Monday, February 21, 2011

NASCAR Is Not Evil

A great quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes like this: "There are only three true sports – bullfighting, deep-sea fishing, and motor racing. Everything else is just a game."

I am a motorsports fan. I love almost every form of two- and four-wheeled racing, with the notable exception of motocross, which bores me to tears. Road racing is my passion… open-wheel formula and closed-wheel sports cars make my eyes spin just watching them slice from apex to apex, exhaust blasting and dust flying and bits of exotic rubber shredding off at every corner. I’ve been fortunate to spend time at the wheel of many different types of road and race cars during track days, autocrosses, off-road tours and racing driver schools. Driving a race car on-track is third on the list of things I enjoy most during my life’s waking hours.

That’s why I wince whenever another racing fan disparages NASCAR as not being ‘real' racing. It’s a very common feeling among fans who believe their series is far superior than anyone else’s, and nowhere is that divide more pronounced than between the road racers and the oval racers. Think the Farmers and the Cowmen. The Skiers and the Snowboarders. The Hatfields and The McCoys. The Conservatives and the Liberals. You know… a simmering resentment that borders on (and sometimes turns into) open hostility. Thankfully, there are some of us who look at all racing disciplines (including motocross) as a uniquely vibrant symbiosis of man, machine, science, chance and luck.

NASCAR racing, and the premier Sprint Cup Series in particular, is a singular example of that symbiosis… professional racing that has been cooked down to its most brutal and elemental format. There are many people, including hard-core race fans, who don’t seem to grasp the nature of classic oval racing that is central to NASCAR’s existence and popularity. “All they do is go fast in a circle for hours and hours” is the most common criticism of the genre, which is woefully uninformed about the incredible effort it takes to go fast in a circle, sometimes for hours. A bit of understanding goes a long way towards gaining an appreciation for the sport. Let me help.

The most popular lore about NASCAR’s history refers to mid-20th century Southern moonshiners in their souped-up cars outrunning the revenooers while trying to deliver their cargo of White Lightnin'. While this historical episode is absolutely true, the oval racing phenomenon has its roots much, much further back… back to horse races at 19th century American county fairs, to the bareback match races in dusty Arabic town squares, to the chariot races and nascent Olympic stadium foot races in ancient Rome and Greece. Yep, it goes that far back, and the connection is not just passive. Men have competed in the oval format, with and without their mounts, for millennia. It is human nature to test ourselves against each other in a closed-course environment while spectators cheer and drink and gamble and fight and puke and enjoy the spectacle.

A modern top-echelon Sprint Cup racing machine is NOT a 'stock' car, even though NASCAR stands for ‘National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’. The name harkens back to 1949 when the organization was formed and they really did race cars that were essentially stock or barely modified for competition. In them days, the racers also had guns and knives and fistfights in the pits so the they could handle on-track disagreements, and they were lucky to win enough prize money to pay for their race expenses, especially if a car got wadded-up. These days, like all other mainline professional sports, it’s all about The Benjamins for the mega-bucks multi-car teams with expensive equipment and personnel and rigs and sponsors that demand free tickets and team clothing and fresh flowers on each hospitality center table while they dine on gourmet food.

Today’s Sprint Cup race car is a purpose-built, handcrafted, tube-framed, metal-clad, mega-horsepowered speed device that owes its existence to science, technology, human endeavor and sheer madness. The cars are an exercise in building a machine to stringent technical specifications which allows them to reach speeds in excess of 200mph while competing with 42 other cars on the track at the same time. Depending on which track they're at, their engines can produce as much as 800 horsepower. Their eggshell-thin sheet metal bodies are formed and tweaked and massaged to reduce drag, increase downforce and promote aerodynamic efficiency. The chassis is fabricated from thick-wall metal tubing that can withstand a crash where an impact can measure to 100 times the power of gravity, or 100G’s, all while protecting the flesh/blood/bone driver strapped inside.

