Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What’s With All the Hype?

by Tammy Kaehler

I’m feeling brave, and I’m going to go there. The topic? Two of the most popular drivers in motorsports and why I don’t understand or agree with the reasons for their popularity. I’m talking Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Danica Patrick.

Let me be clear. they are talented drivers. They belong in the racing world and in top teams. They’re both attractive, articulate, polished, and appealing. I get all that.

But I don’t understand all the hype.

I understand more about Danica. A lot of car and racing fans are male, Danica’s hot, and she’s willing to flaunt it. About her endorsement deals and activities outside the racetrack, I mostly think, “You go girl, and work the attention while you’ve got it.” But I find it hard to argue with fans who are disgusted that some IndyCar broadcasts turn into the Danica show, when she qualifies, runs, and finishes in the lower half of the field.

I understand the hype over Dale Earnhardt, Jr.—“Junior”—less. Sure, I think he looks like a good guy and he’s a good driver. But if there’s any driver anywhere in motorsports with what could be considered a rabid fan following, it’s Junior. There’s a fever that grips the stands of a racetrack when Junior gets near the front, and there’s an audible roar generated when he’s actually in the lead. You can feel and hear all that even through the television broadcast.

In addition, Junior or his team wins nearly every fan poll or vote offered. Who do you think will win? Junior. Who’s got the best chance in the Chase for the Championship? Junior. Who’s got the fastest pit crew? Junior (to be fair, I’ve seen another driver win this approximately twice in a couple years of race watching). Junior has won the fan-voted Most Popular Driver award from the National Motorsports Press Association for eight consecutive years.


Conventional wisdom would suggest that fans like athletes who are winning. From Junior’s popularity, you’d expect him to have dozens of wins in the last few seasons and five consecutive NASCAR championship trophies—but that’s his teammate, Jimmie Johnson. Junior hasn’t won a race in three years.

Again, I just want to know why. I can’t believe his fans are there because fans of his father—Dale Sr., who died in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, blocking for Junior—transferred allegiance. I also don’t want to think his fans are fans simply because his father died in that manner. To suggest either of those scenarios is to not give credit to Junior’s own talents and personality. But you have to wonder if that didn’t contribute to the larger-than-life image Junior seems to possess … one seems to sit uncomfortably on his shoulders sometimes.

I have no real answers to the question of their popularity. But it seems to me that it’s about more than who they are as individuals. Somehow they have become mythological heroes, carrying the hopes, dreams, and emotions of legions of fans on their shoulders. Which must be a lonely place to be sometimes.

What do you all think? Are Danica and Junior your favorites? Or do you want to ask, as Janet Jackson would, “What have you done for me lately?”


  1. yeah, it's a shame when a sport becomes focussed one or two people, but it happens in every sport. i heard some golfer complain about tiger woods because playing alongside was tough with people shouting all the time.

    you do have a couple different issues with danica and dale jr. danica is a draw because she's goodlooking, but with dale, i think he's the focus because sentiment for his dad to a certain extent.

    at the end of the day, doesn't really matter. it can't effect results on the track and brings new viewers to the sport.

  2. Here's my take.
    There's 3 reasons why they are popular:
    1 - They are good looking - so it's easy to get placed in lots of media
    2 - They've taken well to media training so they are in lots of media
    3 - They have shown moments of promise

    There's a 3(a) - with Danica as well. Which is there isn't many other popular American drivers consistently in Indy.

    Danica - is a good driver. Let's not forget that she came very close to winning her rookie Indy 500- which as anyone watched this year's race know is a rare achievement. But since that season she's had problem getting good equipment. Something that has plagued other stand-outs like Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. When Andretti's and Rahal's can't get decent rides - they are in short supply.

    Dale Jr - Is the one that most frustrates me. He hasn't been good for YEARs. And that includes driving on Hendrick. Even more frustrating is that people who boo Kyle Bush - even though Kyle drives more like than Dale Sr than anyone else in the field. Plus he's racing everything - trucks, Nationwide, Sprint. I think if NASCAR added tricycle races on Thursday, he's be out there too.

  3. Hahaha, Mark, I think you're right. I have a grudging admiration for Kyle Busch, but I still have a hard time *liking* the guy. I think Simon's right too, in that the affection for Junior has because of his father. They're both good drivers ... but especially Junior has a hard time pulling it all together on the day. I've seen other champions in other sports who operate at a consistently high level, but who can never win the Olympic gold, say, or some other prize, because it just never comes together for that one performance. It's fascinating to watch though!