Improspectives

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Archive for May 2014

NASCAR, Scrutiny, and Success

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There aren’t a lot of NASCAR fans in Portland, OR. I grew up in Rockingham County, Virginia, which is about four hours from Martinsville Speedway and within an hour’s drive of at least a dozen regional and local tracks. I enjoy the competition and, even though some races look like a bunch of guys going fast and turning left for three hours, there’s a lot of strategy and tactics to get right if you want to be successful.

I also enjoy Formula 1 racing, which sets designers and drivers an entirely different set of problems. In open wheel racing, touching another car often means irreparable damage to you, the car you touched, or both. In NASCAR, you can rub, bump, bang, and beat on each other a lot more without necessarily compromising your chances. Formula 1 and NASCAR cars (and drivers, for that matter) also have different weights, aerodynamics, and handling characteristics. Some drivers can race successfully in both types of cars, but most competitors specialize.

Car racing is also a male-dominated sport. There have been some successful female drivers, such as Janet Guthrie who raced competitively at the Indianapolis 500 (an open wheel race), but until recently there hasn’t been a marquee name moving from open wheel to NASCAR racing. All that changed when Danica Patrick, who raced successfully through the junior open wheel series in Europe and in Indy cars in the U.S., made the jump to NASCAR.

Patrick is a skilled racer who has paid her dues, but she’s had a rough transition to the Nationwide series (the second-tier NASCAR circuit) and the Sprint Cup. She’s also a marketer’s dream, with amazing good looks, a winning personality, and the discipline to balance racing and promotional duties effectively. Some commentators claim Patrick was hired for her appearance and not her abilities, but I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. NASCAR, like all major sports, is driven by media coverage. People (and I am a people) like looking at attractive individuals and studies show we remember their messages longer. With media coaches and mandatory sponsor mentions during interviews (“I thought the #666 Dogecoin Chevy SS team put me in a good position to win today…”), criticizing a driver for capitalizing on their appearance is nonsense.

As for racing results, Patrick has struggled. She led the Daytona 500 and finished well in a few races, but her average finish is in the low 20s (out of 40 or so drivers) and she has only a handful of top-10 finishes. Kyle Petty, a moderately successful NASCAR driver, son of driving legend Richard Petty, and media commentator, had an interesting take on Patrick. He was quoted in the USA Today as saying:

“She can go fast, but she can’t race. I think she’s come a long way, but she’s still not a race car driver. And I don’t think she’s ever going to be a race car driver.”

Asked by interviewer Matt Clark why Patrick wouldn’t ever be a race car driver in Petty’s eyes, the eight-time race winner said it was “too late to learn.”

Petty admitted that, even though he won eight top-tier NASCAR races, he never figured out what it took to be a great driver. Even so, he has a point. Drivers such as Tony Stewart and A. J. Foyt grew up running everything they could get their hands on, so they learned general racing skills as well as tactics for each type of car and track. Patrick spent her formative years concentrating on open wheel racing on road courses, so her development was more specific.

Even so, I’ve noticed her car control and race sense have improved. Rather than running consistently at the back of the pack and getting caught in (or causing) avoidable incidents, she’s obviously working hard, listening to feedback, and improving. Will she ever win? Hard to say. There are a lot of really good drivers out there. Will she challenge, especially at Sonoma and Watkins Glen? Probably. As long as she keeps improving and maintaining a positive image for her and her sponsors, she’s likely to have a ride. In the context of NASCAR and its surrounding media environment, that counts as success.

I can tell she wants to win, not just race. She won at every level moving up and, even if she doesn’t have the NASCAR-specific skills required to win consistently at the top level, she’ll keep giving it all she can.

Kyle Petty also characterized Patrick as a “marketing machine” rather than a racer. Her commercial success has certainly outpaced her results on the track, but there’s no public-facing industry where looks and talent don’t operate in tandem. We’re all working so we don’t have to work any more, so I offer Patrick the same advice Darrell Waltrip gives to drivers right before a late-race restart: “Go out there and getcha some.”

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