Once the cars are inspected to ensure they meet the technical and safety specifications, the driver proceeds to lap the track as fast as the laws of physics will allow. The science involved is the part that has me so enamored with racing in general. Combustion. Torque. Friction. Gravity. Geometry. Inertia. Momentum. Aerodynamics. Thrust. Thermal expansion. Deterioration. Turbulence. Calculus. Metallurgy. Chemistry. The mind reels at the complexity involved in order to ‘go fast in a circle, sometimes for hours’. My years working in the performance tire industry taught me about how tenuous the connection is between the tire and track surface at the limits of adhesion. The tire tread surface literally melts when it contacts the ground at speed, morphing into a gooey patch that just barely maintains friction, keeping the car moving forward but almost losing the safety of friction-based traction. SCIENCE, BABY.

Another distinction of the Sprint Cup Series: these are endurance races, as opposed to a shorter ‘sprint’ races. Most of the oval races are 400 or 500 miles long, with a 600-miler run at Charlotte (NC) each year on Memorial Day weekend. The smaller ovals usually run lap counts as opposed to miles due to their slower average lap speeds (100mph is slow?), but the challenges are no less daunting. This format is unique to NASCAR, as the US-based open-wheel and sports car series run only a few high-mileage endurance events each year.

The endurance nature of the NASCAR events are where the real racing challenge happens. Visualize this: 43 cars and their teams have qualified for a race, and they all compete at maximum speed on the track at the same time, requiring multiple pit-stops for new tires and fuel… FOR 500 MILES. Each lap is another opportunity to mess up and crash or get spun out. Each pit stop is another opportunity to get it wrong, drop the car off the jacks before the tires have been mounted, stop in the wrong pit (yes, it happens), drive into or out of the pits too fast, run over a tire or air hose or some other infraction and incur a penalty. And always... always, there is the chance for mechanical failure. There are myriad ways a race can go into the dumper, and it all happens while the race is progressing at high speed.

The ever-present danger that accompanies NASCAR competition brings with it an edge that fans and spectators are hesitant to admit is like a narcotic. While it’s been almost a decade since the last spate of crash-related deaths in the series, the chance for a horrific accident is always there, waiting to snatch the life of an unlucky driver while everyone watches. Having witnessed life-ending race crashes in person, I can speak from personal experience – it changes you.

Remember the comparison I made earlier to the chariot races in Rome? Modern technology has made the racing vastly safer than even 10 years ago, but like Steve McQueen’s character, race driver Michael Delaney, said in the classic movie ‘Le Mans’: “Auto racing is a professional blood sport. It can happen to you. Then it can happen again” When asked why men race and risk death, he responds, “Racing is important to men who do it well. Racing is life. Everything before and after… is just waiting.”

On the negative side of the typical NASCAR Sprint Cup extravaganza, there is a real over-the-top true-blue American carnival atmosphere to the events, and the entertainment aspect has begun to make it seem just a wee-bit saccharine, a tad contrived, a little overly-patriotic. Most of the drivers now have to be clean-cut corporate shills, always remembering to name-check their sponsors while on camera, have cookie-cutter cute blonde wives, love God and country and bow their heads in prayer during the pre-race invocation. Gone are the rough-and-tumble types that built the sport from a strictly regional series. The sanctioning body also has a reputation for meddling with qualifying results and making questionable calls during the races. Yes, sometimes the races can be boring if one team hits the right set-up and runs away from the field, stinking up the joint. All that is true, but overall, it's still the real deal.

The TV broadcasts are another matter. Sometimes the commercialism involved with the sport can be overbearing, with sponsor logos on absolutely everything. In fact, there are times that the racing action is limited to only half of the screen, with the rest taken over by the running order scroll, banner ads, several screen 'bugs' and at least three different sponsor logos. A recent development has the race in a small screen portal with no sound while the commercials are rolling, mostly ads with the drivers hawking everything from auto parts to furniture rental to boner pills. Sometimes we'll record the race and watch it later that day or the next, speeding through the commercials and turning a 3-1/2 hour broadcast into a much more viewable 2 hours. I'm not the type to go bonkers if I find out who won before I watch the damned thing... at least not all the time.

