There are all kinds of things going on in the world of sports here in late March. Baseball season's about to start. The NCAA Tournament is happening. The NBA and NHL playoff races are heating up. The New Orleans Saints just had their whole team go to jail because they're bounty hunters or something.
But I'd like to take a little time to talk about a sport that's been on my mind an awful lot as of late. Namely, NASCAR. Yes, the one where the cars go around in a circle and have pictures of M&Ms or boner pills on them. Until recently, I admittedly didn't know a whole lot about NASCAR. I mean, sure, my growing up as simple white trash meant that I've seen the film Stroker Ace no less than fifty times. Before they turned it into a Spongebob ride (and then into a license-free generic awful thing), my favorite thing at the "Paramount's Great America" amusement park was the Days of Thunder "ride." But I didn't know a whole lot about stock car racing beyond, "There's the Sprint Cup and they have a bunch of races to determine who gets it," as well as knowing a handful of racers by name.
(I have since found out that information already put me in an elite class of people, since most people who don't follow NASCAR don't even know about the Sprint Cup Series.)
But I've found a whole lot of stuff to like about NASCAR beyond the general "HOLY CRAP THE TRACK IS ON FIRE" aspect of the sport. For example, there's a race called the "Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400."
That's probably the most awesome thing I can think of, and I once thought of a bear dressed as Boba Fett.
But there are a million intricacies to stock car racing that most people don't know about, nor would it ever occur to them. And perhaps we'll discuss those intricacies at some later time.
But what I want to talk about is a very specific subset of NASCAR drivers that are referred to as "start and park" drivers. When I first heard about this subset and what they do, I imagine my face lit up like Christmas morning. Like all fans of sport who are even halfway honest with themselves, I enjoy a thorough amount of carnyism present in any business, but more than that, I appreciate hustle. Everyone's got a hustle, some are just more up front about it.
The idea behind start and park drivers is as follows: a racing team can't find a sponsor, but they've got a driver and a car, as well as a set of tires. If they qualify to get into a race, they can win a share of the prize money. They likely can't win the race, because they don't have the funds to really compete at that level. Similarly, if they try to run the whole race and place highly, they run the risk of wrecking their car, not having enough tires, or worse, which leaves them with a big loss rather than a small profit.
So these teams have their driver qualify for the race, start the race, run ... oh, say five or eight laps, cite a mechanical issue, head to the garage and call it a day. Often, these start and park drivers don't bring any backup tires or parts or even (in some cases) bring a pit crew, because all of these things are expensive as heck. Do you know how much a set of NASCAR-appropriate tires is? Let me give you an analogy. You know how you'll need new tires for your car, but you put it off forever and ever, because buying a set of tires at Costco will set you back a few hundred bucks? Well, the NASCAR tires are way more expensive than that.
Many NASCAR fans don't approve of start and park drivers, since they think it cheapens the race. It is clear that these fans don't enjoy or appreciate hustle. These drivers and their teams are just doing what they have to do to make some money and make it to the next race. And they've found a way to do it without sponsorship. What's more honest than that? It's as American as George Washington chopping down an apple tree to make pie or whatever.
The start and park driver can also make for the unexpected feel-good story. Dave Blaney, for example. Blaney is a longtime veteran of NASCAR who has had to resort to starting and parking more recently as of late. Yet, he was unexpectedly in the lead in the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer during a caution and caught the track on fire. Blaney was unexpectedly in the lead when the red flag came out and while they determined whether to continue the race, he stood a chance of winning it all if they called it off. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. But there was that glimmer of hope.
This is just one small part of what makes NASCAR so interesting. We'll take a look at some others as time goes on, but the next time (or the first time) you watch a race, take note of who packs it in after just a few laps, because they just might be your new hero.