Sunday, January 27, 2013

Repost: The Art Of The Spectacle

Spectacles need fundamental elements. Drama, danger and a large crowd are three things that the folks at Redbull assembled on Sunday afternoon. For several hours the social media buzz moved from the NFL to something else. That something else was a spectacle of the highest order.

A man was going to do what was clearly dangerous. He was going against the odds. He had courage, desire and a single-minded focus. Despite our bravado, the vast majority of us would never do what he was about to do. It was the perfect stage to keep the undivided attention of millions around the world.

Perhaps like many families, we stumbled across the Redbull Stratos project through news reports and social media mentions. We went to the website of the live mission first, then added the Discovery HD Channel telecast as a second screen. We also actively chatted with others on Twitter as things unfolded. Three screens for one special event viewed spontaneously.

The drama of watching Felix Baumgartner slowly drift up toward the edge of space was heightened by the camera shots of his wife and family members. The announcers built the suspense. The fundamental idea that he was going to jump out of his capsule and free-fall some twenty-four miles back to earth with just a parachute was hard to grasp.

Every spectacle needs moments. Eventually, the capsule reached the height needed for the record attempt. After adjusting the cabin pressure, the live video from inside the capsule gave us the first moment. The door opened and there, in all its High Definition glory, was earth. It was a long way down.

As Baumgartner finished his final checklist, he slid his feet out of the capsule door. Across the world, folks watching on every single kind of device from TV's to cell phones got the very same feeling. This guy was actually going to do it right now. The sense of danger was very real, even if the only thing I had to ride was my couch.

The video showed Baumgartner standing on the small ledge outside the capsule. The angle switched to one from overhead looking down. Key to the tension from the start of the event were the pictures. Then, with a small lean forward, he was gone. It was actually happening.

That moment of being terrified, thrilled and amazed all at the same time felt familiar. As Baumgartner hurtled toward earth risking his own life in front of my eyes it hit me all at once. This is the way I used to feel about a Sprint Cup Series race. This heart in your throat can't stop watching excitement is what got me into NASCAR.

The cheers went up when Baumgartner's parachute finally opened. There was still a long way to go but at least things were going according to plan. The thrill had changed into an appreciation of just how much effort had gone into this one event. Now it was time to see if he could bring it home.

From twenty-four miles up Baumgartner eased his way back to solid ground and just for good measure, he stuck the landing. My viewing partner and I looked at each other. Without saying a word, we both knew what had happened. We had shared a unique moment with each other from just being there.

That is the way I used to feel when a top-notch NASCAR race was over. It could be a high-speed run at Michigan or a short-track slugfest at Richmond. The drivers were ready and willing to take a risk to win. The drama would unfold with the announcers and pictures playing a key role. The story developed without any of us knowing the result.

The real key to making this work was that each race was a spectacle. Each race offered an individual challenge that would last until the final turn of the final lap. Fate and luck would play a role that was yet to be determined. The danger was real, the intensity was high and sport was driven by the personalities involved.

I stopped enjoying Sprint Cup Series races a while ago and stopped watching live telecasts this season. Rather than let the spectacle of each unique event unfold, things seem to be centered on simply getting in position to participate in the post-season Chase for the Championship. Team decisions are centered on what can be lost, not gained, by taking risks.

Inside the Chase, it's even worse. The announcers are caught-up in trying to promote the playoff format at the expense of the actual event in progress. The stories of most of the teams in the field are rarely told, regardless of the racing value. Teams not in the Chase just don't matter, despite the fact those drivers are taking the same risks and working just as hard as the chosen twelve.

I miss that lump in the throat feeling when watching racing. When Baumgartner leaned forward and stepped off the ledge, you knew he was committed. You knew he was willing to take a risk. It was pure spectacle. Maybe someday racing will change back to embrace that style of celebrating every event in a unique fashion and let the season championship be a result of risk rather than calculation.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.


Sally said...

Thank you JD. You summed up perfectly what I've been missing in watching Nascar rades the last few years. Each individual race has been overshadowed by the almighty 'chase'. The emphasis on the contrived 'playoff' has diminished the competativeness for winning under the pretense of 'going for the champeenship'. Add the increased reliance on computers and engineers and expensive tech equpiment, and the 'seat of your pants' backyard genius feel has been lost. It just isn't the same...and I miss it.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you hear Jeff Gordon on Wind Tunnel? He says the chase is great. I guess all of us fans are wrong.

