I’ll ask the question. Are we race fans, or wreck fans?

cathyelliottI was talking with Darlington (S.C.) County Treasurer Belinda Copeland last week and we were having a bit of fun over some of the topics I have recently addressed in this column, and how some of my comments may have come across as being a bit negative. The word “harsh” may have come up.

Belinda is that rare type of person who believes everyone is entitled to their opinion – and this, remember, is an opinion column – and she offered me some much-needed and greatly appreciated words of encouragement: “Just say what you think!”

I thanked her and told her half-jokingly that I was planning to try to redeem myself a little bit this week by writing a warm-and-fuzzy piece on the subject of Mr. Tony Stewart, and I really meant it at the time. Honestly, I did.

Then, the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway happened. After lurking at the back of the field in the early stages of the race, Stewart surged to the top five, only to crash out with 12 laps remaining when his car got loose, sending him into the wall and the infield care center rather than to Victory Lane. This mishap followed an earlier crash that took 22 cars out of the race … and no one batted an eye.

Which brings us to one of my most troubling NASCAR soapboxes. Restrictor plate racing and the heart-stopping incidents it creates has made one burning question stand out in my mind over the years: Are we race fans, or wreck fans?

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I feel that restrictor plate races are starting to resemble bad traffic accidents on the Interstate. You don’t want to watch, but you just can’t seem to help yourself, and it’s really starting to get on my nerves.

We’ve even given these horrific things a name – “the Big One,” a huge chain reaction accident that generally takes out about half the field and yields a few fights and plenty of choice words from drivers. There are injuries; sometimes bad ones. I feel safe in saying that the majority of fans who watch these races expect to see a wreck of this type, and are actually disappointed if at least one car doesn’t go airborne.

It was after one of these events back in 2011, remember, that Tony Stewart wryly shared his “disappointment” at the low attrition rate. “I’m upset that we didn’t crash more cars,” the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion said convincingly. “That’s what we’re here for. I feel bad if I don’t spend at least $150,000 in torn-up race cars going back to the shop. We’ve definitely got to do a better job at that.”

Maybe it’s because I recently binge-watched Season 6 of Game of Thrones or have read one too many Philippa Gregory novels, but I have come to feel that the atmosphere surrounding restrictor plate races has become almost medieval. Barbaric, even.

In Tudor England and Westeros alike, those poor souls who were ratted out for saying something that might have been construed as disloyal to the crown – AKA treason – were the stars of a show that droves of people turned out to watch, with kids and picnic lunches in tow. It was a real spectacle. The day generally involved an ax man, a basket and a foregone conclusion, but hey, the viewer market share was outstanding. It was gruesome and terrifying … and the spectators loved it.

Beloved fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., known for his skill at restrictor plate racing, has been famously quoted as calling it “bloodthirsty. If this was how we raced every week, I’d find another job … I don’t even want to go to Daytona and Talladega, but I ain’t got much choice,” he said. “If that’s what people want, that’s ridiculous.”

I’m with Junior on this one. When did we as a nation embrace voyeurism at its worst, becoming excited at the prospect of potential damage to both man and machine? When did we become willing to actually PAY for it? How much farther are we willing to go?

On second thought, don’t answer that. I just don’t want to know.

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