Sports is a story - in 1000 Words or Less
On November 18th, the chequered flag waved in Miami, ending the 2018 NASCAR season. Thankfully, Kyle Busch did not win the championship. My interest in NASCAR has waned over the last two or three years, but I still pay enough attention to keep track (and celebrate), when that ass-hat loses.
I know most people in Canada don’t watch racing. They might even describe NASCAR as, “…red-necks driving fast in circles,” which is sort of like saying, “…a hockey player is a failed figure skater who needs a stick to prop himself up.” Any sport can be reduced to Silly if a person isn’t interested in understanding it. But when we take the time to learn the sport and know the players, a game or race isn’t much different than a fictional story in which we cheer for the protagonist and hope he’ll ultimately triumph over the antagonist.
I was bartending in 1992 when the Blue Jays began their first World Series run. It was a good time to be a bartender—lots of happy customers tipping generously whenever the Jays were on the big screen. Their second World Series run in 1993 was equally memorable. There isn’t a Jays fan from that time who doesn’t remember Todd Stottlemyre’s ridiculous chin slide into third, or the balletic plays Roberto Alomar managed at second base, or for my part, the knot of anxiety that grew in my stomach when Joe Carter stepped up to the plate because I never knew what would happen when he swung the bat.
In 1994, when the MLB players went on strike, I traded my interest in baseball for racing, first CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), and then NASCAR.
CART had it all—a wide variety of race courses in countries around the world, crazy fast cars and a talented field, including Greg Moore, a young driver out of Maple Ridge, BC. Cheering for the “local” boy was easy. And frustrating. As fast as he was, he hadn't yet learned the cliché, “more haste, less speed.” In one race he drove over top of Christian Fittipaldi’s car before the first corner of the first lap. Given a few more years and a little more patience, he would have undoubtedly added to the five wins he accumulated in his short career. Sadly, that never came to pass. On October 31st, 1999, Greg died in Fontana during the last CART race of the season.
Alex Zanardi won the CART championship in 1997 and 1998. In 2001, in the closing laps of a race in Germany, Alex lost both legs in a horrific wreck. Less than two years later, he was back in a race car with specially designed hand controls. On the same race course on which he lost his legs, he completed the thirteen laps the accident took away from him. He did it like the competitor he is, at 194 miles per hour, as if racing for the win. There wasn’t a dry eye in the stands; it is unquestioningly one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Watching the video still gives me chills. As if conquering the world of CART weren’t enough, Zanardi went to the 2012 summer Paralympics and won a gold medal in para cycling.
A examples, these are powerful non-fictional stories of enormous scale, with the same elements as the biggest dramas on TV or in literature. And yes...for those people determined-to-misunderstand, I realize when tragedy strikes as it occasionally does in sports, the differences between reality and fiction become incomprehensibly heartbreaking and are no longer stories in the context we're discussing.
Lack of money ended the CART series. The fan base wasn’t big enough to attract advertisers so the networks couldn’t make deals to televise the races. Without races to watch, the fan base dwindled further.
One reason for CART’s small fan base was the surging popularity of NASCAR. In North America, racing is NASCAR; no other go-fast sport (F1, Rally, Le Mans), seems to interest the population. In the early 2000s, there was always some kind of NASCAR program on television—qualifying to racing to analysis. The science of going fast equalized the cars and a wave of new drivers were entering the sport—the Young Guns—who were fiercely competitive.
Forty-three drivers typically start every NACAR race. Compared to the NHL for example, with an active roster of twenty-three players on thirty-one teams (totalling as many as 713 active players), it is easy to figure out who every single driver is, rather than knowing only three or four superstars…
It’s easy to determine the protagonist and antagonist when a fan knows who’ll win humbly, who will lose as Kyle Busch does (whining like a four-year-old, blaming the car, the track and the team), and who’ll trash talk and back it up with on track retaliation. If two of “my drivers” were fender to fender into the last turn, that was good. Much better was when one of my drivers came from behind and outraced a driver I didn’t like. Split-second finishes, after-race interviews, shoving matches and fist fights have put me on the edge of the couch hollering at the television many times. Watching my driver lose a race because of mechanical failure, a flat tire, fuel issues, or a bump-and-run, made tuning in the following week mandatory, if for no other reason than to see him overcome all the adversity.
This is good-guy verses bad-guy theatre at its best.
In the last couple of years, the popularity of NASCAR has faded. A person can always find the Sunday race but there is less associated programming, making it difficult to keep track of changes in the sport. All those Young Guns I watched over the last eighteen years are retiring. I no longer know who to cheer for because I haven’t learned what makes the new guys tick. Unfortunately, Busch hasn’t given the sport a break and retired and as enjoyable as it is seeing him lose, as much pleasure as that brings, it’s not enough. To complete a story, every protagonist needs an antagonist. We want to see the hero manage the difficulties and hardship placed in his way, ultimately defeating his enemy using teamwork, skill and strength of character.
Just like when Joe Carter, down in the count, hit his ninth inning home run, vanquishing the Philadelphia Phillies,
or like Zanardi overcoming incredible misfortune and going on to win Olympic gold,
or Martin Truex Junior beating Kyle Busch by less than half a second on the final lap of the final race in the 2017 season…
…last-minute heroics by the good guy make a story, are in fact the ingredients of every story:
People + Conflict = Story
and they can give a person goosebumps, make the adrenaline pump and put tears of grief or inspiration in the eyes.
What’s your favourite story in sports?
Next time, I question what it is to be a writer.