ESPY Snub an Insult to NHRA
Wednesday night in Los Angeles, ESPN, the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports, hosted its annual ESPY Awards. The event, the sporting world's equivalent to the Academy Awards, recognizes the best of the best in the world of sports and remembers some of the truly awe-inspiring moments of the year in athletic competition.
In the Driver of the Year category this year, Brad Keselowski (NASCAR), Tony Kanaan (IndyCar), Ryan Hunter-Reay (IndyCar), and Sebastion Vettel (Formula 1) were nominated. Now, unless I'm missing something, there's a pretty glaring absence here. The other categories recognizing individual accomplishment had five nominees. DoY has only four.
Where's the NHRA entry?
You know, the National Hot Rod Association? The motorsports sanction that pays millions of dollars per year to ESPN in order to have their races aired on ESPN2 and online at ESPN3.com? Yeah, them. The folks who have been breaking race and gender barriers long before some of the roundy-rounders ever dreamed of creating programs specifically to bring women and minorities into the sport. And hows that working out, by the way?
Now to be fair, technically the NHRA was represented by Courtney Force. Sort of. She was there the night previous to celebrate the ESPN the Magazine Body Issue, an issue in which she was featured. After an online vote, the daughter of 15-time Funny Car champion John Force overwhelmingly won a poll to have her featured on the cover. But the NHRA apparently isn't popular enough to have one of its drivers recognized as a DoY nominee.
Danica Patrick is a global name based on being a woman in a man's sport, but what has she accomplished on the track? She has exactly one IndyCar victory and that was a race in Japan where nearly half the field was in Long Beach racing in the final CART Series race. Patrick gets all the glory while women like Shirley Muldowney, Angelle Sampey, Melanie Troxell, Ashley Force-Hood, Erica Enders-Stevens, and the aforementioned Courtney Force are actually making multiple visits to NHRA Winner's Circles all over the country.
Danica was also featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno this week. And why not? What has Ms. Force done other than appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine that very week and won two races this year, including the season-opening Winternationals. Now granted, Danica did start first in NASCAR's first race of the year, but why should Courtney be held in higher esteem for actually finishing first?
But that is what it is and it's not going to change anytime soon. Why let anything like facts and statistics get in the way of a marketing juggernaut. Let's look at the DoY candidates:
- Sebastion Vettel. He is the three-time and defending F1 champion and the youngest ever to do so. He's in the same rarified air as drivers like Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. Pretty sure that's a pretty solid credential right there. We'll move on.
- Brad Keselowski. Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion. Had a dominating season and surprised everyone by winning the title. Comes from a racing family and brought NASCAR solidly into the social media age. Can't argue with his inclusion on the list.
- Tony Kanaan. Won this year's Indianapolis 500. Kanaan winning Indy was like Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 in 1998. He's been a sentimental favorite and was shown overwhelming love by the majority of the racing community when he won. Put him on the list.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay. Defending IndyCar Series champion and the first American champion of IndyCar since Sam Hornish Jr. did it in 2006 and the first American to win a unified open-wheel series since since Al Unser Jr. did it in 1994. By the way, the Andretti Autosport driver won the ESPY, making him the first non-NASCAR driver to win in seven years and technically, the first-ever IndyCar Series driver to earn the award (three CART drivers have won, the most recent being Jimmy Vassar in 1997).
So who would you take off there in order to add an NHRA driver? Oh, wait, you wouldn't have to. Remember when I said the other categories have five entries and DoY only has four? So take a look at those entries and count them up. Four, right? Right.
Well, maybe competition in the NHRA was weak last year. Maybe nothing really happened on the track and it was hard to pick one driver out of four Pro categories to throw into the pile as a representative. I'm going to go ahead and stop there and give you my candidates for each Pro class. Here we go:
- Jack Beckman. "Fast" Jack Beckman won the NHRA Funny Car title last year. So? Well, he did it after a crew chief swap early in the season with his teammate Ron Capps. Capps was the favorite to win and dominated early on. Beckman, however, ran an amazing Countdown (NHRA's playoff system) and barely edged out his fellow Don Schumacher Racing compadre. You want suspense and a last-minute victory? There it is. Oh, and he's a cancer survivor and veteran, but you know, whatever.
- Antron Brown. AB earned the Top Fuel title in 2013. The former collegiate track star moved up from the Pro Stock Motorcyle class to Top Fuel and began dominating immediately. If being a champion wasn't enough, he's also the first black racer to earn a championship in major American motorsports. In mainstream racing, that's a big deal. In the NHRA, it's a driver winning a title. African-Americans, Hispanics, women, et. al., have been winning here for decades without special programs.
- Erica Enders. While she didn't win the Pro Stock title, she became the first woman in NHRA history to win in her class and went on to win a total of three races and compete for the championship. Her beginnings in racing were documented in a movie by a small, upstart company called Disney who, in turn, happens to own the network throwing the ESPYs.
- Eddie Krawiec. Eddie is the defending title holder in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He and his teammate, Andrew Hines, won all but one race in the class last year. Roll that around for a minute. Only one time all season was the Harley-Davidson duo not in the Winners Circle.
I rattled four names off the top of my head without really giving it much thought. I'm sure if I really put some effort into it, I could come up with at least two more racers per category that should have or could have been included in the ESPY Driver of the Year conversation.
Don't get me wrong; I don't honestly expect an NHRA driver to win the award, nor do many in the sport. Even when a driver deserves it, there is little to no chance of a drag racer being recognized at that level. In 2008, Tony Schumacher won his sixth Top Fuel title and his fifth straight. He won 15 races (more than half of the total events) including seven in a row and went to 18 final rounds. He also passed Joe Amato for most-ever wins in the class. He was eventually honored with the Mario Andretti Driver of the Year Award, a distinction only two other straight-liners have earned, those being John Force and Greg Anderson.
The winner of the DoY ESPY recognizing the 2008 season? Jimmie Johnson. Yes, JJ had a great year and won a title, but can you really compare his season with Schumacher's? To me, and many others, it should have been a no-brainer. But NASCAR is the top dog so it would take a monumental effort to unseat them from the top and evidently, Sarge's season of dominance just didn't count.
The part that really gets me the most, though, is the utter lack of respect. NHRA actually pays money to ESPN to run their programming. Let that sink in. NHRA is paying ESPN to air its races. Now, in the past, that may have been due to a lack of other options. SPEED doesn't really have the slots available on the weekends to run the races and their resources are limited, whereas ESPN is, self-generated hyperbole aside, the World Wide Leader, with a national radio network and popular magazine in addition to its family of television channels.
That's not the case anymore. Fox Sports 1 is already making waves and it hasn't even started airing programming. NBC is building up a nice family of sports networks and has experience in motorsports. NHRA has options now and I'm willing to bet the new suitors would be willing to show its date a little more respect.