Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen...START YOUR REALITY CHECKS

I have friends who live and breathe Fantasy sports. Every spring they congregate at somebody’s house for something called the “fantasy baseball draft.” This is followed in late summer by the “fantasy football draft.” And during the “season,” they follow their respective “players” with the gusto of George Steinbrenner.

I’ve never understood the concept of fantasy anything when it comes to sports. I know I’ll get an argument from fantasy groupies around the country but my feeling is clear: why indulge in a fantasy sport when you can spend your time watching, or even participating in, the real thing?

That was until last Memorial Day weekend when witnessed a sports event that is clearly turning into a giant fantasy.

It’s called the Indianapolis 500.

I’ve never been a big fan of racing, be it NASCAR, Indy cars, dragsters or even the Cub Scout-sponsored Pinebox Derby. I know NASCAR fans gravitate to tracks on Saturdays like a baby takes to a breast but I still don’t get the appeal. My comedian friend Dobie Maxwell has the best line about NASCAR: “a bunch of hillbillies turning left for four hours.”

However, my father-in-law LOVES racing and, sometime around last Christmas approached me with the idea of attending this year’s Indy 500. Considering Indianapolis is only three hours from my house, this didn’t seem like a major inconvenience. Get up early, shoot down I-65, watch the race, get back in the car and be home in time to catch the highlights on SportsCenter.

A month later, we secured tickets in that most popular of ticket forums – eBay- and awaited race day with varying degrees of enthusiasm. My father-in-law was like a kid awaiting Christmas morning.

“You bringing a stopwatch?” he said to me about a week before the race?

”What for?” I thought. “So I can time how long it takes me to get a beer once we
get inside?”

Or maybe gauge how long it would take to reach the Port-a-Potty?”

I had already read enough on the Indy 500 to know that, at 300,000 plus spectators, it is the LARGEST single-day sporting event in the world.

No, I wasn’t planning to bring a stopwatch. Just a smile, a positive attitude and the knowledge that I would be spending some quality time with an in-law.

But, as race day grew closer, my excitement grew. I read about Danica Patrick’s quest to become the first female winner in history; I wondered aloud if Helio Castroneuves could win the 500 and Dancing with the Stars in the same year; and I wondered if I would see David Letterman at the race, since he actually OWNS an Indy race team. Heck, maybe I’d even go invest in a stopwatch!

A glorious race day dawned and we made our way to Indianapolis armed with sunscreen, binoculars, earplugs and Egg McMuffins. About five miles out of Indianapolis, we joined a traffic jam, the likes of which I had never seen on ANY interstate. If two semis had flipped over and OJ Simpson was being chased in the remaining open lane, it still would not have created the traffic tie-ups that race day generates. Cars, trucks, SUVs, Winnebagos and AirStreams clogged the exit ramp off I-465, all headed to the same destination. Somewhere amidst the throng, I imagined a car containing an elderly couple who were just trying to get to their son or daughter’s house for a quiet holiday weekend. They’ll probably arrive by the Fourth of July.

Eventually we found the track, used our eBay-purchased parking passes to park in somebody’s backyard and approached the gate. Here was my first indication that the Indy 500 is a fantasy event. Track officials check your ticket, and that’s all. Bring anything you want inside the track. Nobody cares. Guys were wheeling coolers of beer, sandwiches, pies and, for all I know, homemade grenade launchers into the grounds. Nobody peeked inside anything.

I nearly got strip searched one time connecting between Dallas and St. Louis.

We made our way to our seats in the Paddock. Mind you, the Paddock contains some of the best seats at Indy, directly across from Pit Row and bordering the straightaway that also contains the starting and finish line. Even though the track is two and a half miles around, I truly thought I could see everything. I even saw David Letterman, standing on Pit Row in the midst of his team, wearing a white shirt and trying hard to remain inconspicuous.

This was America, this was sports, this was reality.
Then the race started – and fantasy reared its head.

