American hustle - Bob McMurray sees lessons for Formula One in NASCAR'S style
Who would have thought that a bunch of delinquents driving illegally modified and “souped-up” cars, often chased and shot at by the FBI and local police, heavy with bootleg liquor, would be the foundation of the US’ most popular motorsport?
Shortly after World War II these Southern “good ole boys” began racing on grassy paddocks in front of thousands of fans. They were herded together by a young racing driver turned promoter called William Henry Getty France, and in 1949 the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — NASCAR — was born.
Bill France went on to build modern racetracks such as Talladega Speedway and made that disorganised bunch of drivers, mechanics and car owners into a professional fan-friendly empire. His family controlls NASCAR to this day.
It’s a family-owned and operated business that, unlike Formula 1, is finely tuned to the changing needs of fans at the track and through international media. If the organisers see a problem they change the rules, sometimes from race to race, even though they race 41 times over 10 months each year. NASCAR also sanctions 1500+ events at 100+ tracks.
NASCAR champion Kyle Busch. Picture/AP.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup final race of 2015 was held last weekend at Miami’s Homestead Speedway. Fans hoped for a fairytale finish with Jeff Gordon, 93 career wins, one of the last four drivers with a chance of taking the title.
One of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, this was to be Gordon’s last race before retirement. But the happy ending to a glittering career did not happen: he finished third.
Another fairytale did come true when Kyle Busch, after missing the first 11 races of the series with limbs broken in a crash at Daytona, won the race and his first championship.
NASCAR and its drivers have long been the butt of jokes like, “They only know how to turn left” and “Only rednecks watch NASCAR”. It’s true most of the races are on oval tracks, meaning they only turn left for what seems like hours at a time. But, like many events, you have to be there to appreciate how big, how well-presented the show is.
It is also true the crowd demographic at somewhere like Talladega is a world away from a Formula 1 fan at Monaco — as far apart as a can of beer and a glass of Chablis.
The pre-race show, the driver introductions, endless tub-thumping, flypasts, fireworks, invocations and anthems go on for hours but it all fits the American race fan’s psyche.
The racing is close, very fast, with many lead changes and is very, very noisy. Drivers’ personalities polarise the fans into huge and loyal camps. Race strategy and tactics are determined with the drivers over open radio channels with fans listening in, able to follow exactly what is happening on track. Formula 1 would appreciate just one of the above right now.
The historic “good ole boys” are pretty much dinosaurs. Many drivers come from all states of the union and the average age has dropped, so the “ole” doesn’t apply so much either. But the ethos of hard driving continues with the “tap and run” being a favourite, and accepted, way of overtaking. Often that tap and run turns into a full-blown assault on another competitor in retaliation for a previous incident.
Every sport is better to see live rather than on TV. To appreciate just how good a NASCAR event is, I think it’s essential to experience it.
I have seen races in the desert at Phoenix, the green hills of New Hampshire, the humidity of Florida and many tracks between, on long ovals and short ovals, and have never failed to stand in awe at the thunderous roar of the cars and the whole fan-friendly event.
If you are a motorsport fan and go to the US — go see a race. You will not regret it.