SBJ/Feb. 14-20, 2011/In Depth

Predictable interviews hurting race appeal

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In an effort to learn more about fans’ relationships with drivers, we asked panelists how they picked their favorite drivers and why they find them interesting.
All seven panelists said they picked their favorite driver because of his background, personality or relatability.
All seven panelists agreed that drivers were more scripted today than any time in NASCAR history, and that caused them to consume less NASCAR content.
None of the panelists identified Jimmie Johnson as his or her favorite driver, and six of seven panelists said that the five-time champion’s dominance has hurt the sport.

Why did you become a fan of who you follow today?

Helen: I like Denny Hamlin because he’s a clean driver. He’s very ambitious. He has so much potential.

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Fans look up to drivers who are willing to show their personality and not be too vanilla.
Michael: I was always a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan. When Junior came along — my dad’s a senior and I’m a junior — I just figured, “I’m going to pull for Junior.” When Senior died, I just kept pulling for him.

Kevin: My favorite driver used to be Dale Earnhardt Sr. He was a good character for the sport and a leader for the sport, and I really don’t think anybody has come along that has filled his shoes.

Dan: Jeff [Gordon] was a guy that was a role model not just for his sport but for all sports. I picked up on him because he came from outside the mold and established himself as the superior driver for his era in the mid-’90s. He didn’t come out of the South. He came out of the Midwest by way of California.

Susan: I was a Dale Sr. fan. Originally it was the legacy piece of it [that led me to Dale Jr.]. But for me now, you can see the exuberance and the joy that he experiences with every race. It’s like every race is his first race.

Bo: The biggest thing I enjoy about watching Tony [Stewart] race is his competitiveness. I don’t think these guys hop in a race car to finish second. Tony hops in there and it echoes a bit of Dale Earnhardt and the way he drove.

Terri: The thing about Clint [Bowyer] that really draws me is just his background. He’s a hardscrabble racer, short tracks from the Midwest. Really a hardworking guy. He’s got a phenomenal sense of humor. He flirted with me in the autograph line, so that didn’t hurt. And also he’s very genuine.

Are drivers more or less interesting today than they used to be? And how does that affect your interest in the sport?

Helen: I like Dale [Earnhardt’s] story because he was out there and he had to win because he had to pay his bills. Now, it’s different. It’s about the fame. It’s about the celebrity status. It’s a different type of motivation for these younger guys.

Dan: For a time period there — I referred to it as the regulatory era — the more NASCAR stepped in to regulate the sport, the less interesting drivers got. I don’t know if it’s because they had to deal with sponsors or what, but it seems like they got really vanilla for a while. Hopefully, this new “Boys Have At It” era is going to bring more personality out.

Does drivers being vanilla or scripted make you watch NASCAR less or attend fewer races? Has it in any way impacted how you consume NASCAR?

Terri: It’s impacted how I consume some of the peripheral programming. If I know exactly what someone’s going to say, I’m not going to bother listening.

Michael: The interviews aren’t as interesting as they used to be. You kind of used to look forward to the interviews after the race, especially if there was a wreck on track. You’d want to hear what the guy who got wrecked would say. “I’m going to get him next week,” or something like that. Now, if you say you’re going to wreck somebody — Denny Hamlin did that a couple of years ago, and he got penalized.

Susan: I tune out on the postrace. You really lose me after the burnout and they get the trophy and you start interviewing the second, third, fourth, fifth [finisher] or whatever. They’re all saying the same thing. They spit out their sponsors and it’s pretty much a script.

Does the manufacturer interest you — Chevy, Ford, Dodge, Toyota — the team, or just the driver?

Kevin: I’m personally a big Ford fan, which hasn’t gotten me very far in NASCAR lately. Yet my favorite driver ever was a Chevrolet driver, so I guess I don’t put a lot of emphasis on that. ... I can’t say that sways me one way or the other to a driver.

Michael: I’m actually a big Chevy fan. The manufacturers back in the ’80s were big with Bill Elliott and Earnhardt. That actually sold stuff at the dealerships. Now the cars have nothing to do with the real looks of them. Over the years, they’re going to try and get more of that look from the factory back to them kind of how they did with the Busch Series.

Helen: I’m loyal to Toyota. I drive a Toyota. But it has nothing to do with the car. It’s the driver. The cars look the same on the track.

Dan: I suffer from the same identity crisis as [Kevin]. I’m a Ford guy in the outside world but I root for Jeff, and if Jeff falls out then I’m a Tony guy, and if Tony falls out then I start rooting for the Fords. That’s my hierarchy.

Not one person has brought up Jimmie Johnson. He’s the most dominant person in the sport. Why isn’t he resonating with you?

Kevin: What he has done in any sport would be considered amazing. But even if I was a Jimmie Johnson fan — enough is enough. There are times I won’t watch a race because I’m tired of seeing him running out front all the time.

Helen: Do I think he’s a great driver? Of course I think he’s a great driver. But can I put him up and say he’s the greatest driver ever? No. I think he has the right formula and that makes him a success.

Dan: He hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment of the sport at all. It’s unfortunate really for him and the sport that he hasn’t attracted or garnered the accolades for what he has done. This is a historic thing. As a Gordon fan, I went through this in the ’90s. Everybody said it was the equipment. It was the crew chief. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. But I don’t think Jimmie Johnson runs in different equipment than a guy that runs for Roush or Richard Childress. They’re all putting the same amount of money into it and all have engineers working for the team.

Terri: You [can) draw a correlation between when Jimmie obtained his level of success and what we were talking about a few minutes ago around the “vanilla period.” When he came of age and realized most of his talent was when the personality clamp was tightest on all of these drivers.

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