The last time I checked, gas hovered at about $4.25 a gallon. Yet here was driver after driver, cruising down Pit Row and filling the tank without worry. No credit card, no driving to other pits to see if gas was a few pennies cheaper and nobody’s tank got capped at $75.

Furthermore, I don’t know how many miles per gallon the average race car gets but, judging by how often the drivers were pitting for more gas, I have to believe they are on par with Hummers in terms of fuel economy.

Once the car loaded up on free unleaded premium, or whatever it is that makes a racecar go, it was back to the track for a leisurely drive at 200 plus miles per hour. No police lurking in a hidden section of the infield with radar guns, no senior citizens in the left hand lane of Turn Two and no drivers making obscene gestures when another car cut them off. Furthermore, one car even hit a wall and was back in the race 15 minutes later.

I once backed into a mailbox and my Dad took away the keys for a month.

The race continued. Numerous caution flags slowed the drivers down to a paltry 100 miles per hour. Suddenly, the moment that would be replayed endlessly on ESPN occurred: Danica Patrick pulled away from Pit Row and was promptly clipped by Ryan Briscoe – a MALE driver. The crowd groaned. But what was this? Something even the most seasoned Indy spectators had never seen before. A WOMAN driver, stalking toward Briscoe’s car. The entire crowd knew it wasn’t to exchange licenses and insurance information. Track security intervened before she got to Briscoe but I would have paid at least an extra hundred bucks to watch Patrick vs. Briscoe in Ultimate Fighting.

Everyone was so consumed with the confrontation (that never amounted to anything, by the way) that nobody noticed Scott Dixon racing toward the checkered flag, which he won with ease. No sooner had he crossed the line than my brother in law grabbed my arm and said, “let’s go.”

We raced to the car and beat about 200,000 people to the interstate. Home in plenty of time to watch the replay on TV, just as I had imagined.

Yes, it was a great day but I think it’s time to make auto racing a little more realistic. Next year, to show that Indy is an “eco friendly” event, make the drivers cruise the track in Hybrids. Halfway through the race, all must pull over for an emissions test and wait while a state-employed “technician” with the brain power of a gnat hooks numerous hoses to their vehicles and fills out a myriad of paperwork. The winner, instead of chugging milk upon completion of the race, has to drink an entire Venti Starbucks, since that’s what most drivers drink in their cars these days.

Finally, all cars must contain a four-year-old child in the backseat, who screams to watch a DVD during the race.

Now we’re talking reality.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I feel like a m-o-r-o-n

