Bad Brad Could Be A Real Tiger For NASCAR
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Those documenting the retreat of NASCAR as a major American exhibition-sport attraction can scratch “dull champion” off their lists of reasons-why. In Brad Keselowski, NASCAR appears to have found its Tiger Woods – pre pathetic public meltdown, that is.
Now comes the part where we all find out if having a human figurehead who is perfectly suited to NASCAR’s perceived demographic will save the sport or just make it a little bit more interesting.
As NASCAR trended downward over the last 10 years or so, observers began searching for the reasons – reasons why a sport that early in the 2000s was inarguably the fastest growing in America and which had understandable aspirations of catching the mighty NFL in terms of public interest, would so suddenly undergo a relevancy crisis.
The search turned up a bounty of reasons. None are scientifically verifiable, but many of the them pass the smell test.
The reasons include the aging of a traditional fan base which grew up during the car-culture days of the 1960s; the unacceptable evolution of the cars to something unidentifiable at best and dishonest at worst; a sense that the new generation of folks running the show were poor stewards of tradition; wildly excessive commercialization of the sport; saturation of events in the Southeastern base and expansion into non-traditional racing markets; lousy television coverage marked by a decreasing ration of actual racing to advertisements; increasing costs of
everything from tickets to beer to gasoline; the Great Recession, which hit NASCAR’s traditional working class fan base earlier and harder than it did the rest of the country.
But through all of the unearthing and presenting of the above reasons and more, there was an underlying sense that what the sport needed most was a hero.
Many traditional NASCAR fans trace the beginning of the end to Jeff Gordon. He was perceived to be an outsider. He came in clean and neat and groomed for mass consumption, many thought. The perception was that the only time he ever got dirt under his fingernails was when he pruned grape vines in his vineyard.
The perception was that he had not earned the right to be on the same track with Dale Earnhardt Sr. – wonderful driving skills or not, inarguable sincere love of the sport or not.
Fifteen years ago, on a flight into Orlando the week before the Daytona 500, a flight attendant got on the public address system during final approach. In an attempt at passenger ingratiation, she asked, “How many, um, Jeff Gordon fans on board?”
The booing which ensued turned to cheering when one loud, lubricated voice shouted, “F***ing pretty boy!”
Gordon was followed into the sport by a hoard of “pretty boys”. Drivers from, ugg, California and Wisconsin and Indiana and the Great Northwest. Drivers who you would only see at a Waffle House if they were there doing a promotion for their sponsors.
Oh, the new NASCAR did draw in new fans. A new demographic of fans. The kind, however, with very shallow racing roots. The kind who were curious about all the fuss or who went to races and wore the gear simply to be part of something big.
You don’t have to be a botanist to know what happens to organisms which have shallow roots. As those crowds began to drift on to the next big cultural thing, NASCAR discovered that when the tide rolled out, the traditional fans were gone.
But there was always a sense – a hope – that if a new hero could be found, the listing ship would right itself.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made significant strides at that. But his move to Hendrick Motorsports failed to produce on-track fireworks, and, hence, his popularity plateaued.
Next came Danica Patrick. Young, female and good looking, she lacked only one thing; an ability to win races. And for some, she was perceived as nothing more than a marketing gimmick – something shoved up the public’s butt by sponsors and TV “partners”.
Now comes Brad Keselowski. Bad Brad.
His openness and brash plain talk in front of notebooks and microphones is appealing and refreshing. He possess a real interesting blend of throw-back folksiness and new school hipness. Keselowski, a 28-year-old who grew up gritty in the shadow of the Motor City, has this unique ability to embrace tradition and a smart phone at the same time.
Geeks and rednecks both boast ownership of Keselowski. He is kind of Earnhardt but with ios 6. He navigates the cloud with feet on the ground.
Best of all, he is a hellacious wheelman.
There he was early Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway after beating out five-time champ Jimmie Johnson for the 2012 Sprint Cup title guzzling beer from a huge – what, like 52-ouncer ya think? – glass during a national television interview.
No, he wasn’t just holding the glass so consumers could see the logo of his sponsor, but actually gulping brewskis and obviously feeling its effects. No shame, no spiel. No hint of a bow to political correctness. The performance was not going to earn the love neo prohibitionists, but, hey, those folks don’t watch racing anyway.
Watching, you kept asking yourself: Can he do this? Is this legal?
Standing next to Keselowski and the big beer was NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. His newest champion chugged some more and looked over at him wearing a look that said: That just happened!
And then there was driver after driver – including Johnson and Gordon – heading over and getting caught up in the whole sudsy scene. Rick Hendrick, too. Even team owner Roger Penske, who’s a founding member and current member of board of regents at Old School, got caught up.
Keselowski showed up at the post-race press conference late; apparnently he found it tough to be torn away from the party. So he showed up with the party in tow. Somebody had taken his giant glass, he told reporters. But he was pretty sure he would soon get it back.
He told reporters that going to money-milking Disneyland was not on his to-do list. That list, he said, was topped by dating a celebrity.
When he finally walked out the media center door, you just know it wasn’t to find a comfy bed and get a good night’s sleep. The bet here is that he found that missing glass or else an acceptable substitute.
Keselowski is both NASCAR fan and NASCAR driver.
And NASCAR on Sunday evening, was paid a visit by reality and honesty. It stumbled upon a person who just may be able to lead a reversal of misfortune. Who knows.
But one thing’s for sure: If Keselowski can’t return NASCAR to relevancy, no human can.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org