Who Do You Root For?
Almost everyone is a sports fan to one degree or another. Interest in competition between folks probably harks back to who could roll the largest rock in front of the cave to make a door. In modern times we seem
to follow sports where we either have past experience or current involvement. We’re interested in watching those who can perform an activity to a level of competence we will never reach. Plus, of course, we want “our” team to win. Alas, our enthusiasms have taken a beating in recent years.
Football is now so violent that only by a massive effort of looking the other way is it allowed to continue. The current scandals involving abuse of athletes by their coaches, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, is probably just the tip of an iceberg we have been sailing around
with blissful ignorance for decades. Then there is the corruption of money.
Nowhere is the stench of big money more apparent than at the University of Washington, now embarking on a millions of dollars remodel of their football stadium. Two of the planned changes tell the story. The
student section will be moved to the end zone, as their formerly great seats can be sold to people with more income.
After all, it is not like they are students at the same school…
The section set aside for the Alumni Band will be eliminated, because the Alumni Band does not show a great return on investment. Pah, I say!
At the University of Minnesota I joined the “Gopher Rooter Club,” partly because I had a Norman Rockwell-esque need to belong, partly
because flipping the cards that created the various designs at half time was fun, but in large part because the Gopher Rooter club seats where half way up the stadium in a large block spanning the 50 yard line. My brother and his wife played in the Alumni Band. Everyone enjoyed the card designs, and everyone not in a leading role as Scrooge loved the Alumni band. Now the UW versions of student sections and Alumni bands are to be cast aside for more money. You could argue that the
enormous piles of loot raised by football fund a lot of “non-revenue” sports, which is true, but surely there is a better way. What is the purpose of a University sports program? Just money?
Pro basketball and baseball are mired in recurring scandals over drug abuse, crime, sexual excess, and disgusting levels of wealth, and now those ills are sinking into college basketball. In sum, all of the traditional stick and ball sports have gorged themselves on fan support and proven unworthy of it.
Soccer seems to be having a bit of a run in Seattle at the moment, but you have to wonder about the long term viability of a sport where people watch a game that is 90 minutes and more long and usually ends with a score, or three, or none. I found it boring to watch even when my son was playing, and he was very good. Most of the Facebook postings I see from
friends who are Seattle soccer fans focus on the dressing up in silly clothes and party hearty aspects. I have no objection to dressing up in funny clothes and consuming alcohol with friends, but I am not sure why the game is necessary for that.
The Achilles heel of all of these sports, in addition to the rampant corruption than runs through most of them, is our national obsession with winning. The WSU football program appears to be about to endure another coaching change, as fans are not willing to concede that
recruiting for a fine school in a cow town that freezes over in winter is never going to be able to compete for talent straight up with schools that offer big city thrills, warm sun, and bikinis. We demand more than Lake Woebegone standards from all of our teams, where each of them has to be much better than average, all the time.
So let us turn away from the traditional sports we played in our youth.
How about motorsports, my #1 enthusiasm from early adulthood?
Hmmmm. NASCAR is a hollow shell of cynical marketing. The acronym stands for National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, yet the cars are probably the most specialized designs of all, bar F1. All NASCAR entrants are limited to carburetors, and ain’t that a hoot in our digital fuel injection age? Why? All are V8-engined rear wheel drive designs
that bear no resemblance at all to the stock versions sales campaigns try to connect them to. The fans continue to root for their favorite cars, even though they cannot purchase a car anything like what they see raced. Most are modeled on front wheel drive cars, for one thing. I’ve tried for years to be generous in appreciating the fans love for this altered branch of motorsports, but the recent booing of the wives of the President and Vice-President of the United States has booted me into permanent apoplexy. That is just wrong, no matter who the wives are. NASCAR fans really
are the illiterate boors I have tried so hard not to see them as. And what has the response to this egregious display or poor taste been? Nada from NASCAR that I can see. For shame.
“Stock” car racing in Europe has evolved itself to near extinction. The once famed German Touring Car series now features Mercedes
Benz and Audi- and that’s pretty much it. Once again, the cars bear no resemblance at all to what is sold.
Things are better in England with the British Touring Car Championship, but there again big money threatens the health of the sport.
Drag racing is mired in a death spiral. As the technology improves the elapsed times approach zero, and speeds are off the chart. In the pro classes, a ¼ mile race is now only 1,000 feet as a sop to safety. Eventually you’ll see cars that come to the line, stage, burp, and are done. Not good.
Formula 1 has less and less relevance to anyone who lives in the real world. The costs are so off the chart that ticket prices are obscene, and the track locales are limited to places where enormous sums of money are taken for granted – Monte Carlo and Abu Dhabi to name two. A spectacle yes, but can the average person relate? Driving the cars is now, according to many sources, more like playing a video game than driving a real car, and all of the up and coming stars are kart racers first, and then video game champions, which is perhaps the better training.
