There have been times — in 2002, when Sterling Marlin lost the Daytona 500 by doing a spot of fender repair while cars were stopped; in 2007, when Clint Bowyer crossed the finish line with his car upside down and on fire; in 2010, when one persistent pothole halted proceedings for two hours — when I’ve thought to myself: “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Last night, or maybe it was early this morning, I realized: “They have to be making this stuff up.”
In most things, I refuse to accept the concept of global conspiracy. Where Daytona is concerned, I’m ready to go all Roswell/UFOs/Area 51. How else could you explain the events of Sunday/Monday/Tuesday?
1. The Daytona 500 is postponed for the first time not because it’s raining all over Florida but because it just happens to be raining — pretty much all day — on Daytona Beach. That’s postponed to Monday, as opposed to delayed into prime time. What else happened in prime time Sunday night? Only the NBA all-star game and the Academy Awards?
2. The race is reset for midday Monday, which means few will watch, but yet another patch of rain impels NASCAR to delay the race again, this time into prime time on a night when nothing much is scheduled.
3. Twenty-six hours late, the race commences. Two laps unfold. Then Jimmie Johnson, the greatest driver of his era and maybe ever, and Danica Patrick, making her first Daytona 500 run, crash. How’s that for a snappy beginning?
4. The race continues. Nothing much happens. (When cars aren’t turning upside down, races can be rather dull, especially on TV.) Then Juan Pablo Montoya, driving under caution, veers into a jet dryer that’s on the track so as to dry it, duh, and precipitates a fireball.
(Here, I should confess, is where my conspiracy theory gets shaky. As much as people like to see things blow up on big screens, TV doesn’t get a clear shot of Montoya losing control of his car — which, according to the official television-analyst diagnosis, “broke” — and plowing into the drying truck. But conspiracies can’t be too obvious, can they?)
5. The race is halted for two hours while the fire is doused and the burned vehicles are removed and track repair is done. (Product placement: Tide is used to clean the surface.) Drivers get out of their cars and stand around. This wouldn’t normally make for exciting TV, except that …
6. The drivers appear to be having fun standing around talking. Carl Edwards asks for a Subway sandwich. (Cross-promotion: Subway happens to sponsor the very next NASCAR event, which will be aired on this very same network.) The drivers come off as nice guys in the inevitable TV interviews. Brad Keselowski, who for reasons unclear has his iPhone in the car — perhaps he knew what was coming and preferred ordering a pizza to having Subway — starts Tweeting. In two hours he gains 100,000 Twitter followers. That’s called brand-building!
7. The race begins again. It’s near midnight — prime time on the Left Coast! — and the Daytona 500 has taken on certain aspects of a weekend in Vegas. (Cross-promotion: In two weeks, the Sprint Cup will grace Las Vegas. I’m not kidding!) You’d hate to nod off now for fear you’ll miss something. And isn’t that what Good TV is all about? Making the viewer hesitate to flip channels?
8. The race ends around 1 a.m. EST. By Daytona standards, the finish is a snooze. (Nobody does the flaming-belly-up thing.) By this point, the winner — Matt Kenseth, for minutiae mavens — doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the NASCAR has taken its Super Bowl, shoved it into prime time and left people who care nothing for car racing gathering around water coolers this morning, assuming 21st Century offices still have water coolers, and saying, “Did you see that car hit that drier and blow up?”
Some will look on the 2012 Great American Race and see a fiasco. Me, I see a carefully orchestrated campaign of cloud-seeding and car-doctoring and explosion-rigging that generated a triumph of American-made detergent plus a breakthrough of what we like to call social media. I haven’t seen the ratings, but I expect them to be boffo. I expect people who’d never seen a race got a glimpse of this one and said, not altogether disapprovingly, “This is crazy.”
Exactly, I say. Crazy like a Fox. Which just happens to be the name of the network that aired the Daytona 500. Earthlings, I rest my case.
By Mark Bradley