0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: Civility

I have been an educator for three and a half decades so I can speak with some authority about how one can end their college career prematurely.

There are obvious precipitants like simply failing or not attending class. Those are easy ones. In my field which trains future professionals to work with vulnerable people there is also great attention to ethical violations. Then there is the matter of civility. Hence, there is an expectation that in your conduct you observe basic standards of decency toward others.

As I have noted before in these columns, my family was not interested in racing, so this was something I picked up on my own. When I did get involved my father, in particular, was concerned. He questioned the character of those involved in the sport and viewed the culture as populated by those who lacked a moral compass and were governed only by the pleasure principle.

It’s funny how things evolved for me. The mechanics of race cars and what it takes to make them go fast was never a drawing card. As I recently shared with Levi Jones, my acumen in this area barely goes beyond righty-tighty and lefty-loosey. I can even mess that up.

To me, as much as it ran counter to my father’s narrative, beyond the raw competition the thing that has attracted me is the people. I love the stories, the spirit of the competitors, and think of the lifelong friends I have made among other fans.

Unfortunately, of late, I detect a basic lack of decency and civility that is disappointing and discouraging. Being civil does not mean agreement. One can hold disparate opinions and even argue and still be civil.

Yet, what we have now are tools to amplify all voices and while much of this is good, some of it is not. We’re a sport that has to hang together or die. We can all look at pictures of events at places like the Minnesota State Fair during the heyday of IMCA sprint car racing, or see the throng that once gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the running of the Hoosier Hundred. Not only will we rarely — if ever — see crowds like that again, but those race tracks are gone. So to make things even worse, we have resorted to tearing each other down.

A few recent examples. I’m thrilled that my announcing life began well before the age of social media and that it has always been a hobby, not a livelihood. I spent much of last summer working with a man that is relatively new to sprint car and midget racing. He came up through karting and then primarily to road and street circuits. He was placed in a nearly untenable position. He started the year by trying to announce from a production vehicle.

Given his wealth of experience and background, it was something his predecessor the veteran broadcaster Rob Klepper could do. However, it was nearly an impossible task for someone new to the scene. So he joined me in the public address booth where you had a more expansive view.

From there the one mistake I felt he made was paying too much attention to social media. That said, some feedback and words were way over the line. I recall one comment on a website that referred to him as “whale excrement.” Mind you this had nothing to do with his behavior toward others or how he lived his life. It was because this individual didn’t like how he announced a short-track race. Really. Think about that. This from someone watching at home at a cost of about 39 cents a race. Is this really necessary? No.

Can constructive criticism be offered? Sure. How about where possible face to face or a private message? Point of fact I don’t care who your favorite sports announcer is, trust me someone doesn’t like them.

Then there is this. Bloomington Speedway is bordered by a creek and has a lower parking lot used by the bulk of spectators. Recently after several big storms and persistent rain, the pit area and parking lot were saturated. When races are called here and elsewhere it is often for this reason, not because a track can’t be rolled in.

So a decision was made to pull the plug on what appeared to be a beautiful day. I was surprised but then got the word about the condition of the grounds. Remember this, promoter Joe Spiker took over that track and spent tons of money reworking the grandstands. His reward. A truncated year due to COVID. So a decision that was disappointing can’t just be about wet grounds, it is because Joe is somehow lazy, or as a competitor suggested, “a dope.”

That’s right. A dope. So here is a man who runs two race tracks in Indiana where you might want to race, so the prudent thing to do is call him a dope. Then my personal favorite comment, “all he is interested in is making money.” Newsflash. This isn’t a social service agency, it’s a business.

Then there is the matter of the recent tire doping allegations involving competitors in the Xtreme Outlaw Sprint Car Series and the USAC sprint cars. As you probably know the two groups handled this differently.

Do I know the truth of what happened here? No. Is it my business? Not really. What I do know is that a lot of people, with a fraction of information and a ton of hearsay, had strong opinions and were more than willing to share them.

This included some fans, owners, drivers and amazingly others completely outside the situation, but in the industry. Stunning to me, some that yelled the loudest were people who have received real support from USAC in a variety of ways. And the bashing has continued.

Never mind the fact that USAC might even be vindicated — a point made by several rational people. There are other elements of this story that are troubling to me, but more than anything it is the failure to have any sensitivity to the fact that USAC isn’t a thing, it is a group of real people.

These are men and women with a passion for racing, pride and as simple as it sounds, feelings. When you boil it down, about 10 people make up USAC’s traveling crew. This group covered close to 100 races last year and will duplicate that in 2022.

This involves some all-night drives, and they are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. They are not getting rich. They do it because they love racing. So go ahead and sit behind a keyboard and call people dumb, dopes, whale excrement and losers.

Or better yet, somehow build up a vast conspiracy in your mind, then think about some of those very people and say to yourself, ‘yup Rich, Sammy and Matt are trying their best to screw me.’ Ask yourself if you want to sign on the bottom line and give up nearly every weekend and more, all summer long to face this.

I recently attended the NCAA Division III National Basketball Tournament in Ft. Wayne and about every 30 minutes a public service announcement was made begging people to become officials because a critical shortage was at hand. This is a rampant problem in all sports. If you think racing is invulnerable to this very phenomenon, you’re out of touch.

One might have thought that after what we have gone through, we all would just be happy to be able to race. Apparently, I’m naïve. It’s time for civility to come back in style.

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