By our very nature we are programmed to have favourites for the things in our lives, a favourite food, film, song and sports team to name but a very few. It’s what makes us feel happy and have a sense of belonging when you find people who like the same things that you do. But what if you were told that you could never eat your favourite meal ever again, or listen to your favourite song any more. Sure we’ve all got backups but it’s never the same.
In a world of sports that is dominated by team sports, motorsports is slightly unique in that it is very much a sport of individuals and the teams are almost secondary. NASCAR is even more concentrated on the individual, sure most cars race under a team banner, such as Hendrick Motorsport, Roush Fenway Racing etc, but drivers and their numbers are a brand in themselves. I’m certain that there are more people who support Kyle Busch and the number 18 than there is support Joe Gibbs Racing and all their drivers. NASCAR just seems more gravitated towards a driver and their number. I know supporters of teams are out there and some will have suddenly gone from a Matt Kenseth fan to one that can’t stand him when he moved from RFR to JGR but they are in the minority.
In team sports it seems perfectly natural to not like a player once they’ve left a team, or to put it another way nobody supports a team because of a particular player. After all who went from being a Cavaliers fan to a Heat fan when LeBron James moved, or went from a Colts fan to a Broncos fan when Peyton Manning made his switch. A team moves on and you continue to support the players in that team as no one person is bigger than the team.
In NASCAR that one person is the team. Fans buy all sorts of merchandise with that drivers, face, car and number on because their loyalty is to the driver. So what happens when that driver stops being in NASCAR? Who do you shout for at a race, who do you hate because they took your driver out earlier in the season, where will you get those butterflies you get when your driver is leading with 10 laps to go? Suddenly you can lose a bit of passion for the sport and feel a little lost.
This is the situation that I found myself in last week when it was announced that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing would be releasing Juan Pablo Montoya at the end of this season. While I’ve been a NASCAR for many years it has only been in the last five or six years that I have become serious about it. What pulled me into the sport was when Dario Franchitti signed with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2007, suddenly there was a fellow Brit, whose name I knew and whom I could throw my support behind. Of course as it turned out his time in the sport was very short-lived (only starting 10 Cup races) but the damage was done and I wanted more. At the time it was easy to switch my support to the new boy Montoya, Franchitti’s short and sporadic time meant I had never fully got behind him as often I would be watching races without him in it.
So here came Montoya, a name I fully recognised and had been watching for years in F1, and had always wanted him to do well back then. Not to mention that it was the same team Franchitti drove for and used the same number Franchitti often drove in. One trait that most Brits have is that we always want the underdog to win, and in NASCAR Montoya was very much the underdog. An outsider in both terms of country and experience, yet had the skills to hopefully make an impact. Of course seven years later this impact never really materialised and for most NASCAR fans the only impact he made was on the jet dryer at Daytona.