Cathy Elliott: Hail to the chief sport

Published 5:00 am Saturday, August 22, 2009

Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are firmly in the rearview mirror now, and Veterans Day won’t roll around until November. Most of us are caught up in the midst of the daily grind, the back-to-school-and-football frenzy and the continued speculation about the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup finalist field.

Still, on August 19, the shiver of patriotism and American pride ran up my spine when NASCAR visited the White House or, as President Obama referred to it in his remarks that day, “the American people’s house.”

Well, that sounds awfully cozy, doesn’t it? And rightfully so, because when you think about it, the reason these great States of America became United in the first place was to break free of strictures and allow citizens rights that other parts of the planet didn’t really support all that much. Really outlandish stuff, like freedom of religion, freedom to assemble and freedom of speech — which in some countries — is referred to as “crazy talk.”

President Obama said, “NASCAR is a quintessential American sport … When you think about its roots, when you think about all the people who have such an attachment to the drivers, and when you think about the fact that right now the U.S. auto industry is going through a tough time, we wanted to make sure we highlight the fact that this is a great sport, is a great brand for not just NASCAR itself but also for America, and we thought it was a great opportunity to celebrate some champions.”

So we are the nation that put its feet up on the coffee table, voted unanimously in favor of fair play, said, “Patriots, start your engines,” and proceeded to become the most closely scrutinized and polarizing superpower in the world.

Granted, my paraphrased version doesn’t sound as statesmanlike as Mr. Obama’s, which is probably the reason I’m a NASCAR columnist instead of the President of the United States. Well, one of the reasons.

It’s interesting to see what you might come up with when you start to take a look at things that on the surface seem so disparate, and try to draw comparisons between them.

Although NASCAR’s athletes admittedly look quite dashing in “regular” clothes, for example, it’s always slightly disconcerting to see them dressed that way. Looking at photos of Jimmie Johnson posing beside the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy on the South Lawn of the White House in a designer suit rather than a firesuit, in broad daylight no less, was downright weird.

The president, though, seemed impressed.

“I saw him getting in and out of the 48 and I was thinking I would have strained something, broke something. He didn’t even tear his suit,” said President Obama. “That’s the least that would have happened to me – I would’ve had a big rip somewhere.”

Small potatoes. President Obama should see these drivers crawling out of their cars after doing battle with one another for 500 miles, with nary a hair out of place. Clothes may not make the man, but they can make the driver.

Through sheer necessity, a lot of emphasis is placed on protecting and preserving the environment these days. I am ashamed to say that, in my case, that effort amounts to not much more than buying a couple of those reusable shopping bags from Costco, and remembering to take them with me to the store about every third trip.
Let’s face it; NASCAR is a fuel-based business. Without Sunoco fuel, the sport would literally run out of gas.

Still, the president pointed out that, “NASCAR is about a lot more than just racing cars. It’s as much about what you give back off the track as you give on the track. It’s about what you’re doing to protect our environment and help America become energy independent — using solar energy, and working to offset carbon emissions, and even hiring a director of green innovation to take your commitment to the next level.”

We take this stuff seriously. Even the flag we use to start every race is green.

My brother is working in Baghdad as a civilian. The fact that he isn’t a member of the military doesn’t make my family worry about him any less, but knowing that our Armed Forces are there to protect him — and to protect one another, and to defend those of us back here at home — helps us sleep a whole lot easier at night.

“[NASCAR is] about supporting our troops and our veterans, from flyovers and red, white and blue paint jobs on Memorial Day to your visits to Walter Reed and Iraq and Afghanistan that show our appreciation for the brave men and women who are serving our country,” said President Obama. “… That’s the face of America that you show to the world.”
What a presidential way of describing how you sit up a little straighter in your seat when the National Guard car or the Army car roars past you during a NASCAR race. The way your heart pounds in your chest when the jets fly over your head. The thrill of being surrounded by 100,000 people who actually sing along with the national anthem. Loudly.

Yes, it was cool to see “our” champion and his car, “our” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy, “our” drivers and other representatives of “our” sport with the White House as their backdrop. But most importantly, that setting served as a reminder of why we have the luxury of calling these things “ours” to begin with.

How fortunate we are, even when times are challenging, to be Americans, and to have an all-American sport like NASCAR to enjoy, and to claim as our own.

The two make a handsome couple, because without freedom, there can be no fun.

Cathy Elliott writes a NASCAR column.