As I write this essay, the 2011 Daytona 500 is only hours away and, thanks to a newly-repaved track surface, race official's meddling and last-minute changes to the cars, it seems as if there will be a very odd type of race, where two cars can 'pair-up' nose-to-tail and run almost 10mph faster than the field. The practice and warm-up races have yielded an unfortunate race strategy, so it remains to be seen what will happen on Race Day. Oh, I'll watch it all right, even though I have a sinking feeling the race will wind up with a bunch of paired-up cars drafting around the track, all keeping their distance from each other so they can make it to the last few laps and then shoot it out for the Checkered Flag.

That's what happens sometimes. I've also seen boring football and baseball games, but methinks even if the Daytona 500 is less than stellar, the next race will see the competition get back to normal.

NASCAR racing is not evil, is not dumb, does not ask the fan to think too hard, but offers limitless opportunities to revel in the classic American sport of stock car racing. Yes, they race at high speed in a circle for hours, but when you have a better understanding of the challenges involved, it creates a drama and excitement that few other sports can equal. Make it a point to give NASCAR racing some of your valuable time, and remember the incredible amount of science involved, the sheer courage required, the risk of death and the reward of finishing First. It might... just... snare you. You're welcome!

UPDATE: As I suspected, the 2011 Daytona 500 turned into a race dominated by two-car drafting pairs, which were able to lap faster than individual cars or an entire pack of them. The drivers were allowed to communicate with each other via their on-board radios so they could set up their strategic pairings while whizzing along at 195mph. Although I was disappointed at this turn of events, the race was really exciting and yielded a surprise winner: 20 year-old Trevor Bahne, racing in only his second Sprint Cup race. Driving the Wood Brothers #21 Ford, Trevor was fast all day, drafted like a champ and held off several veterans to capture NASCAR's crown jewel. It was the first win in 10 years for the Wood Brothers team, who last won the 500 in 1979.

I am not a fan of this new type of 'drafting pair' speedway racing, yet I know it will happen again the next time they visit Daytona in July and during both upcoming races at my beloved Talladega (boo hoo). I reckon I'm old skool in many ways. I figger that every car is out there to beat every other car. When drivers can work together to gain an advantage, whether they're on the same team or not, well... that just doesn't seem to be in the spirit of ANY type of motor racing. The reviews on the race were mixed. I dinna like it. Oh well... that's racing!

'Thunder Road' trailer, Michael Waltrip In-Car Camera clip, 'Ben Hur' clip and 'Daytona 2009 Finish' clip all MUCHISMAS GRACIAS de Talladega image courtesy of

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happiness Is A Warm Gun

So, the next Great Debate is upon us: our national obsession with guns and violence. Yep, all it took was another in a long series of ostracized outsiders/lone wolfs/mentally unstable yahoos with a Glock and 31 Wal-Mart bullets to cap a bunch of citizens in a grocery store parking lot. This time, tho… Fine Young American Jared Loughner had the bad luck of choosing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as his primary victim, so he’s gonna get hammered by the legal system no matter how crazed or demented his mental state was/is. Thankfully, Gabby is getting better every day… all my positive vibrations go out to her and the other survivors. I grieve for the dead and their families.

This situation leaves me with a feeling of disgust, because although there is mewling and bloviating and screeching from all sides on this horrid crime, we’ll likely see nothing of substance change with regards to gun ownership, sales, registration, shows, accessories… nothing will change. I’ll be gobsmacked if ANYTHING gets through the Congressional Star Chamber to alleviate this firearms firestorm.

But that’s not what has me contemplating my navel right now.

What has me mystified is this: what is it about guns that has such an addictive hold on so many of our citizens? Why do people feel the need to arm themselves with enough weaponry to stage a small coup? What is the mindset that pursuades people to strap a heater on their hip and mosey into a coffee shop, daring someone to question their ‘freedoms’? What is the attraction of posessing the capability to end another human’s life with the simple pull of a trigger?

