NASCAR’s Message: Fans Come First

I never thought I’d find myself saying this: NASCAR could teach us all a thing or two. Let me back up for some frame of reference, but stay with me on this.

NASCAR was pretty much an alien concept for someone growing up in Philadelphia, the home of Doo-Wop, Bandstand, Chubby Checker and cheese steaks, as well as the Phillies, Eagles and 76’ers. Not to be confused, of course, with Country & Western, The Grand ‘Ol Opry, Porter Waggoner and grits, as well as the Winston Cup. Tracks were for horses and the Penn Relays.

Sports meant real athletes, those who ran and jumped, blocked and tackled, and threw and hit. Driving, no matter the vehicle, speed, distance or conditions, didn’t count. Everyone drove; precious few could hit the curve, elude an NFL linebacker or drain a perimeter jump shot with a man in your face. Auto racing was as foreign as curling, only less interesting.

While today I can marvel at pit-stop teamwork and the reflexes and nerve of the drivers, I still don’t get anything else about the sport. The numbing noise, the motorized monotony, the human billboards. Then there are the crashes, near-crashes and occasional fatalities. They’re not my adrenaline rush hours.

But you know what? The major professional team sports today — baseball, football and basketball — could learn a lot from NASCAR.

There’s a cultural connect that’s obvious between drivers and fans. Loyalty is not something you only owe your posse. You don’t have to love the sport to respect the relationship between celebrity drivers and their fans. Good ol’ boys and their families watching other good ol’ boys race.

However much their fame and fortune, the drivers know that without sponsors and fans they’re stuck in real jobs. So they sign the autographs; they do the interviews; they show for promotions; they banter; they hang out; they give back. Some things you just can’t fake. They let other sports monopolize drug busts, pregnant girl-friend assaults, bad tattoos and arrogant attitudes.

No sport does a better job of marketing to — nor respecting — its fan base than NASCAR. Drivers have agents and attorneys too, but they don’t get in the way of fan identification.

Baseball, as it approaches another strike deadline, couldn’t be a bigger contrast. What was once the national pastime is now well passed its time; more of a sleazy family feud among millionaires. To the eroding fan base that still cares more about pennant races and individual records than small-market scenarios and steroid-stoked stats, baseball responds with a nose-thumbing.

The message from baseball would seem to be: “How can we respect anyone who doesn’t see us for what we are — a competitive sham borne of owner egos and stupidity perfectly complemented by player greed and arrogance?”

Then there’s the lesson to be learned by the no-show fiasco that was the recent Shaquille O’Neal Celebrity Lost Weekend. Whatever the final cover story — beyond indifference and incompetence — the effect was this: too many kids had to learn the hard way what it’s like being treated like a pro sports fan.

Maybe it’s good they find out now. If the result would be fewer sycophantic, hero-worshipping, autograph-beseeching, lemming-like pro sports fans, it would be worth it.

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