The Upside

Okay, we might as well get this out of the way now. I love
Formula One racing. Can’t stand NASCAR.
Okay, we might as well get this out of the way now. I love Formula One racing. Can’t stand NASCAR.

Yes, I’m one of those elitist snobs you’re always hearing about … a real Blue-State euro-weeny.

By all means, dial up the Green Phone with your harsh words, but first, please hear me out.

I own an old motorcycle and an even older sports car, neither of which work very well. So going fast is something that I enjoy a lot during those rare times that one or the other is out of the shop and running. I’ve been a pretty serious race fan for a little over five years now. An old friend of mine raced Formula Fords on Colorado’s Sports Car Club of America circuit and, after attending one of the series’ race weekends, I found myself instantly hooked on open-wheel racing.

So began the grueling ritual of keeping up with my new favorite sport, F1.

For two years, I woke up at 5am every other Sunday to watch the latest installment of open-wheel excitement, coming to me live via satellite from places like Malaysia, Monaco and Sao Paolo. It got so the hushed tones and clipped speech of the supremely British race announcers no longer sent me into giggling fits.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. F1 consists of a bunch of overpaid European metrosexuals with terrible attitudes, bad teeth and no likable personality whatsoever. You also might be wondering how one manages to stay awake to watch three hours of F1 racing given the fact that it can be pretty boring at times. There isn’t a lot of passing. The drivers don’t “trade paint” or give an opponent a nudge through a corner. Such behavior in a Formula One race could get somebody killed.

With all that in mind, I have to say that, try as I might, I simply can’t bring myself to follow NASCAR and constantly find myself wondering why its popularity continues to grow at an amazing rate while F1 struggles to assert itself into the mainstream of American sports culture.

Now, don’t get me wrong, 200 mph is impressive any way you look at it. But, given the choice, I’ll take open-wheel any day of the week. Here are a couple of my reasons:

No racing in the rain for NASCAR. Why not? The series is billed as featuring the best of the best drivers around. Why are they so adverse to racing in the wet? Crashing and fender bending seems to be a big part of stock car racing’s appeal so it would stand to reason that the havoc that inevitably ensues on a soaked racetrack would be more than welcome in the NASCAR world. Rain or shine, the F1 show goes on.

The build-up. In F1, the two-week lead-up to a race, the practice sessions and the qualifying runs are a show in themselves. Will Williams fit out their cars with new braking technology to counter Ferrarri’s expected edge on a hairpin track? Will the Firestones hold up in damp conditions at Suzuka? The whole circus is heaven for a car geek.

The start. The start of a Formula One race commands an extreme amount of concentration from the drivers. When the starting lights go out on the tree above the grid, the best getaway driver can make up for an average qualifying spot by timing his launch off the line and maneuvering through the slower starters before getting to the track’s first corner, usually at speeds in excess of 100 mph. The rolling start of a NASCAR event just doesn’t seem to capture the level of precision and concentration that the start-from-zero opening of a F1 race does.

The technology. Nothing against American automobile manufacturers, but does anyone out there really believe that a Dodge or a Chevy could hold a candle to the likes of a Ferrari, a McLaren or a race-bred BMW? I also can’t help but wonder what would happen if manufacturers like Toyota which are average performers in F1 were made a part of the NASCAR lineup. Would they struggle to keep up with the established big four or would they wind up dominating the sport in a matter of a couple of years?

The turns. Nothing against racing in circles … check that. Everything against racing in circles. The elegant curves on an F1 track reflect the roads we all drive on, require the skills we all need in our daily commutes. Drivers in F1 often have to … gasp … make right turns as well as lefts. And is there a more perfect, more beautiful racing course in the world than Monaco?

Now to the pro-NASCAR argument. The sport is incredibly fan-friendly. I attended the United States Grand Prix at the Brickyard in 2001 and had an amazing time. And, while I have never been to a NASCAR event, I have talked to people who follow both forms of racing and they tell me that the atmosphere for say, the Daytona 500, is far more social than that of a Formula One weekend. NASCAR drivers are more accessible and I’m told that the feel in the stands is a lot like one found at a rivalry football game.

The action in a NASCAR race is heart pounding to say the least. The drivers, like in F1, push themselves and their machines to the limit. But unlike F1, the average NASCAR race features much more passing and lead changes. On the Grand Prix circuit, the leader after 10 laps stands a much better chance of finishing in first than his NASCAR counterpart, who will have to deal with numerous passing attempts by other drivers before taking the checkered flag.

Michael Schumacher makes F1 tough to watch. Schumacher, one of the world’s top-three highest-paid athletes, has simply dominated the F1 scene since I started following it. After two years of watching Schumacher dismantle the competition in his Ferrari, I found myself longing for Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya to dethrone the German automaton. But it never happened. And it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. NASCAR, on the other hand, is always in a state of flux. Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are always going to be up there in the standings. But, unlike in F1, where Schumacher annually wraps up the championship midway through the season, the NASCAR crown is almost always up for grabs right up until the very last race.

So, there’s some food for thought. I’m looking forward to covering some racing this season. From youth karting to the action at the Watsonville track, I can’t wait for the action to start, with our local racers thick in the mix. In the meantime, I would be more than open to some friendly debate on which is better, NASCAR or open wheel.

Josh Staloch is the Sports Editor of the Hollister Free Lance. E-mail him at [email protected]

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