Anonymous said...

So what you are really saying JD, is that you love the chase, the cot, and the heart stopping thrill that a fuel milage race presented by the tv partners give you. I do not know whether to sign that bzf, kwallace, dw, or nascar marketing. Just remember, "Everything is gooood!" MC

Todd Crane said...


Anonymous said...

Exactly. We pay to watch drivers take incredible risks to do incredible things most of us can't. But since Earnhardt's death the sport has slowly gone limp. Parity has killed innovation and a corporate sheen smothers everything. There are no more tough guys in NASCAR, just soft manicured millionaires who insulate themselves from the unwashed masses. They live in Brian France's world; the "Suite Life". And they look down their noses at those who dare to cling to the original reason stock car racing was so thrilling, dismissing fans as savages who want a "blood sport". I'm surprised they're not holding a tea cup with their pinky extended when they say it. The face of NASCAR looks more like Jean Gerard and less like Ricky Bobby every single weekend. Sad. Sad. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Watched the Stratos jump on Velocity Network (used to be HD Theater) and is now what SPEED was supposed to be!
Coverage was un-believable

53 yr. fan said...

There was nothing more indicative
of the racing demise than the lack of fans around Race City this weekend. No overflowing restaurants. No pop-up souvenir stands. No traffic congestion.

Those decisions being made by the
NA$CAR marketing geniuses, who are not racers, trickle down a long way.

Anonymous said...

Soooooooooooo many nascar fans out there agree with you, but nothing is done. As recently as 10 yrs ago I was clued to the tv for every race, not anymore. Wake up Nascar before its too late. The cars are cookie cutter cars, no one can pass, boring racing. I don't watch for the crashes, but I want to see some racing.

Colorado said...

This post brought tears to my eyes...Thank you, John. It reminded me of racing over to friends house to watch Talladega years ago, and listening to the radio broadcast, where the MRN guys were screaming at the top of their lungs when Dave Marcis, in his 60's, was leading the pack. I was hollering right along with them! When Dale Sr. went from 18th to first in three laps...When Kulwicki won his first and only championship in Atlanta.Back when it was fun. When drivers were doing extraordinary things, taking those risks, to get us to jump up and down and cheer! The couple in North Carolina screaming for Jr. at Charlotte to win, only to be let down by him running out of gas. (Still brings shivers to my spine. Google it or youtube it...Classic!) Ernest Hemingway once wrote: The only true heroes are bull fighters and auto racers.Now, I find myself staring at a plate of vanilla every Sunday...

Joj said...

Thank You & AMEN.

The suited ones do not care what the real world wants.

The empty seats at Charlotte this past weekend should be a wake up call.

I doubt any one could see from the Penthouse.


mrclause said...

JD, you nailed this one! The deeper I got into the article the more it sunk in that you were exactly correct.
I watched the whole stream from about a half hour before launch to when he touched down. And you are right, everything I felt watching that, I used to feel leading into a NASCAR event.I watched a balloon rise for two hours and was filled with anticipation and excitement, everything I used to feel about NASCAR. To be honest, I'd probably have ignored a race to watch the balloon rise. This from a 50+ year fan.
The camera shots were fantastic, mission control was informative, to watch this guy plummet from 128,000 feet was breath taking. It was a lot more spell binding than watching a race where drivers hold back to protect points or to save gas. It ain't the economy Brian, it's the lack of having a real show.

RFMjr said...

Perfectly stated.

Shut it. Seal it. Stamp it. Send it in. This is what NASCAR needs to see and know, but obviously will not.

Anonymous said...

As I spent my Sunday watching NFL Redzone I said to myself, how can NASCAR compete with this? Play after exciting play, last minute scores, overtime, etc. NASCAR in its glory days would still struggle up against the NFL but in its current incarnation it's barely a blip on the radar of most sports fans. It's never going to compete with the NFL, but at least throw us a few bones each race.

AncientRacer said...

Well and truly said.

KoHoSo said...

I miss that lump in the throat feeling when watching racing.