Indy Car racing is similar, except for a valiant attempt to market to the common folk by erecting street courses in various cities, in addition to the traditional ovals. The problem is that the cars are so fast, so wide, and so low that when an altercation occurs on the first lap, as it always does, there is literally not enough room on the track for the race to continue. If there is rain the racing degenerates into farce. Quite entertaining farce, but a hard sell as a race.
Motorcycle racing at the top level is inching toward a day (soon) where there will be one series based on stock bikes. Moto GP bikes are too expensive to make sense. The Japanese factories are less and less interested in the American and European markets, and less interested in sport bikes and high horsepower machines as they turn their manufacturing eyes toward India and China. Ergo, there is less and less reason to pour steaming piles of dollars into racing that has little design or marketing return.
Dirt bike racing will become ever less relevant as local riding areas for the common man (and woman) continue to slide into the dust of extinction, strangled by land use, noise, and ecological restrictions. BMW’s move to all-street legal dirt bikes that can be ridden from population centers to explore forest roads was inspired, but will it last?
By following every form of motorsports that I could click on, read about, or attend for several decades, I am left with only two areas where I can root in peace. The World Rally Championship and Australian Supercars.
The Aussies have a great idea. Take a small car the size of a Ford Focus, add rear wheel drive, put a 600hp V8 in the front, and mount up young guns with large dollops of testosterone. Turn them loose on a road course, and enjoy the close competition, the sounds, and the controlled
mayhem that results. Their success has emboldened them to export their product worldwide, and we shall see if popularity spoils a fine idea.
Best of a shrinking field is the World Rally Car Championship. This offers arguably the best drivers in the world on surfaces that change by the minute in weather conditions from the super-hot to arctic blasts.
It is telling that American car control superstar Ken Block, he of a
million You Tube hits, has had limited success (to be kind) in this
series. Sebastian Loeb has won 8 world championships in a row, which is literally inconceivable. The cars are fast, and yet constricted by the
rules in a so far successful attempt to keep costs within a comfy marketing
window for the manufacturers. This is now the only series that I look forward to with intensity.
What is missing in everything else? What happened
to my enthusiasm?
I started with my own subscription to Sports Illustrated in 8th grade, and let me add that was before they invented the swimsuit issue! At that
time my plan was to grow up and play split end for the Baltimore Colts like Raymond Berry. Mr. Berry evidently did not have very good eyesight or great speed or any other outstanding talent. What he did have was enthusiasm to long hours of practice with quarterback Johnny
Unitas until they both knew to the inch where the ball would be and exactly when it would reach Mr. Berry’s hands. They developed a shared muscle memory.
Being able to relate is the key.
Like Mr. Berry, I was not blessed with great eyesight, speed, or talent, but I understood hard work. Actually, I had no idea of what hard work is
like at that time, but I thought I did. I could relate to him, and I could long to emulate his success.
I cannot relate to people who are making millions a year and who all seem to be 6’ 5” or better and weigh between 235 and 400 pounds. They come from, and play on, a different planet.
I cannot relate to cars that create 5g cornering loads, or up to 9g acceleration, and so forth. I cannot relate to 250hp motorcycles that I could not fit on, and that are so light switch quick in their controls I could not ride them.
I can relate to driving a car as fast as I can on gravel, pavement, and snow, at times sideways, because I have done it. Not as well, mind you… I can relate to an event where the course changes by the minute, and where those who try to outthink the rules are often hung by their own cleverness. That is a lot like the daily lives of most of us.
I would love to watch motorcycle racing where the talent rode modern sport bikes totally stock as delivered, tires and all. Stock car racing that used – stock cars. Sports cars competing right off the showroom
floor. All of these would be relevant, and all would attract my attention.
Let’s have racing with classes determined by MSRP. A $100,000 Porsche should be faster than my Fiat, so we’ll have classes with $25,000 increments of base cost. Let’s say 25k, 50k, 75k, 100k, and unlimited. Five classes should provide racing for the entire day, and you could root for the model you own as well as aspirational purchases in higher classes. This would inevitably lead manufacturers to offer cut price performance models priced to allows their car to have an advantage – OK – I can deal with that. Not much different from the homologation rule “halo” cars we have seen for decades, really.
The same system would apply to NASCAR. Who can build a mass market 25,000 car that can survive 500 miles at Daytona? Wouldn’t it be fun to watch a Honda Civic, a Ford Focus, and a Toyota Camry drafting at 110mph – perhaps in a pack of 10? I think it would be terrific.
However, the demographic profile of someone like me is not the epicenter of the mass market, and the concepts I propose would probably fail the test of TV ratings.
It is all circular in a way, as my ideas would feed off enthusiasm, and what TV and promoters feed on is money. Which is where we came in.
I shall sulk for two months until the 2012 WRC season begins…
Copyright 2011 David Preston