I’m not gonna wade into the legal and political issues of gun ownership. What intrigues me is the personal and philosophical side, the muse that beckons, the siren’s call to hold and caress and fuss and fawn over an instrument of instant death. How romantic, eh? This is an important distinction, because although I am by no means a gun guy, I understand the nature of our society, one that has at its very core a deep and abiding love of the speeding bullet. It is pervasive. It is apparent in every aspect of our modern culture, our media, our collective psyche.

If you doubt that we are a gun-obsessed nation, watch a few hours of network television on any given night and count the number of times you see a gun being pointed and/or fired. It might surprise you to see it over and over and over and over. Even the commercials make it a point to show the gun… point the gun… shoot the gun. Are you and/or your kids fans of video games? If so, sit down with your collection and count how many of them are first-person shooter games. Do you have a movie collection? Count how many of them have a central character that will ultimately resolve the plot development using a firearm.

Pervasive... ingrained... ubiquitous.

OK, maybe you don't agree with my premise, which is counter to popular opinion, especially knowing there are almost as many weapons as there are people in this country. However, my goal here is to help myself understand the gun thing... if the reader gets a tiny nugget of clarity as well, then I am a Happy Camper.

First and foremost, guns are for killing. They are designed, manufactured and sold with only one capability: to render lifeless that which is at the receiving end of the bullet thrown at high velocity from the end of the barrel. Yes, you can use it for hunting or target shooting or Russian Roulette (a.k.a. 'self-protection'), but it really doesn't matter what the individual purpose may be. It doesn't issue warnings or threats, it doesn't convince or cajole or demand, it doesn't posit or pontificate. It's a gun... it's designed to kill. That's why I prefer my version of the old saying, "Guns don't kill people. People with guns kill people." Dying by bullet is a crappy way to go, because it was another human being who pointed that gun and pulled the trigger.

I've often commented that if we treated gun ownership in the same way we treat automobile ownership, i.e. educating, testing, licensing, registering, insuring, re-testing, restricting... we'd be much better off. That concept illicits howls of derision and contempt from my gun-owning friends, who mostly feel that there should be absolutely no oversight to their weapons fetish. "Dude, it's in the Second Amendment! Besides, cars kill people too!" I love it when they say that, because my first comment is that cars are designed to transport humans and cargo... they typically only kill when the humans involved fail at their task. My second comment is to ask if they've actually read and understand the Second Amendment to The Constitution as it relates to gun ownership, but that's another essay entirely.

When I was in Boy Scouts, I earned my Marksmanship merit badge by learning proper gun etiquette, demonstrating my prowess on a gun range with a variety of weapons, and answering questions about handling them. In later years, I would have additional chances to blast away at targets and junked cars, but for some reason the gun bug never bit me. I've never owned a gun, never had the desire to own a gun, never had the situation where I needed a gun for self-protection. I only have to think about guns when confronted by someone else carrying one or when I have to walk in front of the business next door that sells semi-automatic weapons to large males driving large American trucks with large piles of ammo cases in the back.

Typical Gun Ownership Rationale #1: The Second Amendment to The Constitution of The United States of America.

'A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.'

The Second Amendment was written before this country had a standing military or local police forces (Thanks, socialistic tax revenues!), and it's a subject that could be argued for days. Suffice it to say there are wildly divergent ideas about the meaning, intent and interpretation of The Second Amendment. You may already know where I stand on it. I'll not belabor the issue here.

Typical Gun Ownership Rationale #2: Self-Protection.
My life has been negatively impacted by guns exactly twice: 1) when my two Uncles were killed in a shootout with police after a failed grocery store robbery, and 2) when my gang-banging cousin was capped on a SoCal street. That's it. In both cases, the individuals were exercising poor judgement and wound up, you know, DEAD. Of all the other family and friends that I know (or know of), none has ever been threatened or in a dangerous situation where they needed a heater in their hand. I'd submit that the vast majority of gun owners fall into this category as well. Where you live, what you do, the company you keep... all these things can increase your chances of needing or being at the receiving end of a gun. (I bet that went over well, right?)