That says it all right there. Low interest and "importance" aside, I still get that from IndyCar but NASCAR killed it for itself with Brian France's Chase. I stuck it out for almost eight years hoping to be wrong, but I wasn't. Jeff Gordon, the Waltrips, and all the rest can have their "playoff" if they like it. Just remember that one of those empty seats and one of those lost ratings points is where I used to be every weekend going back to the 70s.

Anonymous said...

And Jeff Gordon on Windtunnel last night stated he loves the chase format. What a lot of bull. I and many others hate it as the poor guys not in the chase are rarely shown how good can that be for the sport. And now they are saying there are only 3 drivers who have the chance to win it guess my fav won't be shown much from now on. I'm surprised AB doesn't do a better job of promoting the also rans but maybe he's told by the execs who to talk about. You hit the nail on the head this time with your story

VickyD in Houston!
I'm not a robot either!

Anonymous said...

Red Bull, that's money well spent. You pulled it out of a boring stale sport and spent it to take us to the edge of space. You successfully associated your brand with innovation and excitement and fun. NASCAR stopped being those things years ago.

Anonymous said...

AP reports FOX reups for 8 years, $2.4 billion. 33% yearly increase.

Apparently they all see something we don't. I have no idea what that is, but they see it.

Alex Jordan said...

The spectacle is gone in Nascar. There have been boring races this year, thanks in part to fuel milage races. The Chase has not been better. ESPN focuses on the chosen twelve and forgets about the rest. At Charlotte we saw a race that came down to fuel milage again and limited action. When ESPN did up to speed they did it for the Chase drives despite Kyle Busch being in the top ten. Maybe ther will be excitement before the season ends. Hopefully there will be otherwise it wont be good for Nascar.

Sophia said...

At first I thought this was a glorified jacka$$ stunt as I never heard of this guy but then read he studied/worked for years to do this from claustrophobia in pressurized suits to being flown out of the country to deal with panic attacks.

My housemate listened to this stratosphere show online from 11.30AM. I got online as he jumped out but could not watch...I got on twitter, which blew up from this event, and saw a tweet that he had landed safely before the video showed that he had. HOWEVER the video online cut away right as the guy touched ground and shot the the Roswell crew cheering! What the ? Must've been a NASCAR director, just like we see one car cross the FL and then the crew chiefs/crews/wives jumping around :(

That said the first astronauts had to seem crazy once upon a time.

Yes, the current NASCAR races bore me and I DVR races --tho have deleted 90% this yr without watching first) and if I didn't have that I would tape (Still have 2 VCRs in the house!)

Of course I am glad the cars are safer, ok. But with Jr's concussion issues and other bad hits we see w in car cams (Reutimann's comes to mind and many others)there are still risks.

But what we really need are cars that can pass, not feel like a giant bus being driven, or a car that goes in the grass and is ruined due to a the design flaw of the SPLITTER.

I also remember watching the start of each NASCAR race breathlessly awaiting the finish. First, The televised camera work has robbed the home viewer of SEEING the races, due to bad camera work as we've mentioned before)Can't enjoy a pass for the lead from a !@#$% fender cam or in car cam though the director's believe otherwise

Then the COT made the car incredibly expensive and very tough to drive.

I did watch the Dega race but the crash sickened me, and I caught the end of Sat race on DVR and saw the camera held on finish line for 5 seconds. I didn't bother to watch the rest of the race because even my twitter feed wasn't discussing the race (except for the reporters)not others from their homes.

Used to be this blog was great for group watching but fans lost interest. Twitter is ok but many of us early adopters are using it less though the corporation/celebrity accounts get attention.

Been on Twitter since 2008 and just not the same since "homogenized" and all over the media.

Kind of like NASCAR with their homogenized "Stepford wives" drivers.

With Brian France running the show no hope.

I do hope Jr feels better soon. TBI is nothing to mess with.

Jake said...

Thanks JD that is the best post you have ever wrote and the best i have seen overall in a long time.You captured what all of us fans have been feeling in the most eloquent way possible.Work of art.

Jayhawk said...

Indeed. It used to be exciting just to watch them suiting up, pulling on their helmets and gloves, climbing into the cars. The heartbeat was accelerating and they hadn't even started their engines yet. Now we have the "in race reporter" bloviating about adjustments to the car and telling us who his sponsors are.

