Tom Sorensen

Why NASCAR has an image problem it can’t fix because of money

NASCAR driver Kyle Busch used to be a villain, but then he got married, became a father and turned nice.
NASCAR driver Kyle Busch used to be a villain, but then he got married, became a father and turned nice. TNS

If the men who run Charlotte Motor Speedway approached NASCAR now and said, “Five hundred miles is not enough, we want to race 600 miles every Memorial Day weekend,” you know what the answer would be? Drugs are bad.

The more technology pushes us forward, the more our patience declines. Drive 600 miles from Charlotte and you’re almost at New York City’s Times Square.

But distance is the quality that distinguishes Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Other races are jaunts. Six hundred miles is a test for drivers, teams, cars and fans. As a concession to 2017, the race will include four stages, so there will be four potential winners to cheer.

We all know that NASCAR is struggling, and its problems supersede stages and distance. I can tell you what the sport needs – a villain. Where are the bad guys (and women)? Where’s the racing equivalent of the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees or Golden State?

Some fans boo Jimmie Johnson, but find me something unlikeable about Johnson, other than he is one of the great drivers of all time and thus beats your driver. Some fans booed Jeff Gordon for the same reason.

Just as we need drivers to pull for, we need drivers to pull against. Kyle Busch was a good bad guy, talented and brash. If you remove all the other factors and distill a driver’s talent, Busch would be near the top. So, yeah, boo. He embraced his image.

And then Busch got married and had a child and turned nice.

I don’t agree that sponsors are exclusively to blame. There has to be a product that would be enhanced by a bad-guy spokesman (or woman). I can think of a few. I just can’t print them.

There was a time when NASCAR was a show. Adventures were common and rules were few. If it were more of a show now, it could designate certain drivers as bad guys.

Watch Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne walk into the infield as if they shoved open old West saloon doors, and they’re just warming up for what they’ll do on the track.

Look at those sparkly rhinestone wrestling robes Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wear to driver introductions as they strut across the stage.

OK, Larson, Kahne, McMurray and Stenhouse might not be the right guys. Maybe we’ll have to include a height requirement.

So: Who are you going to boo at the 600 Sunday, and how passionately are you going to boo them? It’s like golf.

The team structure in other sports provides insulation between sponsors and athletes, and enables athletes to go at each other.

Such behavior is natural. You compete against others on your job. Do you like every competitor? Do you get angry with them? Of course you do.

Show me an enduring NASCAR feud. In NASCAR, tempers blast, words are exchanged and punches are thrown. And then NASCAR summons the drivers and tells them to behave. It’s like getting sent to the principal’s office. And, at least publicly, the feuds end.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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