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Ingram: Oh Hell, It Rained Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 24 2010

Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. built a sport from the ground up. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Does it ever rain in Hell? On days like these, one wonders. Then again, maybe I’m just under the weather.

There was a time when a rainout such as Saturday’s washout at Talladega was an opportunity for writers to hang out in the garage with participants in what is now the Sprint Cup and spend “quality time” together. Aside from the fact hanging around any building without a basement was a bad idea in central Alabama on Saturday, these days any rainout is an opportunity for everybody to head for the hills.

One of the reasons I took up writing about motor racing was the access to the participants versus the prospects of kissing the rings of ACC basketball coaches or chasing the latest freshman phenom to get quotes that invariably sounded 18 years old.

But like the tide, nobody avoids the magnetic pull of the changing times. So I’m not here to lament the fact that the people I really know well in the Sprint Cup garage are the ones I met what seems long ago in another age and time.

Despite the changes, the access to racing drivers in general is still great compared to the locker room crowd. As a writer who covers all forms of motor racing, it’s clear that the NASCAR method of generally open access is followed everywhere in American racing.

From some recent conversations I’ve had with participants in Formula One, it’s also clear that commercial motives invariably color all contact between reporters and racers. But the key element is that since writers and participants are so often thrown together there’s an opportunity to make of it what one can and will in order to produce better, more accurate stories.

It’s not about us, the reporters, and it’s more about the participants and fans. Above all, it’s about the sport. Like some collective passion that develops on race days just as a groove gradually appears in the track, there’s a sense of a larger destiny hovering when the moments arrive that everybody augurs toward – the start, the middle and the finish.

If that seems obvious, it also seems obvious to me that there was a time recently when the recognition of that collective passion got out of hand. The participants were making huge sums and in some cases borrowing them and the track owners were overbuilt with no strategy for improving profit margins otherwise.

The sanctioning body became more sacrosanct than the social register with behavior codes to match. The electronic media sold their souls for six-figure contracts. And the writers became more self-endowed with the majesty of gate-keeping a sport which they owned only in the paltry terms of word count. That estate now sometimes dwindles into single lines of celebrity Twitter.

On days like these, when the outlook in the garage and for the sport is overcast due to losses in attendance and TV ratings, I kind of miss that old grouch. Yep. Bill France Jr.

And he was a grouch. Maybe that’s because one of Bill Jr.’s chief roles was reminding people that the sport was bigger than any one individual, including himself. In a rather contradictory circumstance, France Jr.’s other chief role was reminding people NASCAR was run by one man and one vote – his.

Bill France Jr.: The Man Who Made NASCAR is a newly published book that more or less outlines these contradictions. Written in an engaging style by H.A. “Herb” Branham – who is the director of written communications for NASCAR – the book is long on anecdotes and short on analysis. It’s an up close look at the France family in general and Bill Jr. in particular by a former newspaperman who became the NASCAR leader’s speech writer, a confidant and finally his biographer.

The real story of NASCAR has to be told by journalists, because any sanctioning body’s main stock in trade is being in charge. That doesn’t leave much light for nuance in public presentatons, much less self-examination or self-criticism. And, after all, it’s about selling tickets and corporate sponsorships, hence a constant positive spin.

Well positioned to look at a more personal side to the story, Branham has generally avoided spin and presented the less public side of France Jr. in addition to some inside looks at the established highlights of France Jr.’s reign over NASCAR’s extraordinary growth since the 1970’s under his watch. The book also treads, rather carefully, through the tragic episodes of driver deaths in 2000 and 2001.

The rain at Talladega was a reminder of Bill Jr.’s reign in the sense that there’s nobody around to keep his arms around the sport. It’s bigger than any lone participant. That’s another one of the paradoxes of his career: he built a sport that’s too big to be run that way any more.

The current chairman and CEO, Brian France, who always disliked the machinery of the garage and loved marketing, moves according to a different set of circumstances from his father. As recounted in Branham’s book, which includes insightful portrayals of all the family members starting with Anne B. and “Big Bill” France, young Brian once turned the classroom clock at grade school ahead 15 minutes to get out of school faster.

In my humble opinion, Brian tried to succeed his father by taking NASCAR to the next level faster than it was able to go – and according to what might appeal to corporate sponsors more-so than its core fan base. Having learned the hard way how the dependence on corporate dollars can be contradictory to the sport and the fans’ best interests, France the younger has now done a U-turn and appears to be on a better track with a return to the values that made NASCAR a sport more worthy of its fans and often high ticket prices.

As for the specifics of “have at it boys” with bump-drafting at full-scale once again at Talladega, double-file re-starts and the multiple green-white-checkers, there’s that magnetic pull of time at work. Just as he went full-speed in the wrong direction initially, Brian France’s NASCAR has gone full-steam ahead on revitalizing the sport.

Whether this tact proves to be unsafe in the same way that the incredibly appealing speeds at Talladega were unsafe before Bobby Allison’s accident in 1987 remains to be seen. All three – bump drafting, double-file re-starts and multiple overtimes – are constant invitations to accidents as well as the bloom of passion in motor racing: aggressive driving.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 24 2010
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