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NASCAR, at its Core, is Just a Game

by Cathy Elliott
Friday, June 20, 2008

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Cathy Elliott
At the age when most young people are enjoying their final completely carefree summer, preparing to go to college or enter the work force, Joey Logano is getting ready to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. As certainly as sixth grade follows fifth, Logano will be promoted to stock car racing's highest level, probably sooner rather than later.

George Bernard Shaw once famously stated, "Youth is wasted on the young." (This, by the way, is a remark you will never hear from a young person. They may not know a good thing when they see one, but they have enough sense to understand that we geezers are touchy, and to keep their mouths shut on the subject.)

Although 18-year-old Logano is legally considered an adult, I'll bet most of us who watched his convincing first-time victory in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway on June 14 didn't think of him that way. Instead, as we watched him become the youngest winner in the series' history, we thought or even said out loud, "Good job, kid."

Logano could indeed be your kid brother, or that kid you used to babysit, or even, painful as it is to admit, your own kid. His demeanor after the win can only be described as youthful exuberance.

It was infectious. I confess that I actually clapped my hands as Logano made his way to Victory Lane on tires shredded from an enthusiastic burnout.

I just watched him out there. He was having a blast.

I briefly considered heaving myself off the sofa to do a little victory dance in honor of his truly impressive achievement, but one, I'm saving that for Brian Vickers' next NASCAR Sprint Cup win (it'll happen), and two, it was too much trouble. My knees aren't what they used to be.

After his long-awaited and highly anticipated first win as a member of the Hendrick Motorsports team, at Michigan International Speedway on Father's Day, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made an interesting observation. Basically, he remarked that during a winless streak which lasted longer than two years, the thrill of victory had been relegated to the ranks of distant memory for everyone concerned, his team members as well as himself. "I had forgotten that joy ... " he said.

Joy. Wow. That isn't a word you hear very often, because it is something we rarely experience as the years begin to creep up. Joy is something more than happiness or contentment. It's a feeling better than that, an emotion more pure. Adults are sometimes satisfied, but kids are often joyful.

Something about NASCAR brings out the kid in us, that no-holds-barred, anything-can-happen outlook that we lose as the inevitable realities and restrictions of adult life take their toll.

It's the feeling we had when we rode our bikes downhill as fast as we could go, with no hands and no fear. It's the curiosity that caused us to kick a ball as hard as we could just to see how far it would fly, without worrying about the associated aggravation of chasing after it. That would come later, so why worry about it now?

It's that thing we used to have all the time, and completely took for granted. If memory serves, I believe we called it "fun".

The other day the kids across the street were engaged in a heated game of "Red Rover" in their front yard. I didn't know the kids of the new millennium had even heard of Red Rover, but apparently no video game version has been released yet so they have to do it the old-fashioned way.

I just watched them out there. They were having a blast.

In Red Rover, players form two lines. They face one another with hands linked, forming a human chain. One team sizes up the other in an attempt to single out who they perceive as the weakest, then the challenge is issued: "Red Rover, Red Rover, send (the name goes here, but in my experience “Cathy” was usually the first victim) right over."

The summonee examines the opposition closely, looking for the weakest link, the most likely spot for a possible break in the action, then charges straight for it. Sometimes the competitor breaks through, and sometimes he is denied and must wait for another game and a fresh opportunity.

Doesn't that sound an awful lot like a race? Slower cars starting from the back of the field survey their situations carefully, watching for a wobble here or a waver there which will allow them to pick competitors off one-by-one en route to the front. To be ultimately successful – to win the race – requires patience and strength, strategy and skill.

When you really start to think about it, many of our childhood pursuits are applicable in NASCAR. Take "Red Light, Green Light", for example, where you race as fast as you can toward the goal until something happens to freeze the field in place.

Or how about "Simon Says"? There are currently no crew chiefs named Simon that I can think of, but you get my drift. When Simon (or Tony Eury Jr.) says conserve your fuel, you do it, or else.

Perhaps we never really abandon the games of our youth. We simply grow up to play them a little bit differently.

If you don't believe me, just watch all those drivers out there. They're having a blast.

And so are we.

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