September 12, 2008
By Guest Columnist Cathy Elliott
Once the initial hullabaloo is over, the gentlemen are introduced and have started their engines, and the cars have begun to make their way around the track, familiar patterns emerge. Just as a well-rehearsed marching band falls precisely into step the moment they take to the playing field, so do the colorful cars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series assume their positions at the start of a race.
Around and around they travel in a predetermined pattern, the sound of the engines rising and falling in regular cadences according to where they are on the track. As strange as this might sound, it can actually be quite soothing, until something dramatic happens to disrupt it.
For those who appreciate orderliness and precision in sports, it can actually be quite lovely to watch.
In fact, it almost resembles a dance, like the ones often featured in "period" movies, where everyone gets all gussied up to go to the fancy ball at the palace. Then as a group, after the obligatory bows and curtsies are completed, they hit the dance floor, waltzing themselves around and through one another intricately in perfect 3/4 time.
Perfect, that is, until the lord of the manor makes a misstep and jostles the dancer next to him, throwing the whole row out of whack, or the roguish squire inhales too much powder from his own wig and lets fly with a major sneeze, causing a massive pileup in the corner.
Is it just me, or is this starting to sound familiar?
Even afflicted as I am by the tunnel vision that always seems to ride shotgun with a lifelong sports addiction, I am still aware that the sector of the American populace personified by my mother is all in a lather over the impending premier of the pop culture phenomenon called "Dancing With The Stars".
"Dancing With the Stars" is a super-popular reality television series. It gathers together a group of professionals in various fields--singers, actors, athletes and such--and straps them into the confines of a well-defined setting--a specific dance. This might take the form of a cha cha, a tango, or something called a quickstep, which appears to me to be an easy way to sprain an ankle. Then, they are set loose on a public stage to compete against one another head to head.
Personality comes into heavy play, as dancers required to follow the same set of steps must find some way to make their individual performances unique. Competitors who, to put it tactfully, are less physically prepared for the show tend to fall out of contention early.
Trained athletes excel. Football heroes Jerry Rice and Emmett Smith, open-wheel racing star Helio Castroneves and Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno have all done well on the show. A couple of them have even managed to waltz away with the title. (My mom still maintains that Mario Lopez was robbed in Season 3. She says the same thing about Jeff Gordon in Season 2007.)
Coincidentally, another hot contest -- the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship -- is also premiering this fall. It begins in New Hampshire on September 14 and takes its final bow in Homestead, Fla. on November 16.
I understand the national fascination with "Dancing With the Stars" because, in a really out-of-the-box example of cross-promotion, its appeal is similar to what we love about NASCAR races. Each week, drivers are dressed in basically the same equipment; their cars. They are placed at the beginning of an identical course and given the same specific task to complete. They, too, are set loose on a public stage to do their stuff.
It sounds rather routine on the surface, but to sit back and watch them do it is one of the most exciting and erratic experiences offered by any sport. Like the steps of a dance, the confines of the car, the configuration of the track and the number of laps in the race create an insular kind of world.
For a few brief moments, it seems to be inhabited only by the driver, the voice of his crew chief partner in his ear ... and the small matter of 42 additional teams in close proximity. They move in both opposition and concordance, sometimes leading, sometimes following, but always knowing that the ability to judge the appropriate timing and technique for either action is critical to their overall success.
As the old saying goes, "If you're walking on thin ice, you might as well dance." This year's Sprint Cup Series championship Chase promises to be a dynamic one, with lots of fast, intricate moves and tightly controlled twists and turns. Drivers and their crews must find ways to use their individual driving styles -- patience, boldness, consistency and the like -- to maximum advantage in order to overcome the parity of their equipment.
The consequences of quicksteps and missteps, jostling (accidental or otherwise), or those infamous twists of fate can make the ice either melt away or freeze into a championship path, solid as a varnished wooden dance floor.
The steps are limited, and the dancers are numbered. Rather than only two, where the Chase is concerned, it takes 12 to tango. All we can do is wait, and watch, and enjoy the show.
The Chase is on; let's get ready to rumba.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.