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By Lee Walczak As a hardcore race fan (folks, I would watch lawnmower races from Bulgaria) and a sometime amateur racer, far be it from me to rain on NASCAR's victory lap. But after watching the heartwarming saga of Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Pepsi 400 on July 7 at Daytona International Speedway, one just has to ask the question many race fans would rather avoid: Is stock-car racing becoming a motorized form of pro wrestling, a stage-managed spectacle affectionately known as "sports entertainment" by its devotees?
Why would I ask such a thing? Because it strains credulity for me -- and a small but growing number of other fans -- that the younger Earnhardt, in his sophomore season in the sport's top ranks, would return to the speedway that claimed the life of his legendary father, Dale, in February and pull off such a spectacular sprint to victory.
The high-banked Daytona speedway is one of the toughest tracks on the NASCAR circuit. It took the extraordinary Dale Earnhardt some 17 years to earn his first victory in the Daytona 500, the race that ultimately killed him when his car slammed a wall at 180 mph. Could Junior score a Daytona win in his second season in Winston Cup ranks? Sure -- theoretically. But in reality, pulling this off, as any race fan knows, is very difficult. There are just too many top veterans, piloting too many swift cars, for this to happen.
"IT WAS GOOD." Junior, who qualified 13th on the grid, sealed his victory with a thrilling move to the top of the racetrack in the event's closing laps. Driver Johnny Benson told the Associated Press afterwards that the finale seemed beyond heroic. "You don't go by yourself on the outside and make that kind of time up," he noted. "But it was O.K. It was good that Junior won."
That's arguable. Because this particular storybook ending has some fans -- admittedly, a minority of NASCAR's rabid boosters -- mighty suspicious. And not surprisingly, Internet chat rooms are ablaze with the controversy. Some remarks, gleaned from CBS Sportsline's Web site: (from RACELUVR) "Did NASCAR fix this race to bring back Earnhardt fans? It sure looks like it to me... it was a little too perfect, wasn't it?"
Charges of manipulation are "absolutely ludicrous," insists John Griffin, NASCAR's communications director. "The team had the track figured out. People are taking away a great win from Dale Junior and the crew at Dale Earnhardt Enterprises."
RACER'S EDGE? One reason NASCAR is facing skepticism now, however, is a fact little known outside the racing fraternity but common knowledge among NASCAR followers: Its tech officials habitually fiddle with car specs to try to equalize the field and provide the close competition that's the sport's hallmark. For instance, officials constantly change the size of carburetor restrictor plates to keep speeds regulated on superspeedways. And whenever one car gains an aerodynamic or handling advantage over another, tech officials force subtle changes in the rear wing profile that quickly bring the sprinter back to the pack.
Because of this history, it's not surprising that some fans wonder if the process doesn't occur in reverse: Is a favored racer occasionally granted just a little more juice on a given day? Can't happen, replies Griffin. "At the end of the day, the winner of any NASCAR race has his car torn down [by inspectors]. It's a two-hour process, and it's open to all the teams."
Still, in NASCAR's eyes, nothing is more boring than an uncontrolled race. Far better is the drama of a huge gaggle of cars charging on the last lap, all with a chance of winning. Unlike top-rank European racing, such as the open-wheel Formula One category, NASCAR's technical tinkering prevents the field from stringing out into a boring procession.
MIDDLE GROUND. Boring as it is (and it can be stupefying), Formula One still manages to attract a gigantic global audience. F1 impressario Bernard Ecclestone sneers that by contrast, NASCAR-tuned races are stage-managed to the point of being "like wrestling."
Bernie may be onto something. Somewhere, there must be a middle ground between the F1 snooze-athons, which feature virtually no passing and rely on pit stops and fuel strategy for drama, and the show-biz spectacle that NASCAR has become.
For that to happen, NASCAR needs to step back and let the good old boys race, which includes letting their mechanics find creative ways to squeeze more performance from their cars. Restrictor plates and other forms of finagling make for a majestic show on television, where NASCAR continues to reap billions from the fans transfixed by the virtual reality on their screens. But stock-car racing has now become about as authentic as Survivor and all those other mock-reality TV shows. What's real about it?
SAFER CIRCUITS. Perhaps NASCAR should stop trying to micromanage race-car technology so much and put its energies in a new area: improving track safety. The circuits that the stock-car daredevils race around need new and up-to-date safety features. The cars are too rigid to absorb big shocks. Long ago, competing series learned that race cars need components that break off on impact while absorbing the energy of the blow.
NASCAR's fanaticism about keeping costs in check has resulted in cars that try to protect the driver with a birdcage-like structure of metal tubing. The result, in a massive impact, is that the integrity of the body shell is protected while life-threatening shocks are transmitted to the driver's compartment.
It's time for a change in NASCAR's focus, toward more attention to the sport's neglected parts. In the meantime, watching Earnhardt Junior win has caused me and some of my fellow fans to lose some respect for this thrilling sport. "You can't write a better script," Junior enthused after guiding his car to Daytona's Victory Lane. Exactly. Walczak is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek