Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Madhouse" Belongs In The Outhouse

Last night, The History Channel debuted its new auto racing reality show, fittingly dubbed "Madhouse."

The show chronicles the races and racers at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, NC, NASCAR's longest running weekly racetrack, and one of the country's most successful operations. Every week, fans jam the cramped confines of Bowman Gray to experience the excitement, color and passion of racing on a quarter-mile bullring. And when word was received that a reality show would be based on the track and its drivers, hopes were high.

It didn't take long for those hopes to be dashed.

In the opening 10 minutes of the program, the producers of “Madhouse” set an extremely low bar, rolling out a series of one-dimensional, redneck stereotypes that set the sport of stock car racing back 50 years. They spend the remainder of the hour failing to clear that bar.

Drivers Junior Miller and Burt Myers are Bowman Gray’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys. They don’t wear bib overalls, chew on stalks of grass or tote shotguns through the pit area, but their hatred for each other – and their seeming willingness to wreck each other at any price – is what drives the show.

Miller is portrayed as the “bad guy” of Bowman Gray Stadium, and seems to revel in the role. If the opening hour-long installment is to be believed -– and I’m not sure it is -- Miller lives for no other reason than to put Burt Myers in the wall. Miller’s every utterance seems to concern Myers and what he plans to do to his rival the next time he gets close enough to wreck him. The people surrounding Miller don’t come off well, either. The waitresses at his restaurant berate Myers, his wife berates him, even Miller’s dog growls when asked if he likes Burt Myers.

By comparison, Myers wears the white hat. A stay-at-home dad, Myers is pictured caring for his infant son while speaking in comparatively measured terms about “racing Junior Miller the way he races me.”

The grandstands at Bowman Gray are always packed. Unfortunately, the only fans shown on "Madhouse" are those caught screaming four-letter words and extending their middle fingers in rage. At one point, the producers attempt to illustrate the fervor of stock car racing at BGS by showing a group of five-year olds shouting, “Junior Miller sucks.”


Not everything about “Madhouse” is distasteful. A short period of Sunday's season premier was spent illustrating the technology associated with modified racing, providing a fleeting glimpse of actual education and intelligence.

Underdog Chris Fleming provided an endearing example of what racers often endure in the name of competition. A self-described “one man band,” Fleming fields his modified partly by repairing bent and broken parts scrounged from other teams. One of the few endearing moments of the hour came when Fleming wept while speaking of the sacrifices his wife has made in order to keep him on the racetrack.

Track champion Tim Brown is also portrayed in a favorable light, remarking in the show’s opening minutes that the more Miller and Myers wreck each other, the easier it is for him to win. Sadly, Fleming and Brown inhabit a tiny island of normalcy in the ocean of insanity portrayed as Bowman Gray Stadium.

I say “portrayed as” because I don’t believe BGS is as bad as the producers of “Madhouse” make it seem. Reality TV has long been dogged by allegations of opportunistic editing and participants who ramp-up the drama. While not working from prepared scripts, Miller, Myers and company obviously know what's expected of them. They deliver the trash-talk and drama, relentlessly teasing the cataclysm to come without actually laying a wheel on each other.

I’ve been around racetracks all my life, and until last night, I had never heard a driver say, “I am the greatest.” Last night, every driver said it. On “Madhouse,” everyone trash talks the competition as if they're being paid by the four-letter word.

“Burt Myers hates Junior because he can’t beat him,” huffs Miller’s wife.

“We’d don’t have good equipment,” crows Brown. “We have THE BEST equipment.”

“They call me `The Showstopper,’” says Fleming, “because the show doesn’t start `till I get to he front.”

And when good-guy Fleming finishes second in the season opener (after both Miller and Myers fail to finish), Miller remarks that “he only finished second `cause all the good cars got knocked out.”

Maybe arrogance really is the common denominator at Bowman Gray Stadium, but nobody is as unfailingly obnoxious as “Madhouse” portrays its characters to be. Last night’s season premiere featured good guys, bad guys, and nothing in between. There’s plenty of black and white, but not a single shade of gray. The villains have no redeeming qualities, and the heroes never utter a discouraging word.

Real life is not that way.

“Madhouse” caters to non-race fans, at one point explaining that qualifying is important because the polesitter starts up front and earns the shortest route around the track. Sadly, the only thing first-timers really learned last night is that stock car racing is a haven for semi-educated, trash-talking roughnecks with more front bumper than brains.

“Madhouse” is obtuse, obscene and disgustingly violent. It’s Jerry Springer on racing slicks. Sunday night's show ended with a “join us next week” montage of fistfights, handcuffs and obscenities, putting the finishing touches on a thoroughly distasteful portrayal of racing in the south.

There was one positive development, though. After watching the opening installment of “Madhouse,” I no longer consider “Days Of Thunder” to be the worst portrayal in the history of motorsports.

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