Recently, a certain NASCAR driver sparked some amount of controversy when she stated that signing autographs was not part of her job. While I disagree with that portion of her argument, there is surely a balance to be found somewhere. I think fan interaction, including autographs, is part of the job for every driver. However, this does not mean they have to sign every autograph. There are times and places for that. Also, someone that wants an autograph is one thing , while the person with an armload of die casts is another.
That made me think about how this relates to my own experiences in the short track world. The Midwest Tour and several special races do a good job in terms of fan interaction. There are several chances to get an autograph, take a picture, share a few words, and shake hands through autograph sessions set up by promoters and venues. Didn't get a chance to talk to that one driver you wanted? Head down to the pits after the race and, if they aren't actively engaged with their car or team, it's more than likely you'll get to interact. Times and places. The time drivers take to talk to fans can change peoples' perceptions and leave them with a deeper understanding of what happened in a race that they never could have seen from the stands. In my opinion, participation like this absolutely drives a portion of attendance. Speaking of attendance,
Dan Deicher did an interview with Bubba Pollard at the Joe Shear Classic at Madison earlier this season. Bubba's appearance at the race was a bit of a surprise to most. He talked about the impressive crowd, and noted how he doesn't see that much anymore in the south. I'm not sure how things are run down there from a fan perspective, but I can tell you the crowds for the big multi-day races shown online this winter were not good. Sure, every track and series has their own way of doing things with varying results, but seeing that this winter made me reflect on what a good thing we have. It would be a shame to lose that because "it's not my job".
We're all excited that local short track season is finally hitting it's stride. Sometimes I get a little too excited. You probably can't tell by looking at me, but it's there. Late last week, the entry list for ARCA Midwest Tour Joe Shear Classic came out and I was pumped. Returning stars, drivers who obviously have half a shoe in the NASCAR world, and one in particular that I thought was done for good. Thirty-some super late models on the entry list for ANY paved oval race in 2017 is a big deal, no matter where it is. There were also some surprises, including a couple locals and some fella named Bubba. "WHOA", indeed.
Plans came together to meet some friends, and to experience race day in some new ways for me. My excitement level was through the roof! A couple pre-race brews and brats helped calm me a bit (Thanks Rich!) and we went in for qualifying. It was fun to see a great early crowd and feel the buzz. Qualifying ended, and the top 16 made their way to the new turn 4 pavilion at MIS. The Midwest Tour Stars were certainly popular and the autograph line was lengthy. This is really a hit with fans, and I'm glad they do it, even though I think it's a little creepy to wait in line for an autograph from someone that was born nearly a decade after I left high school. I'll mostly stick to taking a few pictures, because I've convinced myself that that's somehow less creepy.
Supporting class race time came and went with little trouble. I don't want to make light of their events, because they were top notch. Sometimes people take a negative approach on certain supporting classes and it ruins their race experience. Not the case here. It's especially fun for me to see the resurgence in the numbers for the truck races, and the Sportsman racing was very entertaining. But SHOWTIME was about to hit us! Intros began, engines fired, and I thought that might be my last "WHOA" for the day.
Boy, was I wrong.
200 laps of spectacular racing followed, the likes which I haven't seen in person in probably a decade. Pit strategy was extremely important. It went from "this guy could win" to "pfft this guy always wins" to "holy crap, this is a shootout"! It's been quite a long time since I've attended a race that continued to build and build as it went on. A little paint was traded. The lead was swapped several times. Certain cars were obviously moving forward and backward, if you were really watching. "WHOA" again came out of my mouth when a couple heavy hitters swapped the lead late. This wasn't a race. It was a show, and the crowd was all over it. The energy in the stands over the last 20 laps was incredible.
After the checkered flag flew, the stands were in a frenzy. The winner came to victory lane and was choked up, talking about how his team had won, and they had carried the ashes of a recently deceased fan in the car. It was then that it all came back around. It became about a fan. It became about a tiny part of me. "WHOA"
20 years ago, I was a young man looking for something new. I moved south, not with any real plan or direction, just to be somewhere different. It was quite an education. It wasn't long before I made some friends and convinced someone to be my girlfriend. One night, I mentioned to her mother that we should check out the local short track just down the road. "Why would you want to hang around with THOSE people?" was her response, looking down her nose at me. I was taken aback. Having been hanging out at Lake Geneva Raceway for a couple years at the time, some thoughts came to mind, but just told her I liked racing. The relationship did not last long.
Over the next 20 years that phrase stuck in my mind, as there was never a solid answer for me. Sure, I love the sights, the smells, and the sounds. I love two cars racing side by side over several laps for the lead and never touching each other. Sometimes I like it when they do touch. Bad wrecks aren't my thing, but I love hearing "The safety crew tells us the driver is OK!". Those are all great things, but they never completely answered the question.
Then Bryan Clauson died.
The reaction of the racing community was special, to say the least. Over the next few weeks, the tributes rolled in. But this was not a standard rememberence. Watching the celebration of his life at Kokomo Speedway was incredibly moving, even though I did not follow him closely. It's extremely rare for me to shed tears for someone I've never met. The strength of his family and Lauren was uplifting, which I had never experienced. Tributes continue today with "BC Forever" decals and "Parked It" still seen in victory lane, but all that didn't complete the answer to the question. Bryan's organs were donated, helping several people in presumably rough shape. Soon, a campaign was started to sign up 200 new organ donors in Bryan's memory. Shortly, that number neared 1000. When the goal was changed to 2000, that number was eclipsed. Now, 6 months later, the total is pushing 6000 new donors! What an amazing feat!
It finally sunk in with me this offseason that the answer is simple. It IS the people. From the driver of a NASCAR Monster Energy car to the kid parking cars at Jefferson Speedway, and everyone in between, I've never met anyone at the track I truly dislike or thought was a bad person. So there you have it. I want to hang around "those people" because they are the best people I've ever met. I'm glad I stuck around.
If you'd like to join the campaign and help push it over 6000 new donors, register here: registerme.org/campaign/bryanclauson
"Overheard" is a racing fan blog examining things said at, around, or about racing, mostly from my personal interactions.