More often than not, I'm greeted with a look of bewilderment or disdain -- sometimes a combination of both -- when I mention my fondness for NASCAR. Such reactions don't surprise me. Really, I get it. A guy of my stature, whatever that means, is not usually found in the stands drinking beer, indulging in fried food and standing in solidarity with thousands of flag-waving, driver-obsessed fans. It's much easier to imagine me having a nice dinner and a glass of wine, then strolling over to a crowded theater to join a crowd erupting in applause to express its collective love of The Book of Mormon. Truthfully, both environments intrigue me greatly. While each event is vastly different, the human experience remains the same. And it wasn't until I met NASCAR Nationwide driver, Cale Conley, that I realized it.
It was nearly five years ago when I asked my NASCAR-loving former college roommate, Bill Gross, to give me a list of up-and-coming race car drivers. At that time, I was exploring the possibilities of producing reality television, and I thought that finding a young athlete who America had yet to meet and creating a series around him, his family and the day-to-day obligations of racing cars had considerable potential. It was an interesting world that I -- and millions like me -- knew nothing about, yet clearly one that dominated the American sports culture.
Bill provided me with a handful of names, and after no small amount of research, I narrowed my choice down to 17-year-old Cale Conley. After a few exchanges with him and his father Yale, I sent a small video camera to their home in Vienna, West Virginia and asked him to film his family in their day-to-day life. To my happy surprise, the camera returned with an entire family, each member of which was far more attractive than anyone in the Kardashian clan could ever wish to be. Not only physically attractive, but intelligent, articulate and driven (no pun intended) by a strong moral code. I was sold. And so were they.
Together, we ventured down the path of making a "sizzle reel"(a pilot presentation). None of us were clear as to what the outcome would be, but after a handful of visits, including one amazing Christmas Eve, and over 60 hours of footage, we were able to edit the perfect 14-minute representation of what Chasing Cale -- a docu-series based around Cale, his life and his NASCAR dream -- would look like. But sadly, that intelligent, attractive, and articulate family -- with its American-in-the-best-sense values -- was not, according to the networks, what America wanted to see.
Cale's mother was not a "Real Housewife of Vienna." His brother was not a member of the Jackass clan. His youngest sister was 16, but not pregnant. And he, as the star of our show, cared most about achieving his dream of being the best athlete possible, rather than indulging in stereotypical teenage debauchery. Together, we decided it wasn't meant to be.
Flash forward to the present as we continue to chase Cale on his path to success. He's 22 years young and has now been racing over the past 17 years, getting his start in go-carts. His passion and desire to succeed far outweighs that of any millennial I've met to date. His perseverance and dedication are not only inspirational, but motivational. His soul embodies the human spirit and you can't help but wonder how many lives he's led before this. And oh yeah, the kid has pure natural talent as well. A fearless driver on the track navigating through the knowns and the unknowns and smart enough consistently ask his teammates how he might improve further. So what keeps such an emerging force from being on top?
Now, some of you may be thinking, as I once did, that racing cars is an individual sport. I can assure you it's not. The team behind the driver is equally as important as the teams behind the Derek Jeters, Lebron James's and David Beckhams of our athletic culture. This is much less apparent because these teams stand in the background (or the pits, as they're called) until needed. But within these pits are experts in their respective fields measuring everything from the moment-to-moment temperature of the track and how it affects traction of the tires to the feedback received from the driver on how loose or tight the car is handling. And keep in mind that, for safety reasons, the driver can only see what's straight ahead, so another member of the team, the spotter, sits high above in the stands reporting into the driver's ear as cars approach from the top, below or behind. Collectively, they all work together -- dare I say like a dance -- to ensure the fastest and most efficient racing experience. Yet, without one final important member to the team -- the sponsor -- all of this is virtually impossible. Unlike many of the other team sports, without a sponsor, the driver has no money to practice, pay team members or compete in the sport.
Clearly NASCAR has created a playground of corporate competition that now serves as a barometer of our ever-changing economy. But despite the bounce back from our recent recession, finding a sponsor for Cale has been an enormous challenge. With the good fortune and support of his entire family, he's been able to continue pursuing his dream on a part-time basis -- currently with Richard Childress Racing -- but as with any sport, part-time competition does not allow for the continued training, growth and necessary experience needed to perform. Regardless of what he lacks in support, his natural talents have exceeded skeptics and critics alike and just recently grabbed his first Top Ten Nationwide finish at Kentucky Speedway.
As the true underdog of the season, I couldn't be prouder of his performance thus far. But his biggest win yet was his decision to bring awareness to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA.org). Without a corporate sponsor, he could have chosen to decorate his car with any number of organizations, but instead, he joined IAVA's Convoy to Combat Suicide with Linkin Park and Lady Gaga, and raced for a cause. It occurred to me as I stood in those stands, with his family behind two veterans, drinking a beer and eating fried food, that I was watching the only driver competing to make a difference, not only for his career, but for the greater good of the human condition.
Am I overly optimistic to hope that Corporate America might yet recognize his value as a brand or, even more importantly, an example?