NASCAR - A Sport for the Humble

 by Doug Belliveau
January 12, 2001

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Recently I was watching a pro football game on national television, and I found myself getting more and more disenchanted with the attitudes of some of the players. Why does almost every single play have to culminate in some form of taunting or wild celebration? There seems to be something wrong with most sports these days. What I find wrong with most professional sports is what I still find right with NASCAR.

I don't mind athletes being excited about their success. To reach the professional level requires years of dedication and training. Only a handful of them ever make it past the college or minor league levels. Players of some sports, like football, may have a very short shelf life when it comes to the income they can earn. Before they hit the big time, some baseball players spend many years riding buses along dusty roads on their way to some obscure town, just to get the chance to hit a little white ball and prove themselves.

No, I don't mind athletes having some pride as well. As a matter of fact, what team can win if it has no pride? If a coach cannot summon the team's emotions to conquer the opponent, they will soon find themselves looking for another job. Who can forget the story of Notre Dame and "win one for the Gipper"?

What I take exception to is the level of self-obsession prevalent in professional sports today. It seems that everything is about the individual, and not the team, or even the sport for that matter. Players file for free agency or demand trades to teams that will pay them the big bucks. Labor strikes and owner lockouts are more common than triple plays. The working class fans are beginning to be priced out of the stands. 

Many people do not subscribe to the "things were better in the good old days" argument. For the most part, they are probably right. A trip back in time just 50 years brings us child labor, cold war and segregation. In some ways society has made great strides in that time frame.

But if you look at pro sports 50 years ago and compare it to the year 2001, what do you see? I see a lot less love of the sport and a lot more love of one's self. A linebacker tackles a running back at the line of scrimmage. He moves to the center of the field, in full view of the camera, and performs some sort of gyrating celebratory dance. On the next play, the safety defends a pass play by knocking it down before the ball could reach the receiver. The safety is immediately in the receiver's face, jawing at him to make sure that he knows who's the better player. Every time a receiver drops a pass, he immediately screams at the referee for a penalty flag, as if he couldn't possibly be at fault for the futility of the play. Even special teams players, normally third-stringers, celebrate wildly when tackling an opponent running back a kickoff.

Last time I checked, pro football players get paid to tackle and defend passes. So why is there all this nonsense going on after every play? You can bet that this level of boasting and taunting was nowhere to be found 50 years ago. Of course there were colorful characters in the past. Does anyone remember Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and the wacky things he did after scoring a touchdown? But Johnson and a handful of others were the exception, not the rule.

Is this type of behavior only prevalent at the professional level? You'd think celebrations and boasting would be discouraged in college football, where spiking of the ball is penalized. But you'd be wrong. I watched some of the college bowl games last week. Now I know where the pro players develop and hone their on-field behaviors.

Don't think I'm picking on just football, because other sports are just as guilty on this issue. There are hundreds of baseball, hockey and basketball players who care more about being in the spotlight than the performance of their team. We've got players kicking cameramen, spitting on umpires and jumping off the ice into the stands to fight fans. Even many of the time-honored Olympic sports became opportunities for athletes to show off for the television cameras this past summer.

Many people credit this type of behavior to the big money and media coverage that has invaded professional sports. Most athletes make millions of dollars to play just a few months a year. Alex Rodriguez just signed a $250 million deal with the Texas Rangers. That's a quarter of a billion dollars, more than the gross national product of some nations! Maybe some athletes have developed outrageous attitudes to match their outrageous salaries.

I agree that big money is responsible, at least in part, for the change in athlete's demeanor. Long gone are the days when class acts like Tom Landry strolled the sideline in his famous suit and hat. We may never see another group of innocent, unknown hockey players perform a "Miracle on Ice" ever again. So if big money and media coverage are causing problems, why is NASCAR so different?

No one can deny that "big money" has made its way to professional stock car racing. The growth of NASCAR in the 1990's was unimaginable. Sponsors shell out millions of dollars to place their logo on a racecar. Almost every regular Winston Cup driver earned at least one million dollars during the 2000 season. The winning payouts for the Daytona 500 are astronomical compared to only a mere 20 years ago. So make no mistake about it - the money is there, just like in the other sports.

How do driver's attitudes and behaviors compare to athletes in other sports? Have you ever seen Rusty Wallace do an "in your face" celebration when he turns a sparkling qualifying lap earning him a pole position? Do you ever see Dale Jarrett's crew pull off a 14-second pit stop and then taunt the other teams afterward? I know these examples sound silly, but that's the point. These types of attitudes are virtually nowhere to be found in stock car racing.

Surely emotions run very high during a race. Tempers can flare on occasion due to on-the-track incidents. I can certainly vouch for that, having been in the Watkins Glen garage after the race this past year. Drivers join in celebrations on victory lane. They jump up and down on their car. Champagne sprays all about and confetti falls from the sky. But this has nothing to do with boasting or taunting. It has to do with the unquenchable desire to win races and the subsequent celebration of a hard-earned victory.

NASCAR has many similarities to other major sports. The money is there. So is the intense competition. There are plenty of television cameras at events. And racing is just as much a team sport as the others. So why is NASCAR so different from other professional sports? 

I believe the major difference is that those involved with NASCAR are humble. What exactly does this mean? The dictionary defines humble as "low in position or condition; not important; not grand". In laymen's terms, the people competing in NASCAR don't think the world revolves around them. They do not believe they are above and beyond anyone, only that they are a part of a team and the sport as a whole. If you walk around the pits on a race weekend as I have, you'll see humility in action. At Dover last year, Jeff Gordon was making his way from his hauler to his car for qualifying runs. He was immediately swarmed by a throng of fans seeking his autograph. Without hesitation, Jeff took the time to sign as many autographs as his schedule allowed. I watched a world famous multimillionaire, three-time Winston Cup champion take the time to please his fans. And he did it all for free, and despite having to prepare for an all-important qualifying run. Last time I tried to get a baseball player's autograph, they wanted me to pay $10 and wait in line. What a difference a sport makes.

And the drivers are not the only ones who are humble. Humble defines the life that a NASCAR crewmember lives. They travel for months on end, working long hours under pressure situations. They may not see their families and friends for weeks at a time. Why do they do it? They do it because they LOVE the sport of racing. And why else would a driver risk his or her life every week to drive an 800-horsepower hunk of steel at 180 mile per hour in what equates to rush hour traffic? They also do it because they LOVE the sport of racing.

A love of racing, combined with the respect it deserves, is a recipe for humbleness. Next time you see a post-race interview, listen closely to the words that are spoken. If the driver is the victor, he will thank his crew for giving him the car he needed to win, thank the sponsors for making the team viable, maybe thank God for keeping him safe, and then compliment those who did not win for being great competitors. During the whole interview, I can guarantee that humbleness will be projected in each and every sentence. Last night I listened to an interview with a basketball player after his team had won the game. First he thanked his teammates, but he thanked them for passing him the ball enough times so he could break his own personal record for points scored in a game. I wouldn't exactly call that being humble.

Now don't get the impression that I am trying to disrespect all other professional sports. I am a sports nut just like many of my fellow racing fans. I played many sports in high school and still attempt to play them at a recreational level today. And there are many good people in other sports. As an example, Tiger Woods has managed to remain humble despite his amazing success. Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams is another case in point. And NASCAR is not completely free from those who put themselves ahead of others.

But nowhere in professional sports will you find the level of humility that exists in NASCAR. From the engine builder to the tire changer, it's all about the team and improving its chance of succeeding. No one person is more important than any other is. They are all spokes in a big team wheel. And this humbleness is one of the major reasons I will always enjoy NASCAR racing more than any other sport.

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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