Back in the day when boxing seemed relevant, whenever something strange, different or having to do with Mike Tyson’s nemesis Mitch “Blood” Green occurred, a colleague would imitate a carnival barker. “Bring on the two-headed calf,” he would say.
NASCAR’s equivalent is the shotgun-riding monkey.
Readers of this space may recall an homage to Jocko Flocko, a Rhesus monkey that in 1953 rode alongside driver Tim Flock for eight races. Flock and his monkey, clad in his own driving suit, won a Grand National race at Hickory, North Carolina.
Two weeks later, Jocko Flocko was out of a ride.
During the Raleigh 300, Jocko stuck his head through a trap door drivers of the era used to check tire wear. We’ll let the Hall-of-Fame driver Tim Flock take it from here:
“Jocko got loose from his seat and stuck his head through the trap door, and he went berserk! Listen, it was hard enough to drive those heavy old cars back then under normal circumstances, but with a crazed monkey clawing you at the same time, it becomes nearly impossible. I had to come into the pits to put him out and ended up third. Jocko was retired immediately. I had to get that monkey off my back.”
When word got out NASCAR was altering its points system again — races will be broken into three segments, with drivers receiving bonus points for how they run in these segments that will carry over into the playoff races — NASCAR fans did Jocko Flocko impressions.
They went berserk.
A Yahoo story about the so-called “enhancements” produced 673 comments.
The first 106 were negative, before somebody wrote that racing in segments might make NASCAR more palatable to a younger demographic hopped up on (new title sponsor) Monster Energy.
That sentiment was followed by 168 consecutive negative sentiments.
But drivers say fans are going to love the enhancements, once they see how they improve the quality of racing.
“There are no off weeks,” Denny Hamlin said. “Every single race matters (now) and not only that, every lap of every race matters.”
“I love that bonus points carry through to the last (playoff) round — that’s a great change,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
“More chances to win, more chances to perform, more spotlights,” Brad Keselowski said. “If we created motorsports from scratch today, this is the way we would have done it.”
Whatever its shortcomings were — and there were many, fans and drivers concur — the NASCAR playoff system that has been tweaked on a continuous loop to produce “a Game 7 moment” as in the stick-and-ball sports delivered one in November. Jimmie Johnson emerged from a field of four finalists and a slam-bang finish to win his seventh Cup Series championship.
Even some of those first responders to the Yahoo story would have to allow it made for compelling TV, at least for those whose channels weren’t glued to that Sunday’s pro football game.
Under the old system before playoffs, Jimmie Johnson would have finished seventh, a distant 152 points behind Kevin Harvick. The argument among cynics: Playoff races minimize NASCAR’s regular season.
The mentality is different in other pro sports, in which playoffs are status quo rather than manufactured add-ons. The 49ers, Ravens and Packers have won the Super Bowl with modest 10-6 records, yet still are regarded as legitimate champions.
An advocate of the devil may ask: Is racing in segments any different than the NFL moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone? Than the NBA putting in a 3-point arc?
As one who loathed the playoff format when it was announced but found himself inching forward on the couch during the frantic closing laps at Homestead, Florida, I’m willing to give segment racing a chance before rounding up Madonna and Michael Moore and marching on NASCAR headquarters.
But before it fell in line with the stick-and-ball sports by creating a playoff to pique public interest, NASCAR offered a championship in which every team (and driver) competed against every other team (and driver) under the same circumstances. There were no gimmicks. They weren’t required when there wasn’t a big TV deal.
The majors and mid-majors competed on the same playing field, under the same conditions. There was no option to schedule a Mountain West patsy. If you stubbed your toe early, it still hurt at the end.
Once upon a time, NASCAR may have had the closest thing to a perfect championship.
What it has now is a monkey riding shotgun again.