Buschseries61 said...

Wow, I'm just stunned reading this. You phrased my feelings better than I could put them together in my head. Best column of the season. Well done!

w17scott said...

Mr Editor -
To the point as usual ...the almighty dollar speaks again, fans be damned!!! ...I channel-surfed the entire night, and joined the race broadcast only to pickup bits of the race and learn who was leading ...will be interested to follow ESPN/Turner negotiations and find out what voices NBCSports puts to F1's world feed ...MRN/PRN will adequately handle voice over for FOX broadcasts for me

AncientRacer said...

Sophia said:

...the first astronauts had to seem crazy once upon a time.

The first astronauts were considered crazy because they were. As a kid I knew them all as well as most of the even crazier guys who paved the way for them such as Chuck Yeager. Felix Baumgartner would be warmly welcomed into their company.

I came into NASCAR because of NASA as my father was involved at the Cape & Huntsville. There were great similarities between NASCAR & NASA that went beyond "stars" (pun intended) to the guys who built the equipment. There are many unknown names in NASA history who had the insane mechanical brilliance of Junior Johnson, Cotton Owens and Smokey Yunick; guys who could figure out how to make things work that no one had ever thought of making before much less thought of making work while along the way drinking too much, cursing too much, smoking too much etc., etc., etc....

The respective declines of the public image/popularity of NASCAR and NASA have been similar as well and I trace both directly to the mythic moment when seat-of-the-pants was replaced by seat-on-the-committee.

Paul said...

Wow, John, this analogy really hit it on the head. Watching the jump, I was on the edge of my seat until he finally touched down, dropped to his knees, then gave a wave! Used to be like that on Sundays 'back in the day'.

Anonymous said...

Even though the NHRA copied NASCAR with their stupid playoffs, I still get that lump in the throat feeling watching that.

Anonymous said...

" Anonymous said...
As I spent my Sunday watching NFL Redzone I said to myself, how can NASCAR compete with this?

October 15, 2012 11:39 AM"

They can't and never could. The NFL makes every play of every game important. You have to win this week, you have to make the 1st down, the catch, the run. You have to stop the offense now. If you can't do it, someone else will take your place. Fear drives the NFL because very little is guaranteed and the average career is something like 3.5 years.

I love Steve Matchett on the F1 races on Speed. "You have to get the speed in qualifying now. You have fresh tires, you have to pass now. You have to pass driver X now because if you don't you will be further behind in the drivers standing."

As opposed to "We had a good finish in 10th today." No you didn't, you lost.

Maybe Nascar should go back to half way money like they had years ago, except this time make it $1000, $2000,$3000, etc.. increasing every 20 laps.
Somebody would always have their foot in it.,

Anonymous said...

If you want to help NASCAR, you have to get this article published in Forbes. That's the only way a France or sponsors are gonna see it.

GinaV24 said...

JD, you put it so eloquently. I, too, miss the awesome experience that watching a NASCAR race in person or on TV used to be.

I was at the race this weekend and for too much of the race I was bored. Bored! Bored when I'm sitting in the stands watching something that used to make my heart pound the way you described.

Anon, I saw Jeff Gordon's appearance on Wind Tunnel last night and honesty I didn't expect him to say anything that what he did about the Chase. The drivers have all been programmed to say the "right" things about it. I was more surprised when he made his post-race comments at Talladega - that he didn't enjoy racing there any more. I figured NASCAR would smack him around for those words - after all Dale Jr recanted his statement - probably because NASCAR insisted he do that - or they can claim his concussion made him say those things.

Thanks for this article, JD. That man who jumped to Earth was seriously amazing with great coverage of the event, too. I doubt that we'll ever see NASCAR covered that way again.

GinaV24 said...

One more thing to add. Based on the lack of interest I had in the race at CMS this weekend, I don't know that I plan to renew my tickets.

Based on the size of the crowd, I could wait until closer to the race to buy the tickets, so why should I give them my $ in advance?

Tonnie said...

I let my season tickets at Richmond and Dover go in 2009 because I could not afford them at the time. It is now 2012 and I can afford the tickets and have no desire to purchase them back, that should say it all!

