New Yorkers don't even notice NASCAR
This article appeared in the New York Daily News, and perhaps gives a clue as to why ratings and attendance are down. To have sustainable sport over the long term, you need to span all cultures and penetrate the big metropolitan markets. Charlotte and Richmond and Talladega are certainly not Chicago, New York or L.A. Both New York and L.A. seem to be oblivious or lukewarm to NASCAR's brand of charm. One metro region just kicked them out, and the other can't seem sell out their race in a good year. This might be something for NASCAR to really look at if they want to halt the drop in attendance and ratings.
Jimmie Johnson has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet to an unprecedented four straight NASCAR championships, the latest capped last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, where a fifth-place finish secured his place in history.
But here in New York, you get the feeling that Johnson is about as celebrated a champion as Armin Zoggeler, the Italian luge star who has won the last four World Cup series titles. Johnson's car is sponsored by Lowe's, the home improvement center that has one city location - next to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. There, the apathy for Johnson is palpable.
"Who's that?" asks Kelly Rogers of Brooklyn, as he loads a potted plant into his car.
Says Dexter Patterson of Queens: "I'm more basketball, you know? Baseball, when the New York teams are winning."
"I don't know him that much," says Sherwin Willis of Brooklyn.
Even Brooklyn's Steve Picken, who says his grandmother used to work for Daytona International Speedway, has a typical reaction when asked if he likes Johnson.
"Not really," Picken says. "I'm originally from New England, so I'm a Patriots fan."
Like many New Yorkers, Picken's primary association with the name Jimmie Johnson points to Jimmy Johnson, the former football coach who now works as a TV analyst. That Johnson has his own place in sports history, as the first coach to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl.
"New York's a little different," Picken says. "My cousins are from Florida and follow NASCAR like crazy. They're big Jimmie Johnson fans - the race car driver. That's pretty much the only way I know of him, is from them. People here don't really follow NASCAR all that much."
If we did, we'd be captivated by Johnson's historic run, as impressive a display as some of the most famous heroes of American sports.
"You're looking at Michael Phelps, you're looking at Tiger Woods," says Yankees World Series star Johnny Damon, an avid NASCAR fan who was on hand at the Empire State Building on Wednesday as Johnson lit up the skyscraper in his team's blue, white and yellow. "The fact that he can go out and win four championships in a row, you're not going to see too many sports do that anymore."
Phelps, of course, won eight gold medals at last year's Olympics, and Woods will end this year as the world's No. 1 golfer for the fifth straight time after also having a four-year reign at the top from 1999-2002. In tennis, Roger Federer was No. 1 at the end of the year from 2004-07, while Jimmy Connors (1974-78), John McEnroe (1981-84) and Pete Sampras (1993-98) each have had streaks of four or more years finishing on top since the formation of the ATP in 1973. On the WTA Tour, which started in 1975, there have been dominant runs by Martina Navratilova (1982-86) and Steffi Graf (1987-90, 1993-96 - shared the 1995 year-end No. 1 with Monica Seles).
Other individual sports also have proven ripe for dynasties, whether it's Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France seven straight times or Carl Lewis capturing four consecutive Olympic gold medals in the long jump. As the winter Olympics approach in a couple of months, there also will be dominant star power on display in Vancouver, as Germany's Sandra Kiriasis is a six-time reigning champion in the bobsled, and Zoggeler already has won two of this season's first three luge World Cup events.
"It's huge," Johnson says. "To hear my name mentioned with sports greats - not only our sport, but all of sports - it's just unbelievable. I feel like I'm kind of watching a movie in some ways. I'm enjoying it, and very proud of what we've done. … It's so cool, and obviously everybody's asking about five, so we'll see what we can do."
Johnson says "we" for good reason. If you don't think NASCAR is a team sport, get a few friends together and try to change all four of your car's tires in 15 seconds. While Johnson is the driver and star, the No. 48 team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, has just as much reason to celebrate - as does the larger team of Hendrick Motorsports, which enjoyed a 1-2-3 finish in the Sprint Cup standings thanks to Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. For Rick Hendrick, who co-owns Johnson's team with Gordon, this is his second time winning four straight championships - from 1995-98, Hendrick became the first car owner to win four NASCAR titles in a row, with Terry Labonte in 1996 the only intrusion into Gordon's dynasty.
"That is a very amazing feat - four in a row," Damon says. "We haven't seen that in baseball in a very, very long time. And in NASCAR, I believe it's even tougher because every single week, these guys are gunning for him."
In baseball, it has been a long time since a four-peat - the Yankees' run of titles from 1949-53 is the standard against which all baseball dynasties are measured, while the Bombers also won four straight from 1936-39. In the NBA, only the Celtics (1959-66) have won four or more titles in a row, while the Canadiens (1956-60; 1976-79) and Islanders (1980-83) are the only NHL teams to win four or more titles consecutively.
Football? No team has won more than back-to-back Super Bowls, while the only three-peat NFL champion was the Green Bay Packers, who captured the league title in 1965, then again the next two years before beating the AFL champion Chiefs and Raiders in Super Bowls I and II.
"Football, it's a crapshoot in football now - the worst teams can beat the best teams on any given day," Damon says. "Baseball's a tougher sport to predict. Basketball, you see sort of a dynasty working with the Lakers, but it's tough. This guy (Johnson) has done it the right way - he's a professional, he knows what it takes to win, week in and week out."
Even if New York doesn't notice. New York Daily News