It is a very strange thing. Most of the time when I bring up NASCAR, I get the same responses: “Oh, it’s not a sport. What’s so cool about a bunch of cars going around in circles?” or “NASCAR is a waste of time - who would want to watch the same thing for four hours?” and even “NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes.” Most of these people, though, admit they have never actually seen a race! With all this criticism, why is it that NASCAR is the number-one spectator sport in America?
First of all, there is a very fine line as to what is actually a sport. Personally, I believe that a sport must satisfy a need for drama, suspense and strategy. Sports fanatics are familiar with these, especially in football. There, it could be the “Hail Mary” pass on a fourth down to win the game. It could be a gamble to send the offense onto the field to continue with the football on fourth down.
This drama translates to auto racing because some of the victories in NASCAR occur because of a more complex strategy and bigger gamble than even some of those football games. NASCAR strategy is all over the TV screen: should the driver pit for tires with 30 laps to go and drop back to fifteenth place to try and leave everyone in the dust? Or should the driver keep the lead when everyone else has fresh rubber?
The pit crew can make or break the driver’s rank at the end - they can perform a four-tire change in less than 15 seconds while standing in what seems like the middle of a freeway. If the driver is short on gas, should he or she pit and give up the lead just to make it to the finish, or should the driver conserve the remaining fuel? To me, these calls are gutsier than a simple fourth down call in football. Just like football, the crew chiefs in NASCAR make the final decision, leaving the drivers and the viewers to question or celebrate the call.
Who says the drivers aren’t athletes? They only drive their cars at 200 miles-per-hour for many hours ... in the heat ... highly focused on the track. Unlike many sports, NASCAR requires a driver’s mind to be sharp while his foot is mashing the pedal to the floorboard. If there’s trouble in front of a wad of 43 cars and the driver isn’t paying attention, he or she will be sitting in a clump of mangled sheet metal only seconds later.
Each racing venue is different; the fastest lane around the track changes; the length of the track changes every week, the speeds get more intense, and the driving gets more physical. Mark Martin, driver of the Viagra Ford, once had to drive for 200 miles without power steering! Martin, an avid weight-lifter, compared the experience to “playing tug-of-war with a 10-ton gorilla.” I’d like to see any football player accomplish that without a problem.
Whether someone witnesses a live NASCAR race or watches on TV, he or she can be easily converted to a true fan. The goose bumps when the leader wrecks on the final lap or “The Big One” (an accident involving more than 10 cars) will provide a true experience of drama and suspense. In fact, it has given over 30 countries this experience, due to the rapidly increasing demand for TV coverage. If that isn’t convincing enough, sports fans should ponder this: The NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge of 2004, a non-points event, had more viewers and spectators than the World Series, the NBA Finals and the NFL Super Bowl of the 2004 season combined!
With this said, one of the greatest sports ever to strike the nation is constantly misunderstood! Strangely enough, with all the judgments against it, it is still the top-ranking sport! NASCAR is a dream come true for sports fans if they are willing to allow it onto their TV sets!
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.