Here's what I learned about stock car racing last night: It requires a lot of shuttle runs, garage floors are never dirty, and the people who do it live in gigantic stainless steel kitchens (which are also never dirty.)
I was really looking forward to HBO's reality mini-series about NASCAR's reigning four-time champion—if you missed it, the whole first episode is online—because I honestly believed I would get something useful out of it. Last fall's "Hard Knocks" series about the Cincinnati Bengals was riveting because I really felt I learned something about football and the way a team functions. Even their "24/7" boxing documentaries, which don't dwell very long on the science of boxing, at least you give some insight into the insane dedication required to put your body through a championship fight. But was is the point of "Road To Daytona"?
The show is clearly meant to be a hand-holding introduction for people who know little-to-nothing about auto racing, but what exactly are they getting out of it? Jimmie Johnson is the best. Okay, but what makes him better than Jeff Gordon? Why do you need 25 men on a race car team? What the hell does that left wheel carrier do? Why does it take 12 seconds to do a pit stop? Can't you do it in six? What does that switch do? How do they keep their floors so damn clean?
Real NASCAR fans must have been bored to tears. If they were hoping for a behind-the-scenes look at Johnson's personal life, they got none of that. He mixes his own protein shakes! He knows how to cook at least one meal from scratch! His wife is a former model! Just like you and me!
Unlike those previous HBO shows, where cameramen move silently among the participants, all the talking was done in controlled interviews. You're not watching a story. It's being told to you. There was more discussion about cookies than there was about engines. The biggest public relations problem for the sport is that so many people just don't get it. They don't believe these guys are athletes and they don't see the difference between driving in a circle for three hours and driving to work on the turnpike. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about cars and even I have trouble believing it sometimes. But nothing in the first episode would dispel the myth that drivers are as interchangeable as spark plugs.
This was a golden opportunity to explain to "Other America" how auto racing works and, so far, they've squandered it. I'm not optimistic that another 90 minutes will get the job done.