Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: A complex love affair with NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE -- Mike Pyle hates the Chase. He hates the Car of Tomorrow ("There was nothing wrong with the Car of Yesterday," he says. "It ran fine.")

Pyle hates mysterious debris cautions. He hates the "Lucky Dog" rule. He hates cookie-cutter racetracks. He hates arbitrary punishments that NASCAR hands out. He hates that all the cars look the same. He hates when drivers get penalized for wrecking somebody ("Rubbin's racin," he says. "If you got a problem, suck it up, buttercup.")

But here's the thing: He loves NASCAR.


So there was Pyle on Friday at Martinsville Speedway, walking through the midway with his girlfriend, Liz Duffy. The couple from Greensboro, N.C., will be in the stands today, just like they always are.

"We still have fun no matter where we go," said Duffy, 43. "We like walking around and seeing everybody. We love watching the race. You're sitting up there, and hopefully, you're crammed into the seats with everybody else."

Today, that will depend on where she's sitting. There will be some empty seats here. There are empty seats at racetracks everywhere these days. NASCAR is struggling, if you hadn't heard.

So naturally, we moan and wring our hands and ask why. We focus on the problems and complaints.

And that's OK. Necessary, even.


But today, when the race comes to our backyard, is not a day to rip NASCAR. Today is a day to celebrate NASCAR.

So that's what I set out to do Friday: Find people who still are coming to the racetrack, then ask them why they come. You know, get something positive into the newspaper.

The problem? Many NASCAR fans -- even the most diehard ones -- can't do positive. Not exclusively. Rarely will you see fans more passionate, yet rarely will you see people so quick to torch the sport they love.

So even in discussions about the positive, you'll sometimes get the negative.

"For me, it's like an addiction," said John Shelton, 44, of Danville, who's been a racing fan since age 5. "In spite of the issues, it's the best thing going."

Then, without prompting, he added this:

"I'd be in favor of going back to the traditional points system. I think the Chase does run some people away."

But not Keith and Yvonne Wilk. They're not fond of a lot of things NASCAR has done, yet they still drive down here each spring and fall from central Pennsylvania. Watching on TV just isn't the same.

"You get to see every lap here," said Keith Wilk, 51. "No commercials. Every lap."

He then went on to rip much of what happens during those laps.

His wife, who bought several hundred dollars worth of Kevin Harvick souvenirs Friday, said it would be impossible for anything to drive her away from the sport -- but she's got some issues with it.

"NASCAR has a lot of control," Yvonne Wilk said. "Too much control. Let 'em bump and grind and hit each other out there."

Sandy Montgomery of Hillsville has seen every bump and grind at this track for nearly three decades. The principal of Willis Elementary School in Floyd County, she attends 10 to 12 races a year, including both Martinsville weekends.

"I still love it," she said. "I've loved it since 1982. I love it because racing is still exciting. The old thing of rubbin' is racin' is still there. It's the excitement. It's the fans. It's how much the drivers put into it; it's their whole life. I talk racing all the time."

Hmm ... perhaps we found the one.

So let's see if we have this straight: She's still head-over-heels for this sport, even with all the changes of recent years?

"The Chase did bother me at one time, but now I just look at it like everything changes," Montgomery said. "Martinsville used to have a big duck pond here. That's changed. We used to come and there were all types of different flowering trees out here. All that's changed. Things change over the years. The sport has evolved. You have to evolve with the sport to keep it moving, to keep it growing."

Sandy, NASCAR could kiss you.

And then we'd rip it for being too fresh.

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