Six years ago, in an ill-advised attempt to latch onto the burgeoning reality television trend, NASCAR team owner Jack Roush partnered with the Discovery Channel to televise his annual "gong show" - a series of tests to pick prospect drivers for the Roush Racing system.
The resulting show, Driver X, was a flop, mostly because the whole thing seemed far too staged to capture audiences' imaginations. The unnecessary dramatics surrounding who was staying and who was going appeared tacked on and out of place - and, worse, the folks entrusted to "act it up" for the camera were wholly incapable of performing with any natural panache.
Driver X is of forensic curiosity, however, because certain segments showed just how aggressively-staged the NASCAR world is becoming... including one eye-opening segment where the contestants had to choose and rehearse their preferred "genuine" Victory Lane gimmick in front of the team's judges.
Last weekend's Honda Indy Toronto, on the other hand, was a couple hours' worth of the completely unexpected. The script that everyone had expected - Will Power dominating the race from flag to flag with the Ganassi boys not far behind, with the rest of the field a zip code away - was thrown out the window, replaced with something that left everyone scratching and shaking their heads.
Better yet, it featured Will Power ranting on camera. The mild-mannered Aussie let fly with such a vitriolic diatribe that some wondered if he was still suffering from the after-effects of his Iowa concussion. It was so unexpected, so disconnected from the equanimity that we have come to expect from the Toowoomba native, that even the scandalized fans could not help but be glued to their TVs to see what he'd say next.
With all of that off-script action, is it any wonder that the Honda Indy Toronto was the highest-rated race ever broadcast on Versus? And do you believe for one second that fans won't be tuning in for the next Toronto race to see if the craziness continues?
That is, in fact, why fans love racing so much - it boasts the unexpected, and the unexpected is thrilling. But when fans know that "spontaneous" moments are, in reality, planned meticulously beforehand - for instance, when a driver can only emerge from his car in Victory Lane on a cue from a camera crew and has a PR rep prompting his remarks with cue cards just off camera - it changes the spice to staleness.
NASCAR, for their part, spent years trying to clean up their overall image to become more attractive to corporate sponsors. The problem is that the rough, unfiltered world of stock car racing didn't become popular because the drivers were good salesmen. Jeff Gordon's bland excellence and sponsor-friendly attitude was at first an aberration to folks used to the Cale Yarboroughs and Dale Earnhardts of stock car racing - but in 2011 nearly the entire field is full of the same type of sponsor-friendly driver whose personalities are studiously kept out of the limelight.
IndyCar's image problem over the past 30 years or so has sprung from similar causes - the influx of European-trained drivers also replicated the distant, aloof atmosphere of the European paddocks. Not a function of driver nationality, it was instead a function of manners and propriety that distanced the competitors from their fans. It was, indeed, an adaptation of social class stratification that only the devastating effects of the Split and the crucial need for the drivers to connect personally with fans has reversed in recent years.
Is Verizon happy that their "spokesdriver" Will Power spent a solid two minutes calling other drivers "wankers" and Race Control brown-nosers? Most likely not. But most of the fans ate it up, and chances are very good that Power earned some new fans by being so bluntly honest - as ill-advised as it might have been from a PR standpoint.
I hope to see more emotion like that from racing, because racing is an emotional sport. Without that emotional spark, it becomes a group engineering exercise. People might as well take popcorn and a Coke to a wind tunnel session.