CASCAR's date with destiny
I was ready to write off the phrase "It's time for CASCAR" as so much PR mumbo jumbo, but after hearing speaker after speaker, after talking to drivers, after seeing the cars and taking the pictures, I came away convinced that for once, the PR people might be right&emdash;that CASCAR's time has finally come.
It's certainly CASCAR's time if it's following the same trend that NASCAR set in the States; down south, after a relatively long period in the background, it has surged forward, becoming the number-one sport, period, in all of the country&emdash;bigger than basketball, bigger than baseball, bigger even than professional football. Forget the million-dollar commercial spots during the Super Bowl or the incredibly hyped halftime shows; cars, drives, and engines surpass all of them and then some, with the amount of money they rake in.
CASCAR, the brainchild of league founder Tony Novotny, has been around for sixteen years now, but has only achieved any kind of momentum in the past seven or eight; its growth curve, after years of modest, almost flat, increases, has finally reached the point where it is starting to climb exponentially. In 1990, after the Exhibition Stadium race in Toronto, the league doubled its number of driver registrations, then promptly appeared in Florida, its SuperSeries coinciding with the Daytona 500 weekend. After that came CASCAR west, the expansion into Canada's western provinces; and now comes the Castrol SuperSeries, with Castrol getting involved nationwide to promote the series, hoping to bring it into everyone's conscience&emdash;not just those of auto enthusiasts.
And from all indications,they've done their homework&emdash;stock-car racing in general, and CASCAR specifically, are poised to make a major impact on Canada's sports scene. And they're going to change it radically.
Most of the sport's appeal lies in the fact that it's real; real in the sense of its cars, its people, and its attitude; Novotny and Castrol are counting on this reality, this link to Canada and its people, to make the impact that they're predicting.
Take real cars, for instance. While the cars circling racetracks at two hundred klicks might share only a few parts in common with the cars coming off the assembly line with the same name, the rules do stipulate that their profiles and body openings must be the same. High-performance engines, unmuffled exhausts, and fat tires notwithstanding, the Monte Carlos, Avengers and Thunderbirds are cars that look like they can be driven off any dealer's lot&emdash;by anybody. Unlike Formula 1 or Indycar racing, which distance themselves from "our" automotive reality, stock cars bring the sport closer to its fans, not farther away.
Real people, too; they're not the high-strung, intense and overwrought prima donnas that are typical of other, more esoteric, racing series. But they're not ignorant, boorish rednecks either&emdash;they're local, but they're pros, with articulated speech and more automotive knowledge than you or I could probably ever amass in a lifetime. Drivers like Dan Shirtliff, D.J. Kennington and Kelly Williams really are the people next door, local heroes who have worked hard, made their dreams come true. And they don't make millions of dollars a year; they have jobs&emdash;ne of the drivers owns the auto parts store whose decals cover his race car&emdash;families, and desires like the rest of us. (Even the prizes for the winners are close to home&emdash;a Dodge Dualie pickup goes to the national champion.)
These real people also help to bring the sport close to the community that it serves; CASCAR is heavily involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in every community it races in; so not only does CASCAR come into a community where it races, it becomes part of it&emdash;a good deal both in terms of money (stock-car racing fans are among the most loyal of any sport) and in terms of public relations; and they do a lot of good in the process. It's no wonder that the sport is very quickly displacing the other so-called "professional" sports as family entertainment&emdash;local heroes involved in the community tend to generate a much more steadfast following than million-dollar-a-year baseball or basketball stars whose fans are as fickle as a kid in a candy store.
Real as it may be, CASCAR is also going to be depending on its size to make itself the household name it wants to be; without big media coverage, big corporate sponsors, and big numbers of people involved in the organization, reality, good as it is, won't have the exposure that it needs to bring CASCAR into every home.
Big media coverage like TSN, which will be broadcasting almost half of the twenty races being held across the country, from British Columbia out to New Brunswick. TSN, one of Canada's most successful and fastest-growing TV networks, serves a huge audience, and will be instrumental in CASCAR's success or failure (its large, faithful viewership suggests success rather than failure, though.)
Big corporate sponsors, too. Castrol, of course, which has ponied up enough to have the series named after it. But also Ford, GM, and Chrysler, who not only donate the cars' namesakes, but also time, personnel and expertise. Companies like Midas, STP and Loctite are also involved, as are Canadian Tire and Snap-On Tools. Cooper Automotive supplies Champion spark plugs and Moog steering and suspension bits.
What do they get for their involvement? A great return on their investment&emdash;stock-car racing fans are a huge, profitable market, and are unfailingly loyal. Information, too; the manufacturers get to test out new technology in an intense, high-pressure environment that is many times more stressful on a part or collection of them than regular driving; if a part works in an environment like CASCAR's, it's going to work on the street, and work well. The racetrack is the ultimate testing ground for the manufacturers, whether of parts or of cars themselves.
There's also a huge number of people involved in CASCAR, besides the five-hundred plus drivers on this year's roster. There are literally thousands of people involved in the business and publicity ends, and as many staffing the pits at races. Stock-car racing, people-intensive even in its smallest iterations, in the form of CASCAR, employs tens of people for every one driver we see whizzing across our TV screens.
And if anything is going to bring CASCAR to its "destiny" of becoming the dominant spectator sport in Canada, it is going to be its people. Not only are there many of them, but they are professionals in every way. Everybody at the Ontario Place press conference I attended was a pro&emdash;from the people staffing the doors right up to the drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors themselves; they're all well-spoken, intelligent, and perhaps most importantly, passionate about their sport. Listening to one of the backers of the racing teams is like listening to a proud parent talking about their favorite child; their emotion, their conviction, is evident in every word. Never mind the drivers&emdash;Shirtliff was close to tears as he tried to describe what it meant to be the national CASCAR champion. And the emotion in the room wasn't of the canned, seen-it-all-before type; it was as genuine as it comes.
It is, in the end, this emotion, this conviction that it really is time for CASCAR that will eventually carry it through; while any sport is comprised of professionals, and while almost all of them are involved with major corporate sponsors and have extensive media coverage, none of them, it seems, are so close, so important, to their people&emdash;while Michael Jordan may go for a round of golf after a basketball game, it's back under the hood for Shirtliff, Kennigton, and all of the drivers and people that support them; they're always with their cars, in their cars, thinking about their cars, talking about their cars and driving to anyone who will listen.
So, after hearing the speeches and meeting the drivers, looking over the cars, seeing the conviction in the eyes of everybody involved with CASCAR, it's hard to fault them when they start talking about the sport's destiny, about how its time has finally come. In fact, by the end of things, not only are you convinced that they are right, but you're cheering them on. And with sixteen years, countless dollars, dozens of races, and gallons of sweat and tears behind them, CASCAR and the people involved in it almost deserve the success that they talk about.
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