Seven hundred words can hardly begin to explain why NASCAR is everything that is wrong with our changing sports culture. Last weekend, I was flipping through channels, hoping to gratify my daily need for sports. After finding car racing on the first three sports channels, I finally was able to find football. Wasn’t it just a couple years ago that the NHL held that spot? What is it about this sport that has captivated America?
Perhaps it is the appeal of being able to call sitting in a car for a couple hours a sport. After all, all these games requiring athletes to push themselves to their physical limits are really a bit pass. Why watch 12 players skating around on ice for 60 minutes when you can watch Jimmie Johnson continuously turn his steering wheel to the left at top speeds for hours?
No, NASCAR functions as something that is relatable to so many people for one reason: the danger. Just as there will always be a clip of any hockey game scuffle on SportsCenter, the highlight of every NASCAR race is the crash. Any viewer hopes only too eagerly that the part of the race they catch is the one where one car nudges another and the two go careening into the wall and burst into flames. In this way, NASCAR serves its purpose as the flashy new convertible set against the old Toyota and Volkswagen that are the NBA and NHL.
But how can we really call car racing a sport? I always believed sports were reserved for those activities that highlighted the endurance of an individual’s or team’s physical and mental capacity. Especially when playing at a professional level, athletes are unique and special because of this skill. When a channel like ESPN, the motor for sports culture in the United States, features events such as NASCAR, poker or billiards, they are actually taking away from the exclusiveness of the sports realm. It’s that inimitability of athletes that sparks a fan base. The awe-inspiring capabilities of an athlete are what make sports sports. How many times have you watched a car race and felt amazed by the driver’s abilities?
The fact that car racing is taking the air space of real professional sports is almost as bad as WWE being on air at all. NASCAR is the fastest growing “sport” right now, and it’s the second most popular according to TV ratings in the country. Meanwhile, sports like hockey are seeing increasingly declining fan bases in the United States.
I can remember growing up with the Detroit Red Wings, hearing about the “Soviet Invasion,” referring to the Russian influence on our roster, idolizing Steve Yzerman and crying after hearing defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov was paralyzed as a result of a car accident. Does NASCAR really hold a place in this realm of sports passion? Has our culture really become so backward that we will begin fawning over our favorite car’s number as opposed to a football player’s number?
Maybe this is just a rant from a disgruntled hockey fan who is disappointed not to find more hockey on during primetime. Or maybe I’m just bitter because of the deterioration of the “Wheaties status” because three times NASCAR drivers have graced the cover on a box that is supposed to celebrate great athletes. Either way, auto racers should not be put in the same class as a Randy Moss or a Tayshaun Prince or a Lance Armstrong.
The final straw for my brewing hatred of NASCAR was when I was home in Michigan last spring during the NBA playoffs. After my brother’s soccer game, my family went to a restaurant hoping to find a place to watch the Piston-Bulls game. We found a sports bar that was empty except for a group seated in front of a big screen TV and got excited about the prospect of watching the game on the projector screen. Unfortunately, the Nextel Cup was on, and the group was apparently so enthralled with the race that they wouldn’t let us change it to the Pistons. Instead, we watched paperclip-sized Rip Hamilton shooting a jumper from the TV in the corner. The sounds of NASCAR serenaded us.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.