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Fixing What's Broke
That sentiment isn't uncommon. NASCAR fans have a perverse relationship with winners, particularly nice guys with smooth corporate relationships. Guilty as charged, says Johnson, who isn't about to apologize for it. "I am who I am," he says. "I've always chosen to be friends to people and not try to be a jerk." Fans think of him as privileged, even though his dad worked in construction and his mother drove a school bus. As for being the buttoned-up company man, Johnson points out that in modern-day NASCAR, the only way he could finance his racing dream was to heighten his appeal. "I didn't have any family money," he says. "My only opportunity was to play the corporate game, and I did it at the top level."
The fans' failure to appreciate his work clearly irks Johnson. After his postvictory press conference, Johnson pulled me aside. "After you walked away, I thought about it," he says. "Was it bad for basketball that Michael Jordan did what he did? Or Lance Armstrong with cycling?" Of course not. But Johnson is currently the Yankees of NASCAR, not necessarily ideal for a Southern sport.
Something needs to be done. In what has to be one of the great corporate-culture turnarounds, NASCAR's ruling France family, now headed by Brian France, has actively solicited ideas from fans, owners, drivers and other players with a stake in the game. "I never dreamed 10 or 15 years ago that a France would say, 'Let's get together and have a fireside chat,' " says Hendrick. "Hell, you were scared to say anything."
The big change has been to try to make the racing racier. For example, last season the circuit instituted double-file restarts. Now, the drivers line their cars up side by side instead of single-file while waiting for the race to resume after a caution flag. The policy encourages more passing. NASCAR also eliminated the rear wing from the Car of Tomorrow, a futuristic wrinkle that always looked out of place in stock-car racing, and brought back the more familiar, bladelike rear spoiler. The idea: keep more downforce on the car, which improves its balance and thus encourages drivers to take more chances.
NASCAR also has to deal with shorter attention spans its races can last upwards of four hours, even longer. Says ESPN NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty, a former NBA All-Star who owns part of a Sprint Cup race team, JTG Daugherty Racing: "I mean, I've got a car running, but I'll put the race on, watch the first part and go walk away and do something else. I'll go screw around with my car or something like that, go to the store, and when I come back, the race is still on!"
According to France, NASCAR is considering changing its points system, which currently rewards sustained excellence over the 36-race season rather than giving huge bonuses to drivers who win races. Give drivers more incentive to take the checkered flag, and you'll likely see more bumping and grinding on the track. "If we think we can make winning more important and the racing more exciting, that's what we'll do," says France.
Another thing NASCAR desperately needs is a shot of diversity. Only a few African Americans, for example, roamed the Bristol grounds on race day. Hispanics were equally absent. "Let's face it. It's a redneck sport," says Monica Spencer, an African-American fan from Elizabethtown, Ky., at the Bristol race. "I just happen to be from a redneck state." Daugherty, who is black, insists the sport will need a Tiger Woods to expand its appeal. "Until we get a face of color onto the big stage," he says, "we're not going to see faces of color in the stands." Is any such driver close to the starting line? Says Daugherty: "I don't see him out there."
NASCAR has started a diversity program that aims to identify and train women and minority drivers. France calls diversity one of the sport's two major strategic goals the other being to capitalize on a green economy over the next decade. "We're going to have a breakthrough," France insists. "We just will."
And he may be right. NASCAR has proved it can get things done as the Car of Tomorrow, unloved though it may be, has demonstrated. Maybe NASCAR can't make Jimmie Johnson throw a punch in anger. But as long as its cars are designed for maximum safety, the sport can figure out a way to return to have-at-it racing. And then the wreck-loving fans will blot out the green spaces in the campgrounds of Bristol once again.