Monday, February 6, 2012

NASCAR's Tebow

Quarterbacks get all the attention.  But the two quarterbacks getting the most attention in the buildup to Super Bowl XLVI last week had nothing to do with the game itself.  The soap opera that has become Peyton Manning and the will-he, won’t-he play for Indianapolis next year drama was the week’s biggest story.  Then there was Tim Tebow.

Tebow has been pro football’s lead story all season.  The nation’s sports media gathered in Indianapolis tried to give the public what it wanted – more Tebow.  Fans attending an open media session nearly trampled Joe Montana trying to get to Tebow.  And he seemed to be the only one of the four quarterbacks that didn’t shy away from interview requests.

The Tebow phenomenon continues to frustrate non-believers.  And I’m not talking about religious beliefs here.  I’m talking about those who can’t believe Tebow is for real.  That he’s too good to be true.  In general, however, reaction to Tebow has been overwhelming in its support.  I never felt much one-way or another about Tebow prior to this season.  But I’ve got to admit, I admire his guts to stand up for what he believes in.

There’s a message here for NASCAR.  Desperate to stop the drain on its fan base, NASCAR has spent the past couple of years promoting its “Bad Boys” – or letting the Bad Boys promote themselves – through its “boys have at it” attitude.   Partly as a result, race attendance and television viewers have stabilized.  But at what cost?  How long until fans are turned off for good by the antics of the bad boys?

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Just look at Tebow.  Given their druthers, most Americans will root for the guy in the white hat.  However, that message has been lost on normally media-savvy NASCAR.  And what makes it harder to understand is that NASCAR has a ready-made Tim Tebow.  His name is Trevor Bayne, winner of last year’s Daytona 500.

Bayne shares Tebow’s strong religious beliefs, but that’s not the message NASCAR is missing.  The message is that America is looking for heroes.  Given a choice, America would much rather cheer for the good guy, the guy in the white hat.

NASCAR’s message should be the 20-year old kid (soon to be 21) whose strongest language is “cool.”  About the kid who prepared for this year’s 500 by going to Africa on missionary work. 

Up until now, NASCAR hasn’t begun to tap Bayne’s potential.  Some of that is due to his illness last year (now thought to have been Lyme disease) which kept him out of the race car and the limelight for more than a month.    But as defending champion of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, Bayne should be front and center of the public relations effort.

Fortunately for NASCAR, Bayne has shown a willingness to step into the spotlight, even at the risk of exposing himself to Tebow-type criticism. 

“It's what we're here for,” Bayne said recently.  “I started racing for me, I started racing because I wanted to be a driver and I wanted to be successful and I wanted to win races and I wanted to have the most followers on Twitter or the most fans or whatever it is.

“But I think that's changed over the past few years. I got to go to something that was really incredible called Passion, which is for 18- to 25-year olds, and it really got me fired up to see what this is all about, that it's not about me, it never has been. It's not about what I do here, but it's about what happens for the kingdom. I think this year I'm a lot more fired up about storing my treasures in heaven instead of here."

Bayne is one of the leaders of a bible study group that includes mostly young drives from the Nationwide Series including his close friend and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier, Michael McDowell and Josh Wise.  All young.  All potential NASCAR stars.

Bayne has talked with Tebow several times and says the Denver quarterback has helped prepare him for speaking out more and for the criticism that will probably come with it.

“I think it's a really great thing that Tim Tebow is staying firm in what he believes in,” Bayne said.  “He's not letting that (criticism) change him. I read an article today in USA Today that talked about that, and I can see how that would be really hard when you have that much flak that you're catching, whether it's good or it's bad, if people are talking about it so much, it would be easy to change and waver, but I think the reason he doesn't is because it's real. I think Jesus is something that can really change lives, and I think that if we believe all that he says he is and we believe like we say we do, then we'll look different just like he does and like we're trying to do here.”

Bayne has already started spreading his message.  There’s already a book out on his career “Driven By Faith,” which he says is mostly for kids.  And with the 500 just a couple of weeks away, he departed on what’s billed as a “Christian Cruise” on Super Bowl Sunday, where he’ll be one of the featured speakers. 

And if NASCAR's smart, it won't be Bayne's last appearance.

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