The sly Fox bonds with the
twisted wreckage of NASCAR

Feb 20, 2007 5:22 AM

At last, the perfect marriage.

Fox Network, home of The Simpsons and O’Reilly and all on the right, hooking up in a blue collar hitch of momentous proportions with the good ol’ Blue Mountain boys of NASCAR. Oh, and ESPN still to come along on the honeymoon as bridesmaid.

The setting, of course, was Sunday’s Daytona 500, America’s version of the Coliseum in Rome, without the lions but with all the guts and thunder. It offered the roar of the engines, the smoke of the smashups, the thumbs up or thumbs down, the crawling out of those tiny windows after crashes, the frantic maneuvering and helplessness of spinouts at 180 miles an hour, the pit crews and incredible tire changes and everything else that makes this event the Super Bowl of the car race crowd.

"Hot dang, Mabel. Did you see him hit that cotton pickin’ wall? He took out half a dozen cars!"

"Hang on, Homer. They still got a hundred laps to go."

So they whirl on, round and round and round, the stacked decals flashing by in a blaze of color, the intrusive eye of TV showing it all from inside the cockpits of danger, and a hundred thousand fans right there and millions more entranced in front of their TVs, getting an orgiastic delight, driving vicariously with these guys and enjoying every swooping swerve.

I went to the stock car races at Langhorne in Pennsylvania once as a kid, and still remember the king of that crowd, Henry Banks, driving a Buick to victory. I rushed home and told my folks we had to get a Buick. Henry got me then, just as Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin got the kids of the country, and particularly those just driving, on Sunday.

Later in life, in Indianapolis for its 500, I barely escaped, caught in the outpouring from the scene as tens of thousands — all thinking they were in the race — cut off challengers and hunched over speeding in their own rigs.

The lady with whom I share hearth and home got caught up in all this Sunday. Normally, her association with cars is telling me to slow down.

But she decided to watch this thing Sunday, not knowing one driver, one car, one rule, one sponsor, nor caring about any of them. She just couldn’t believe all the fuss, and kept waiting for something to happen besides the accidents that the crowd was waiting for, breathlessly.

She saw them, and the caution flags and pouring smoke and safety car and wreckers and all the rest.

When it was over, I asked her what she thought of her first Daytona 500.

"Insanity," she said, right as always.

Fox set up an elaborate set at Daytona for this production, and on Saturday its news shows came from there. Fox was fully aware of the scandal unfolding over the crew chiefs, of the tampering with the cars, of the fuel additives and other violations that led to five chiefs and a team vice president being handed costly penalties, including two "indefinite suspensions" and fines ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. But it plunged bravely right ahead. The drivers remained unscathed, except for position penalties. They are, after all, the stars around whom this Roman festival is built.

Unlike the guys in baseball and football and bicycle racing and horseracing who get caught up in the web of edge-seeking, and who can’t chance joking about it, there seemed to be almost a trace of levity about the goings on at Daytona. There were smiles on faces and even a little joshing from NASCAR guests on Larry King’s show.

NASCAR itself, however, realized the seriousness of the problem, and handled it — as it does virtually all of its promotion, marketing and publicity — with superb skill and smarts. It knew the news would get out, and it decided to give the thing its own positive twist. It did, announcing the penalties with fanfare on the eve of the race, showing it cared and was doing something significant about the violations. It was another show of the genius of NASCAR, which has transformed this once totally blue collar sport into one of America’s most successful sports events.