OSBORNK said...

I think there are four things that make people watch a live event.

We watch because of the danger, suspense, excitement and uncertainty. These things are all gone or greatly diminished with the current NASCAR.

These elements are why we watch things like the parachute jump, high wire acts, jumps over the Snake River Canyon, football,rodeo and similar unpredictable and dangerous activities.

We don't want to see anyone hurt but admit it or not, the possibility intrigues us and causes us to watch.

GinaV24 said...

Saw the article on the sidebar that Fox has renewed for the next 8 years. I will be very interested to see the details on online streaming. I do not plan to watch the Waltrip channel.

James said...

As always, a great reminder of what it is to be a fan and experience a thrilling event when pictures and expectations are combined with a flair for the unknown and the conclusion is in doubt when life is held in the balance! This was an individual event. One participant highly anticipated and viewed by those who long for what was once enjoyed on a regular basis of “Big Time Auto Racing”.
The “show” televised Saturday Evening was not even close to the same level of excitement, for me. I did find the F1 “show” to be much better than the above. I really loved the close action and the way the pictures told the story, while the commentators allowed the racing to unfold. Close-up shots of the tires scrubbing off rubber while cornering. Actually showing replays that captured racing action of cars in close quarters changing lines while diving through corners at extreme speeds. Graphics that did their jobs, but did not obliterate the pictures they were trying show. Useful information, not opinionated guesses as to what was unfolding. A wonderful broadcast and I do not especially like F1 racing. I do enjoy RACING. I have been reading here about how good the F1 “show” has become and I am a believer. So much so, I wonder if NASCAR has recently bothered to compare their “show” to this and ask the question why their “show” lacked in excitement so badly. Telling the fans the racing is great is nothing compared to great racing. The empty stands, again speak volumes as to where NASCAR has fallen. It’s not the economy, it’s the way the “show” is produced and directed. Fuel strategy may be one factor in winning, but it is not very entertaining to witness.

Anonymous said...

Great blog John. You said everything perfectly

Dennis said...

Don't need to say a thing. You said it all.

Anonymous said...

My wife I went to a Low Country Boil Saturday evening. When we got home she turned on a chick flick on TV. It wasn't until Sunday morning getting ready for church that I remembered that there had been a race on Saturday night. Used to look forward to the races...make plans around them so I could watch. Now? Doesn't matter. They aren't racing. They determining fuel mileage on a 600 hp car. Boring.

Kyng said...

Wonderfully put, JD.

Anonymous said...

I was initially repulsed by the photo at the top of this column. When I could look at it, I suddenly noticed a striking resemblance to Mad Magazine's clueless idiot Alfred E. Neuman and was reminded of his motto "What, me worry?" Considering NASCAR's downward trend in TV ratings and track attendance, the photo and motto seem perfectly appropriate.

Anonymous said...

OOPS! I was scrolling down and saw the picture of Brian France. I believe I inadvertently left the Alfred E. Neuman comparison on the wrong column. It should be on the Anatomy of the Deal column.

littlepigs99 said...

Is the solution to get rid of a championship for the year? Take the prize money handed out at the end of the year and divide it among the races to increase the payout money for winning. Maybe give a guaranteed payout amt for places 21-43 to help cover costs for those who qualify (but not so much that you encourage start and park). could be the only way to eliminate points racing is to get rid of why you were getting points.

Anonymous said...

I used to get the same feeling when Evel Knievel was on ABC. I too DVR every race and skip to last 50 laps. David Hill and BZF have ruined NASCAR.

Anonymous said...

Here is why FOX had to pay big bucks
They are launching 3 rebranded cable sports nets....Fox Sports 1,2 and 3.
They need high profile product to justify their existence, to FOX execs, to viewers and to cable operators.
They KNOW that NBC broadcast and NBC Sports (cable channel) have the ability to carry the entire NASCAR season and to promise all cup races on network tv (NBC has NFL on Sun night.) and all the support programming on the NBC Sports cable net.
Fox broadcast cannot offer the same deal, because of Sunday NFL.
So, NASCAR was in the driver's seat and cashed in.
I predict that by the end of this deal, FOX will be very, very sorry they entered into it.