My gun-owning friends, of which there are many, all say the same thing: "HA! Wait until you need to protect your home from an intruder, or someone holds you up, or you're attacked. Then you'll wish you had a gun!" My response is always the same: "So... how much time of each day do you spend worrying about something that, as statistics prove, will most likely never happen to you?" When I start asking them if they are also constantly worried about driving on the freeways or of a ladder accident or eating raw seafood-- all circumstances that are far more likely to cause injury or death -- they insist that I am changing the subject. BANG ZOOM!

Typical Gun Ownership Rationale #3: Personal Freedom (Part 1).
In this case, as it relates to the notion of 'open-carry'... that is, the ability to carry a unconcealed and unloaded weapon in public. The open-carry proponents argue that if everyone was armed, no one would be a victim (?!?!). That if there had been more armed citizens in Tucson on that fateful Saturday, fewer people would have been shot and killed. That an armed populace encourages lawful behavior. These rationale demand adherence to the idea that 'our freedoms' give us the legal right to carry a piece in public... anytime, anywhere. Don't like it? Don't tread on me, friend.

I live in Orange County, California... a bastion of Deep-Red Republicanism with a seething hatred of taxes, President Obama and 'them damned illegals'. I do not live in a war zone. I do not live in a crime-ridden city. I do not live in Tombstone, Arizona circa 1880. I also just found out that it is legal to open-carry in this lovely slice of the country. I DO NOT WANT GUNS ANYWHERE NEAR ME, DAMMIT!!!! Unless you are a law enforcement officer grabbing coffee or giving me a ticket, keep your death stick away from me. There is no sane or logical reason for anyone OTHER than law enforcement to pack open heat in The OC. Honest!

My new awareness of local open carry was raised via a recent gathering of Open-Carry OC, a patriotic bunch who decided to gather with their warm guns at a local breakfast spot on a Saturday morning. Their goal was to demonstrate that their 'freedoms' are law-abiding and perfectly normal. As you can guess, they knew exactly what the reaction was going to be. Some people were supportive, but most were upset that their morning family ritual was exposed to gun-toting strangers creating a stir in the 'hood.

The eatery Manager, unaware of the event until it happened, made the right choice and asked the Po Po to stop in, grab a java and make sure all the weapons were unloaded. No bullets in chambers, but the law doesn't say they can't carry ammo, only that the weapon be empty. Open-Carry OC makes the point on their website that although an unloaded weapon isn't much good, "it only takes 2 seconds to load and be ready for action". Nice. Eventually, Eatery Manger asked the OCOC boys and girls to hit the road, as they were pissing off his customers and making a scene. He VERY brave. Again, that was exactly what OCOC was hoping for... they were prominently featured in a Sunday paper article the very next morning.

Scenario: I am inside The Daily Grind waiting for my Joe to come up when someone walks into the room with a gun holstered on their hip. I have three choices: 1) ignore the gun, avoid eye contact with this Fine American and hope like hell my order is almost ready, 2) smile and ask the Fine American if the piece is unloaded or, if unsure about my safety, ask the Manager to inquire or call John Law, or 3) immediately exit the building, hopefully with my coffee, but at the very least, with my life.

I don't know this armed individual. I don't know if he/she is sober or drunk or drugged or stoned or angry or crazy or depressed or suicidal or hates my shirt or thinks I cut him/her off in the parking lot or that I look too much like his/her ex-spouse or whatever. What I do know is that I am now in the presence of someone who, if they so choose, can instantly kill me with no discernable reason or explanation. Is the gun loaded? What, you think I'm gonna ask?!? I certainly ain't gonna stand there, ignore the death stick's presence and calmly wait for my coffee. Nope, me sees a gun, me exits the room, PRONTO. My personal 'freedom' to buy an overpriced hot beverage has been taken away by a stranger who decided today was the day to strap-on and feel like a god. My choices are now subjugated, my safety is in question, and my decision could make the difference on whether I live or die.

Leave your gun at home, where it belongs. In a civilized society, is that too much to ask? The answer, apparently, is YES.

