NASCAR is one of those sports that, despite having millions of faithful all over the country, might as well not exist to certain segments of the sports-following public. We spoke with ESPN racing analyst Brad Daugherty, former UNC Tar Heel and an All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers, about what makes the sport worth your time and attention.
Tell me about how you became interested in NASCAR, and walk me through your history with the sport.
I grew up in a little town in western North Carolina. My dad, uncles, everybody raced, and we were always building and working on racecars. We spent a lot of time building hot rods and those types of things and racing at the local short track in my hometown. One of my teammate’s friends was a young man named Robert Pressley; his dad was a legendary short track racer throughout the Southeast. Robert and I played some sports together and then we worked on racecars together. We started building racecars that we raced at our local short track with all our other buddies — it’s just kind of what we did. I went off to college, played basketball at North Carolina. I was really just trying to utilize my basketball abilities to get a free education, but I got better and better at the game and obviously ended up going on to play pro basketball. All the while, I always loved racing and stayed involved throughout college and the pros. [Daugherty owned cars that ran in a variety of series when he was a professional NBA player, and he got back into racing in a big way six years ago, which is also when he started working for ESPN.]
Clearly you see the drivers as athletes. I could tell you what kind of skills you need to be a great professional small forward, so tell me what skills the best racers have, what differentiates a great racer from a mediocre racer or someone who doesn’t make it.
The difference is, you look at these guys, and what makes the great guys — you’re talking about Tony Stewart, or Dale Earnhardt, or Mark Martin — is their high-speed decision-making abilities. They see things in that racecar, and they feel things in their hands, in their feet, in their rear-end, that you and I just don’t have the ability to feel. You’re driving down the road in your streetcar and you see a piece of rubber in the road that’s 300 feet away, you swerve to miss it and try and stay in your lane and you still almost hit it. These guys are making these high-speed decisions that impact what’s going to happen to them in the next 50 feet at 200 miles an hour. It’s just that ability. I think it can be a trained process, but I think you’ve got to be a kid driving go-carts and doing those types of things your entire life. Some of these guys have natural ability that’s just unbelievable.
As far as being athletes, for me, I’ve driven a lot of racecars, and the thing is, do you have to be a world-class athlete to drive a racecar? Well, not in the sense of stick-and-ball. If you are a world-class athlete, it just helps you fly your craft that much better. But, I think the closest guys skill-wise are going to be baseball players or golfers, people who have to utilize hand-eye coordination. Then you take it to the next level, because a great racecar driver can feel everything that racecar is doing out on the right-front tire, right-rear tire, the chassis, and he feels it through his body. It’s just a tremendous amount of talent that these guys have been blessed with to do it at this level, because, I’m telling you, they’re the greatest racecar drivers on the planet.
It becomes an intuitive thing, where they’re just feeling everything.
Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s more intuitive than anything. You have guys who work very hard in a racecar and get a lot out of it. But there’s guys who are just very, very talented, and feeling that car. It’s almost like standing outside that car watching it and pushing it around the racetrack. What people have to realize is these guys are racing on a radial tire, which has tremendous grip but once it loses grip, it’s gone. A radial tire has a slip angle that you just would not believe. Once it loses grip, it’s like being on black ice.
So these guys are balancing the maneuvering and the speed with trying to keep these cars from ever losing control for a second.
Absolutely. Trying to create contact with those four pieces of rubber. You’re leaning on that right-front tire the majority of the time and pushing off the right-rear tire the majority of the time. And you’re trying to balance all that, keep your car balanced, where these things are 3500 pounds. They’re not made to turn like an Indy car or an F1 car which sucks down to the ground and basically sucks the bottom of the racetrack so its stuck. These things aren’t stuck (laughs). They’re top-heavy. It’s hard to drive these cars.
You grew up around racing, but if you had to sell auto-racing to someone who had never watched a NASCAR race but was a big basketball fan, big football fan, what would you advertise as the most intriguing or exciting parts of the sport?
The thing for me is that, anyone who has been fortunate enough to go to a live professional event, you realize that television just doesn’t do it justice. If you go watch an NFL football game live, you see the speed and the impact with which these guys play, the hit that Brian Urlacher delivers, or Justin Tuck, or the speed and power of Ray Rice, you see that. Or if you go to an NBA basketball game and you sit there and look at the physical stature of a guy like LeBron James and watch his explosiveness. Same thing in baseball: you watch a guy throw a 100 mile an hour baseball pitch or a guy hit a baseball 400 feet, it’s unbelievable. And that’s what happens in racing.
Television, though it’s gotten tremendously better over the years, just can’t cover the sight, the sound, the smell. If you go to a race track and you sit and watch 43 racecars run a couple inches apart at 180, 190 miles an hour, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The closest thing to it is when a fighter jet or something flies over you. It just sucks the wind out of you, and for the people who are fortunate enough to go see a live NASCAR event, even for the casual sports fan, it’s unlike anything you’ll ever see in your life. Because you’ve got 43 guys who are the best in the world at what they do. We all can go to the gym and shoot a basketball and put ourselves in that place, or play church-league softball, or we’re on an interstate driving a car, but it’s not the same thing! It’s nowhere near what you think it is. I tell people, just come to the racetrack, you just come and stand by the fence and watch what these guys do and the speed and the sound and the smell. There’s nothing like listening to an 850-horsepower racecar wide open going around a racetrack. It puts goosebumps on your arms.
Give me an example of some strategies that a racer might employ in-race that the casual viewer might not pick up on.
Well, what happens at the beginning of a race: you go out and a lot of times, there’s a recommended air pressure in a race tire. A lot of times, guys will start those tires really low on air pressure. And the tire builds up so it makes their run longer. If you or I were to drop the air pressure to where some of these guys drop the air pressure, you can’t drive the car. So, what you’re doing is, you know that pressure’s going to build up over the course of a run, especially your right front tire, and you’re trying to judge when that thing’s going to be at maximum pressure. Hopefully, it’ll be at the end of basically a fuel run, so you’re timing things — it’s always timing.
What happens at the first part of a run, because of the track conditions and the heat and all that type of stuff, the racecar can start out really tight, which means that when you go in to the corner and turn the wheel, it pushes toward the wall. Or it can be really loose — that means you go into the corner and the back end of the car wants to come around. So you’re trying to figure out what’s going on with your racecar and what you’re going to have to do on that first stop to get your car better and prepare it for the long run. There are a lot of things you have to really think about, engineering-wise, as you go throughout the day, and plot along as best you can, try to look into the future the best you can. We do that through data, notes, being on a racetrack several times gives you an opportunity to look back and figure out how things went. You try to put all that into a formula that at the end of the day allows you to make the best run you can make on the last run and have the best racecar at the end of that last run.
So it becomes an intellectual challenge?
I know one of your big things has been the minority presence in racing, and I wanted to ask how you think that’s changed over the last few years.
I look at the programs they’ve put in place, and I know most of the guys of color in the garage. Yeah, we’re obviously disappointed that there hasn’t been a driver that’s been able to get up to the primary series at this point in time, but there are some young guys out there that I’m really impressed with. The one young man is Darryl Wallace, who’s racing in the K&N Series, and I think he’s ready to come up to that Nationwide Series. So I see the efforts, and I’ve seen more faces on pit row. Is it where want it to be? No, we want to have different faces of color driving at the upper level, we want to see more female drivers at the upper level, but it’s like eating an elephant — it’s a hard, hard sport to get to those levels and there’s not a lot of opportunity once you get to the top. But I think NASCAR’s doing a good job, and I think the interest level is there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.