Smackdown On and Off The Track: Does Conflict Help or Hurt Racing?

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Smackdown On and Off The Track: Does Conflict Help or Hurt Racing?

The following is from an email I sent to ESPN Radio's Andy Gresh. 

He was making uninformed comments about Danica Patrick's temperament after being knocked out of the Indy 500 by Ryan Briscoe, the crew-de-ta that occurred after Saturday's Nationwide race at Charlotte, and the "Freak Show" factor that attracts the curious to watch racing.

I hope perhaps that this will add some perspective to events both on and off the track, and how they relate to our society.

Violence on and off track:

One thing you have to look at: the 1979 Daytona 500 was what put NASCAR on the national television scene with the dramatic last-lap crash and ensuing fight between Cale Yarborough and brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison.

CBS had a captive audience that fateful day, and they got more than their money's worth with the conclusion of that event.

If you don't think the physical doesn't attract fans, wait a day or so.

Eddie Gossage, President and GM of Texas Motor Speedway, arguably one of the best promoters in sports, will do what he did last year after Danica and Dan Wheldon had an incident at Milwaukee Speedway the weekend prior to the Texas race.

He'll use the possibility of conflict to promote the race. (Last year he printed it up very much as "Round 2" fight card between Danica and Wheldon). TMS is still proud of A.J. Foyt clobbering Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane after an Indycar race at the track in the late '90s.

The scuffle at the end of the Nationwide race Saturday night at Charlotte was something that grabbed headlines from Kyle Busch and his big win. The passion of those involved in auto racing has a long history, and occasionally it does come to blows.

Does the possibility of fisticuffs attract the casual observer? Possibly. The chance of the woman winning in the "man's" sports? Absolutely.

Ticket sales for Richmond's Indycar race skyrocketed after Danica won at Motegi, Japan. So the "freak factor" as you called it, of a woman winning, does good things for the sport.

Women in racing:

2008 has become the year of the female racer with Danica winning at Motegi and Ashley Force taking the first Funny Car win for a woman in the NHRA a week later (not to mention Melanie Troxel turned around and equaled the feat a week later).

But the Indy 500 has historically been the most-watched race of the year. ABC/ESPN is broadcasting the Indycar series to over 200 countries.

The Daytona 500 may have surpassed it due to NASCAR's popularity, and that the past couple of races have come down to last-lap, if not last 100-yard, thrillers.

Danica came within a couple of seconds of additional fuel on her final pit stop in 2005 to winning the 500 but settled for fourth.

Who is Scott Dixon?

Though you (and the casual fan) may not know who Scott Dixon is, he did win the Indycar Championship in 2003.

He was second to Dario Franchitti in last year's Indy 500, and came within one-half a mile of winning the Indycar Championship at Chicago last fall.  He ran out of fuel and watch Dario drive by to take the title.

Now Dixon's likeness will be engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy as 2008 Indy 500 winner. This is the ambition of most, if not all, open-wheel racers in the U.S. and around the world.

The international flavor of the Indycar Series shows this, and Dixon will be a national hero in his home country of New Zealand. Racing drivers tend to achieve this status—look at Fernando Alonso in Spain, Lewis Hamilton in England, the late Ayrton Senna in Brazil, and our own Dale Earnhardt, Jr. here in the U.S.



Use of the above for promotion:

Promoters and networks will use the fights, disagreements, or heated exchanges to attract viewers.

After all, "If it bleeds, it leads" is the mantra of the news media. 

The "Carnage curiosity" of the public is evident every day when massive backups occur in traffic because of people rubbernecking at wrecks on the other side of the highway.

So do the tussles occur on a regular basis? No. They're noteworthy when they happen, and the media and promoters will do what they can to amp up events that might have little actual value in the greater scheme of things.

But a media lives on (declining) ratings, and promoters that live on ticket sales, will use what they can to get what they need to maintain their income stream. How much coverage has destruction of tornadoes, earthquakes, and random shootings received? Hey, I'm watching video of a tornado because it's cool and something you don't see every day.

 I don't want to see people hurt, but human curiosity drives desire.

Conclusions:


As a society, we've become accustomed, even numbed, to violence. In the end, there are few who actually watch racing for the crashes, just as there are few who watch hockey to see a fight break out.

I think Danica should have smacked (and been allowed to) Ryan Briscoe because he honestly deserved it.

Regardless of the ratings or stories it may have generated, her stepping up for herself is good because Briscoe was in the wrong.  He then tried to put it off on her in interview, when he screwed up and couldn't admit it.

In the end, I spent most of Sunday in front of the TV watching racing because I wanted to watch racing, and saw some really good stuff.

From the rains that made the GP of Monaco a toss-up, to the ballsy pass Vitor Meira made between two cars at Indy, to the question of who would have enough gas to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, it was a great day on the track for racing fans.

 

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