So I missed one of my favorite sporting events on television this past weekend. I can’t believe Tivo did not notify me that it was time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
I can’t explain it but I am fascinated by this event. Maybe it’s because ESPN considers it a “sport.” Maybe it’s because I was the spelling champ at Windsor Elementary School in the second grade.
Maybe it’s because Americans suck at spelling and it’s nice to see a bunch of kids spelling complex words without the aid of a Microsoft spell checker.
I first became hooked on the Scripps spelling bee several years ago while channel surfing and stopping on one of the 87 ESPN channels. I’ve decided that ESPN has more channels than actual sports, which probably explains why I can see such raw athletic pursuits as keg tossing, women’s bodybuilding and horseshoe pitching all from the privacy of my couch.
On this particular evening, none of those events interested me so I kept clicking until I came upon a bunch of junior-high aged children, most with glasses, some with peach fuzz under their noses and all with pained expressions on their faces as they struggled to spell words that were never on any SAT test that I took. I never used any of them while writing for The Palm Beach Post newspaper. As far as I could tell, none of these words even existed. And yet these kids plowed through them as if they were taken from a first-grade reading book.
I was transfixed. I marveled at the competitive nature and the pressure. Yes, the Scripps spelling bee is pressure packed, as evidenced by one contestant who fainted onstage one year yet recovered, returned immediately to the stage and still spelled his word correctly.
Of course my favorite part of the Bee is the fact that it has announcers. Since this event is broadcast on ESPN, the network has to hire commentators to describe every scintillating SPELL-binding moment. I’m not sure if the guys they hire were new to the network and working their way up, or if they had committed some grievous violation and were demoted. Whatever the reason, they are always determined to make the Scripps spelling bee every bit as tingling as a sudden death playoff at the Masters.
Well, it's a beautiful day in Washington D.C. Chip.
That’s right Jack, The air is thick with the smell of nouns, verbs and dangling participles.
We've got a top-notch bunch of kids who are going to stand on a stage with numbers around their necks and do nothing for most of the time. And we'll cover every step of the action.
You know Jack, a lot's been said that American kids are too lazy to spell.
I disagree Chip. I think Americans are excellent spellers, myself included.
Okay Jack, spell finite.
That's easy...F-I-N-E-K-N-I-G-H-T.
Let's go to a commercial Jack.
According to my favorite information source, Wikipedia, the Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925, and was won by Frank Neuhauser, who spelled gladiolus, which is either the center part of the sternum or a flowering plant having sword-shaped leaves. Upon reading that I hope I never have to visit a hospital with gladiolus problems, as I don’t want the doctor pulling plants from my backyard and saying, “they look okay to me!”
Through the years, some of the winning contestants seemed to get off easy. In 1934 Sarah Wilson won by spelling deteriorating. The following year Clara Moller correctly spelled intelligible to achieve Spelling Bee glory. Other winning words included therapy, initials, vignette and condominium. Melody Sachko spelled condominium in 1956, perhaps becoming the only spelling bee champ to spell something that many people own at least once in their lives.
The guy who got off the easiest had to be 1984 champion Daniel Greenblatt who won by spelling (are you ready?) luge! The winning word had four letters? That’s like Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl by walking 100 yards through the defense.
Obviously the organizers of the spelling bee had egg on their faces following Mr. Greenblatt’s victory for the winning words got infinitely harder afterwards. In 1985, Balu Natarajan won for spelling milieu. It should also be noted that Balu Natarajan correctly spelled his own name, which I’m sure earned him extra points. In fact, having a nearly unintelligible name seems to be a prerequisite to winning the bee, as Pratyush Buddiga (2002), Sai R. Gunturi (2003), and Anurag Kashyap (2005) can attest.
In keeping with that theme, 12-year-old Sameer Mishra from Lafayette, Indiana won this year’s contest. The young Mishra lad’s fallen competitors included Sidharth Chand, Samia Nawaz and Kavya Shivashankar. According to the national spelling bee website, Mishra plays the violin, enjoys computer games, likes math and science and aspires to be a neurologist.
When I was 12 I aspired to spell “aspire.”
Mishra blitzed the competition by spelling such commonly used words as sinicize, hyphaeresis, taleggio, nacarat, and numnah. Let me point out that the Microsoft spell checker has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what any of those words mean as evidenced by the squiggly red line that appeared under each word when I typed it into a Word document. I had to go to Encarta (the smarter Microsoft application) to learn that “sinicize” means “to acquire a Chinese idiom, form or cultural trait.” Hyphaeresis is “the omission of a sound, letter, or syllable from a word.” If you want a semi-soft cheese made from whole cow’s milk, ask for some “taleggio.” If you wake up and your skin is a pale red color with a cast of orange, it may appear “nacarat.” Finally, the next time you ride a horse, make sure it has a “numnah,” which is a thick felt pad that prevents the saddle from moving.
Which leads to my beef with the National Spelling Bee. Why spell words that you’re never going to use in regular conversation? Want to crown a spelling bee champ? Make him or her wake up the day following the victory, walk down the streets of Washington DC where the contest is held, engage passing strangers in conversation and use every one of the words spelled in the competition.
Hello my name is Sameer. Can you please direct me to Chinatown? I’d like to sinicize before I leave town.
I don’t know what would be weirder: the look the kid would get or the fact that ESPN would broadcast the whole thing live.