Cult of Personality?
Daytona I was scared this past week.
I’m not usually somebody who’s afraid but I had plenty of fear last week when I heard two words: Geoffrey Bodine. Covering Speedweeks at Daytona I spent time with Geoffrey Bodine on both Tuesday and Thursday. He was gracious with his time, thoughtful with his answers and friendly not only to me, but also to everybody who walked by. Signing autographs, Bodine had a quick smile along with a studied countenance when dealing with the public. I saw Bodine after the Twin 125 race on Thursday. He knew his new team didn’t have enough car to get into the race on Sunday. Yet, he stood with his crew and his car during the post-race inspection giving encouragement, suggestions and answering questions from the media as a past champion of the Daytona 500.
On Friday when I heard of the crash at the track during the truck race I asked, “who’s involved.” That’s when I heard the words that scared me: “Geoffrey Bodine.” Now why should I have that feeling of fear in my stomach just because a guy I interviewed a couple of times last week was in a wreck doing what he’s paid to do? I don’t know the answer, but I was afraid. Afraid something terrible had happened to a driver I was secretly rooting for to do well, if only because of his panache in the garage area. I’ve talked with Geoffrey Bodine plenty of times during my 22 years of covering NASCAR. I know he wasn’t a NASCAR insider, and I also know he doesn’t know me from Adam. I also know I took another step in my education about the passion fans have for NASCAR.
A few years ago I was covering an autograph appearance by Harry Gant at a local mall. Neil Bonnett had been killed that day at Daytona and we were doing a follow-up story. The line was long to get Gant’s autograph, and a woman in line asked me what I was doing there. “I’m here to ask Harry about Neil Bonnett.” I replied. “Why, what’s going on with Neil?” she asked. Realizing she didn’t know, I whispered to her, “Neil was killed today in a wreck in Daytona.” With that, the woman trembled, fell to her knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband helped her off to the side and consoled her, and I apologized profusely to anyone who would listen. Perhaps Bonnett was a relative or a close friend. “It’s not your fault,” the husband calmly told me. “Neil’s been her favorite driver since he started,” he explained. That incident was another part of my continuing education.
Why is it fans of NASCAR become so attached to the drivers? Because they’re what fans identify with. Everybody at a race has an allegiance to Ford, Chevy or Pontiac. And they support the sponsors above their competitors. But it’s the drivers that make the sport. If Cal Ripken was traded, I’d be interested in seeing what he did on his new team, but I’d still be an Orioles fan. It’s not that way in NASCAR. When a driver changes cars (teams) he takes his fans with him. Nobody’s a fan of a car! Fans like a driver’s styles, his personality, his way of handling the car on the track. And they dislike other drivers with the same passion. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon polarize NASCAR fans more than any other drivers. “Anybody but Earnhardt,” and “Anybody but Gordon” are familiar rallying cries at tracks.
It’s the driver that counts. His name is emblazoned on hats and t-shirts, across the back windows of pick-up trucks and the windshield of cars. Fans dress like, talk like, and walk like their favorite driver. You don’t think Earnhardt drives a black car by accident do you? It’s a signal to his fans. We’re the intimidators, fear us! Jeff Gordon calls his team the Rainbow Warriors and the fans follow suit.
I don’t buy the non-fan theory about people only going to races to see the wrecks. Good driving, solid work in the garage and strategy on the track all make the competition exciting. Wrecks are spectacular, and even more so when followed by the words “how did he survive that!” Nobody sits and waits for a wreck, but they also don’t want to see a parade around the track either. Action is what made the sport and that’s what will keep its popularity growing. I’m glad Geoffrey Bodine wasn’t seriously hurt.
I won’t be afraid.