rusty Wallace dumped Jeff Gordon at Richmond while racing for the lead in 1998. However, that was one of 34 races — so Jeff, as the best driver in the best car, was still able to prevail as the champion.
In this new format of three race mini-seasons, the higher stakes have pushed the sport to its entertainment base, all in the name of garnering headlines. It cheapens the experience, and makes it feel more like WWE than NASCAR.
No matter how hard NASCAR wants to try and mimic the stick and ball sports, at the end of the day it simply can’t. In other sports’ playoffs, all competitors in the event are still eligible to win the championship. This format of mini-seasons has created a situation where ineligible drivers can easily ruin the season of ones who can still win it all. Could you imagine if in last year’s Super Bowl a bitter and jaded Indianapolis Colts player ran onto the field and intentionally injured Tom Brady to make it so the Patriots probably wouldn’t win the Super Bowl? The idea is so far-fetched it’s ridiculous, but that’s what we witnessed on Sunday. At the end of the day, I blame a format that promotes drama over sport.
When I was growing up, I used to feel at home at the racetrack. It was the one place I could proudly wear my NASCAR apparel, and the only time I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people who fell in love with the same wonderful sport that captured my heart.
On Sunday, I felt ashamed and embarrassed to be sitting in the stands at Martinsville. The bloodthirst I witnessed in the stands for what was closer to a WWE move than what anyone could call good, hard racing was absolutely disgusting. I wasn’t even mad at Matt Kenseth; I just finally felt like I no longer belonged at a NASCAR race.
I’d like to make some grand statement that I’ll never watch another race, but as I sit here in my room surrounded by those aforementioned diecast cars, I know that’s not true. I’m too committed to be able to pick up and walk away.
However, hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be surrounded by fewer cars as I start to sell off the ones that just don’t mean that much to me anymore. I’ll still watch Texas — but on the DVR, and probably only a 30 minute abridged version. If a driver I like manages to still win the championship, I may even buy one more commemorative car.
But the pull of F1, a true motorsport, is getting stronger. One of these days, I’ll save all the money I’m currently spending on four or five NASCAR races a year, three or four diecast cars a year, and two or three visits to the race shops a year and head off to Austin or Montreal.
I think I’ve been a pretty good fan for these past 25 years, but it’s just getting so hard to hold onto what little is left of the sport I fell in love with in that movie theater in 1990.