Typical Gun Ownership Rationale #3: Personal Freedom (Part 2).
This time, it's the concept of owning as many weapons as you get your hands on. The gun hoarding thing is really, truly confusing and scary. However, we are a nation who loves excess in all things, as demonstrated by our other national obsession: food. All-you-can eat pancakes... triple-meat cheeseburgers topped with pastrami... 3-cheese pizza with cheese baked into the crust... 40-ounce soft drinks... the Double Down. We'll stuff absolutely anything into our pie holes and go back for more, burping and belching and scarfing down antacids in anticipation of the next round. No wonder a third of our citizens are clinically obese.

Same for the gun thing. There are many among us who feel their only means of protecting themselves, their family and belongings is to amass a cache of weapons. These are the true believers, the ones who are sure their government is hell-bent to turn them into Socialist zombie-slaves. They might be living next door and you'll never know they have dozens and dozens of firearms, some likely loaded at all times just in case the Tax Police try to knock down their door and send them to indoctrination camps.

I kid... but not really.

The people I read about who actually do have a weapons cache are the quintissential anti-government types who think they will be compelled to fend off an un-American assault on their freedoms by the Communist/Fascist/Socialist/Marxist/Muslim/Usurper/Illegal Alien Comrade Obama, so they are READY. It doesn't matter that the facts don't support their reality... perception is 9/10ths of reality, so perception WINS!

But seriously, the gun hoarding seems to be a reaction to baseless fears and anxiety of 'the other', which is a uniquely American pasttime, as noted in the fine cartoon posted earlier in this essay. Hey, if having one gun is cool, having twenty is downright chill. I have heard a personal story about someone's ex-spouse where gun hoarding had gone to the extreme, which included dozens of loaded weapons stashed in the attic, buried in the backyard and several stashed in the bedroom. Why? Well... WHY NOT? I can't think of anything more conducive to rowdy wedded sexuality than loaded guns under the bed, can you?

Maybe it's simply a matter of going to excess, and if that's the case, so be it. It's been going on for quite some time now, and we are all familiar with the news stories about local police finding a massive collection of wepons in a seemingly quiet neighborhood home. The locals all tut-tut how they never had a clue about their neighbor's predeliction to collecting firearms and how shocking it all is. It could also be a reaction to the crazy directionless world that seems to surround us all, and the pile of warm guns gives us a feeling of security and safety.

Whatever. I... just... don't... get it.

So here I sit, having peeled my brain open to seek an understanding of the American gun lust. I'm not sure if I am any closer to gaining any insight, but at least I finally have a firm grasp on MY perspective, which was the point all along. As a hard-core Radical Progressive Liberal Democrat, I will always champion the notion of an individual's right to own weapons, but within reason and with a hefty dose of social consciousness and civility. As a human being, I am apalled at the casualness of our relationship with the death sticks and the destrucion they cause, but I dinna expect anything to change in my lifetime. As a Father and Son and Husband and Grandfather, I hope like hell that I never again suffer the loss of another to a bullet.

Guns are an integral part of The American Psyche, and anyone who thinks that banning them will solve the problem is fooling themselves. Ain't gonna happen. On the flip side, anyone who believes that the government is trying to take their guns away is just not paying attention. That fact is confirmed by a massive gun-buying spree from sea to shining sea, and sales of 9mm Glocks, just like the one used to pierce Gabby Gifford's brain, are breaking records because the citizenry are certain that they'll soon be separated from those lovely death sticks.

I hope that somewhere in this mass of words, my perspective has offered a note of clarity. I don't seek to change anyone's mind about guns, only to create a space for introspection and consideration. It's what we humans do best, next to polluting our planet, procreating and killing each other. But HEY... like I always say, every day above-ground is a great day.

As always, your comments are most appreciated, but PLEASE... put the piece away first!

'Happiness is a Warm Gun' by The Beatles, 'A Brief History of America' from Michael Moore's 'Bowling For Columbine' and 'Saturday Night Special' by Lynyrd Skynyrd, all via Girls with guns image courtesy of