Even if you aren’t a fan of NASCAR, chances are that you are familiar with the biggest names in the sport: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmy Johnson or Jeff Gordon. You might know Carl Edwards from his Subways ads alongside that skater with the long, stringy hair and the stoner swimmer. Or, you might be familiar with Juan Pablo Montoya for driving into a jet engine and almost burning down the Daytona International Speedway.
Chances are that unless you are a serious fan of the sport, you didn’t know anything about A.J. Allmendinger before this weekend. Some brief background: after winning several races in the dying days of the open-wheel Champ Car series, Allmendinger transitioned to NASCAR in 2006. Since then, he’s had a serviceable if pedestrian career, earning a couple of poles and 29 top-ten finishes in 169 career starts at the highest level. He was better than a journeyman – he had earned a spot with Penske Racing, one of the better teams in the series if not quite elite – but not a championship contender.
Allmendinger is now the hottest topic in NASCAR after Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona but not for his performance in the race; it’s for his absence from it. Penske Racing was forced to fly Sam Hornish in from Charlotte as a last-minute replacement (literally – he arrived less than a half-hour before the race started) after the team was informed by NASCAR that Allmendinger had tested positive for a banned substance after a random drug test following last weekend’s race and was suspended indefinitely pending the investigation.
So far, NASCAR hasn’t said which substance Allmendinger tested positive for – it could be anything from hard drugs to beta blockers; for his part, Allmendinger has remained mainly silent, although he has asked that his backup “B” sample also be tested as part of an appeal process and said that he has never “knowingly” taken a banned substance. But while much of the story remains cloaked in mystery, according to a story on SB Nation by Jeff Gluck, Allmendinger’s fans have already reacted to his suspension.
I was initially drawn to this article for the moderate absurdity of it. As noted, Allmendinger is an average-at-best driver with few notable traits. He’s one of the many open-wheel drivers who fled to NASCAR as CART and the IRL were imploding in the mid-2000s and one of the few of those drivers to stick with it (Montoya and – ironically – Hornish being the other two). I mainly worried about how far Gluck had to dig to find Allmendinger’s “biggest fans” to get their reaction to the suspension.
But after reading the story, I was struck with more…sadness than anything else. Not so much for Allmendinger – the jury is still out on what he did or didn’t do. It had more to do with how much the situation clearly impacted people who were huge fans of his. Certainly, I can understand how kids who are 15 or 8 (as discussed in the story) could feel confused, betrayed or unbelieving that their favorite athlete could slip up. But reading about how a 27-year-old “superfan” reacted to the story gave me pause:
“Tiffanie Zimbelman cried herself to sleep on Saturday night and woke up crying on Sunday morning.”
Keep in mind, this is a 27-year-old woman. A preschool teacher whom he entrust with taking care of small children on a daily basis. Yet the mere thought that her favorite driver – someone she’s met “at least 20 times” – could have failed personally made her sob throughout the night and into the next morning. As a point of reference, this sometimes happens to my five-year-old daughter when she can’t watch one more episode of “Octonauts,” except that she forgets about it by the morning.
What I DON’T want to do is turn this into a rant about this particular fan or use this as an open platform to rip a bunch of one-liners at her (although – and I’m admittedly painting with a massive, Christo-like brush stroke here – she does seem like the type of person who enters “Twilight”-themed table setting into competition at her county fair.) Instead, I want to reflect for a moment on what makes sports fans completely lose touch with reality when it comes to how their fans act away from the field.
In 2012, we should be cynical enough to not expect that an athlete is a good person just because they are good at their job, or even because they make jokes in interviews and have a big golf tournament for their charity foundation every year. Time after time, we’ve seen the gulf between an athlete’s public persona and how they act outside of the spotlight. Thanks to YouTube, camera phones and sites like Deadspin, salacious gossip and wild stories about how your favorite athlete really acts is just a page click away.
Intellectually, most sports fans understand this. But for many people, they can’t bring themselves to include their own personal favorite athlete into this. Their favorite driver or basketball player or Olympian must be made of stronger moral fiber than everyone else. Yes, athletes are insular and forced to practice for hours a day since a very young age. And yes, that often means that they are socially stunned and unable to relate to the real world in ways that average people can understand. But MY favorite athlete is different. Trust me, he is.
And so we get this, a 27-year-old preschool teacher taking a possible drug suspension for a NASCAR driver about as well as a bunch of kids. The fact that this is happening around the world of NASCAR might have something to do with the visceral reaction. NASCAR prides itself on the connection between the fans and its athletes and the fact that the sport’s drivers are far more open and accessible than most other major sports. And this is undeniably true – it’s much easier to get a NASCAR driver’s autograph during a race weekend than a baseball player before or after a game.
But it’s all still part of the “persona” of being a race car driver: you smile, sign hats, pose for pictures and go to autograph sessions at the local NAPA store because that’s what the sponsor wants. Being good at putting up the facade doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a facade than, say, an NFL player who wins the “Man of the Year” award the day before playing in the Super Bowl and celebrates that night by hiring a prostitute and getting arrested. Whether or not Allmendinger did anything wrong, the fact that fans are so upset with the fact that he might have done something wrong proves just how willingly fans let themselves be deluded by the appeal of their favorite athlete despite all the examples of why they shouldn’t.
(All of this being said, if anyone ever says anything negative about Brian McBride, I will kill you dead where you stand.)