NASCAR & Auto Racing

The fans: Still giving after all these years

I’m bad at a lot of things, but there’s nothing I’m worse at than wrapping presents.

It’s either too much paper or not enough, and you can forget about folding a corner. Actually, I prefer oddly shaped packages because they at least provide a ready excuse.

Children, of course, don’t care. If they’re young enough, just tearing away the paper is the real payoff – it might be the end of this week before my grandson Eli actually plays with everything he’s getting this year.

Sometimes even grown-ups get so much they forget that each gift – even if it is a bag of socks or a bottle of bad cologne – is an act of generosity that should be appreciated.

As we turn the page on another year in sports, my worry is that the people who participate in and run those sports sometimes seem to forget that.

Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said recently that today’s 12-year-old American child is the most well-entertained person who has ever lived. That child has hundreds of television channels, countless movies on DVD and video games that sometimes seem more life-like that life itself at his immediate disposal.

And mom and dad are just fine sitting in the easy chair rather than piling everybody in the car, fighting traffic and paying more money for the family to actually go do something.

Meanwhile, ticket prices are up. Gas prices are up. Concession prices are up. Hotels double their room rates. Restaurants bring out “special” menus that offer fewer choices at higher prices. Somebody’s front yard turns into a $20 per space parking lot.

Fans once had heroes. Now they wonder if a player is juiced up on steroids or if the referee is on the take. A race car driver who might otherwise be changing oil at the Jiffy Lube complains because a fan “bothers” him for an autograph when he’s walking from his $1.5 million motor home to get in a car he’s never had to put a wrench on.

Yes, there are empty seats at NASCAR tracks and NBA arenas. Yes, television ratings for most sports are barely treading water. Yes, too many of the best tickets are either priced too high for the average guy to afford or put out of his reach because he doesn’t have the right corporate ties.

And yet, guess what?

Sports fans still cheer the players and teams they like and boo the ones they don’t. They call up radio shows with irrational glee when things go well and equally irrational horror at any setback.

They measure the coverage given to their favorite team against that given to all others, and the math never works out in their favor. Rules are stacked against their guys, the referees hate them and all of the announcers are biased against them.

In other words, they care.

They still buy tickets, team apparel or a driver’s memorabilia, and somebody tries to add up all those dollars to show what a big deal that is.

That’s not what matters. Fans care about sports because it moves them. They love being part of something exciting. They draw energy from the collective swell of emotion at a game or a race when everything is just the way it ought to be.

So, despite all the reasons they might have not to, the fans still come. They give their time, their energy and – most critically – their passion.

That’s their gift. It comes wrapped in all kinds of packages, and some don’t have all the corners folded exactly right.

Sometimes the fans expect too much and sometimes they check their common sense at the gate. Sometimes their demands are unreasonable.

Sometimes they act like children. But then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.