What makes fans hate certain drivers? Does familiarity breed contempt – as the old saying goes -- or is ignorance more to blame?
I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, and it truly baffles me.
Today’s broadcast and print media give fans more access to NASCAR drivers than ever before. That’s the good news, and the bad news. We get to see Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and the Busch Brothers up-close and personal, just seconds after some of the most emotional moments in sports.
“Hey Mark Martin, you just lost the Daytona 500! Whattaya think about that?”
Sometimes, they don’t react the way we would like them to. They get angry, snappish, foul-mouthed and vindictive, prompting some fans to label them “crybabies” and admonish them to “shut up and drive.” One week later, when they bite their tongues in the face of disappointment, they are criticized for being “NASCAR clones;” afraid to say anything that might offend sponsors, or be seen as politically incorrect.
It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met. Easy, but illogical. You may think you know Michael Waltrip from what you’ve seen on Inside NASCAR Nextel Cup, but you don’t. There’s also more to Tony Stewart than the videotape SportsCenter ran of that garage area temper tantrum in 2002.
I know most of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers to one degree or another, and I can honestly say that I don’t hate any of them. Not even close. Most of the men who drive Nextel Cup stock cars are the genuine article; sincere in their dealings with the fans, fair and cooperative with the media, sportsmen both on and off the racetrack. A couple of them have public personae that don’t exactly mesh with reality, but all in all, they’re a good group of guys. And yet, an astonishing number of fans across the country willingly use the word “hate” when describing at least one of them.
I am amazed by the passion with which some of these self-described “fans” hate. There are legions of seemingly-sane individuals who will go to their graves arguing that Jeff Gordon’s five championships are illegitimate, due to “Hendrick favoritism.” There are others who believe NASCAR exists only to screw poor Mark Martin. There are fans who pray daily for Sterling Marlin’s demise because “he killed Dale Earnhardt,” and others who believe Dale, Jr., wins only because Brian France orders it to be so.
When their driver falls on hard times, they bombard the racetrack with trash and empty beer cans, then hurry home to flood the internet message boards with paranoid conspiracy theories. They remember decades-old incidents like they were yesterday, assigning blame instantly and hating forever the men unlucky enough to be judged guilty . They wear distasteful t-shirts that encourage their fellow racefans to “F—K (Insert Driver Here),” or question that driver’s sexual orientation.
It’s juvenile, boorish, senseless…and incredibly heartfelt.
It’s baffling, if you ask me.
These fans – a small majority, admittedly -- take a sporting event designed as entertainment, and make it larger than life. They allow it to consume a percentage of their lives that no mere hobby should ever be allowed to consume.
And worst of all, they try to get the rest of us to play along.
Personally, I’m not playing.
In America, you have the right to hate someone because they drive a certain racecar, if you so choose. You also have the right to express that hate, within legal limits. It seems to me, though, that there are far better uses for that energy. Rather than hating someone you’ve never met for something they did on a racetrack 1,500 miles away, channel that energy into something positive. Make a contribution to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the American Red Cross or the American Cancer Society in your favorite driver’s name. Mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or take the neighborhood kids to your local short track.
Hating accomplishes nothing. It ruins your enjoyment of the sport, and mine.
We can do better than that.