Thursday, August 04, 2005
Reality on wheels
Roush Racing's 'gong show' will soon be a made-for-TV event
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MARTINSVILLE — The sun glints off the empty metal grandstands at Martinsville Speedway as a lone racing truck quietly pulls onto pit road. Two television cameramen press forward, aiming their lenses at the young female driver inside.
The window net comes down. A boom mike drops in from above. A member of Roush Racing strikes up a conversation with the driver about the test run. A lot of the chat is technical …
So wait. This is a reality television series? This is going to fill 13 weeks of hour-long episodes on the Discovery Channel come October?
Sure doesn’t look too riveting at first glance. But then again, the island of “Survivor” probably looked pretty boring most of the time, too, and we all know how that worked out for CBS.
Fact is, there is some real drama developing down here this week, as 25 young drivers compete for a prime spot in Roush Racing’s stable. There is tension. There is excitement. There is anticipation, and it’s all being captured on tape.
But the tape will need plenty of editing.
“There’s been a lot of down time with this,” Johnny Clark, a 25-year-old driver from Maine, said Tuesday afternoon as he awaited his turn on the track. “Way more down time than I’m used to. I’m really anxious, and I can’t wait to get out there.”
Clark was one of more than 1,700 drivers who applied for the opportunity to compete in Roush’s annual selection process known as the “gong show.” The winner will receive a fully sponsored ride in the 2006 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with one of the premier teams in stock-car racing.
Two women and 23 men — ranging in age from 18-year-old Bubba Pollard to 28-year-old Sondi Eden — made the cut this year, the first time the event has been televised.
Most of the competitors met in Charlotte on Sunday and were bused to a hotel in Martinsville, with Discovery Channel cameras following along. Monday was a big television day, as introductions and informal shots were taped in and around town.
The first phase of the competition began early Monday morning and will conclude today in Martinsville. The second and final phase will be taped at Darlington Raceway later this month.
Cuts will be made along the way, although drivers have been kept in the dark on how and when these will occur. All they know is that the field will be whittled to 12 before the second round begins on Aug. 15.
“We’re asking all the time, thinking that someone will slip, but nobody has yet,” Clark said with a smile. “They won’t tell us anything. They’re doing a good job of that.”
It’s all part of the evaluation process. Not only are the people at Roush looking for fast drivers, but they’re also looking for unflappable ones.
“Pressure is part of the sport,” said Torrey Galida, Roush’s senior vice president of marketing. “It’s something they would have to deal with every day. This format certainly provides ample pressure.”
The pressure varies based on the driver’s background. Michael Pickens, a 22-year-old competitor from New Zealand, said his biggest challenge is adjusting from dirt tracks of his homeland to the pavement of Martinsville. Danny O’Quinn, 20, of Coeburn, is the only Virginian in the competition. Even though he ran in Martinsville’s annual Late Model Stock race in 2001, he still felt the pressure of trying to adjust to the new surface at the paper clip-shaped track.
“The best thing to do is just come out here and run the best you can,” said O’Quinn, who currently competes on three different racing circuits. “That’s all you can do. That’s the way I approach it.”
The on-track evaluation is actually pretty brief. Drivers are allowed 10 laps to get acquainted with the track. Twenty timed laps follow, then drivers make adjustments with Roush crew members. After 20 more timed laps, the driving part is over.
The evaluation has just begun, though. Roush observes how drivers interact with media (speedway public relations director Mike Smith counted 26 media outlets who have dropped by this week to check this out) and determines how marketable they would be in today’s image-conscious NASCAR climate.
Having the Discovery Channel on hand certainly adds to that dimension. The cable network, which will begin airing the series on Oct. 31, views this as an opportunity to explore the human drama of the young drivers while giving viewers an insider’s look at one of racing’s most successful teams.
“It’s very important to us to capture the credibility of this process,” said Gena McCarthy, the series executive producer for the Discovery Channel. “We’re not manipulating behind the scenes and suggesting that they select this or that driver. We’re not altering what is a very real business decision for [team owner] Jack Roush and Roush Racing.”
The drivers all hope they can be the next Kurt Busch, who won a less publicized gong show in 1999 and went on to become last season’s Nextel Cup champion. But simply making it this far promises to be a boon to their careers.
Even if they don’t win, perhaps they could become racing’s version of Clay Aiken, who came up short in “American Idol” but used the exposure to outshine winner Ruben Studdard.
“I’d like nothing more than to be here at Roush,” said Jason Hogan, a 22-year-old Georgian. “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. But you just sit here and hope and do your best, and hopefully you’ll end up with this team.”
Will he? When the editing’s finished, we’ll find out.