(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Storytime: In 2001, a 9-year-old me (not that dissimilar to now, just less cynical and ruggedly handsome) found a motor race on Eurosport that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The cars were very colourful, very loud, and racing side-by-side very fast around a banked oval track inside what appeared to be a modern-day version of the Colosseum. As a kid who already loved fast cars and motor racing, this was mana from heaven, and I was hooked. Thus, one British kid’s love of the great American sport of NASCAR was born.

Over the next fifteen years, that love would fluctuate. Early on it would involve my uncle taping races for me to watch after school during the week (in a time where spoilers were possible to avoid without having to fly to Mars) and collecting little diecast cars to push in circles around my bedroom floor. In my teens it evolved into starting a Youtube channel and making videos, talking with fellow NASCAR fans online, and even making stop motion films with said diecast cars which hit over 100,000 views – no, I have no idea how either. Into my twenties, it continued; writing articles online, analysing races in-depth on podcasts and even interviewing the vice-president of the sport itself in 2015, an experience that will last with me forever.

Why the hell am I telling you all of this? If you know me already, this will likely be old hat to you. If you’re new here, why should you care about my lifelong passion for a sport about people driving in circles?

Because after fifteen years of time, energy and money spent devoted to NASCAR, I’m unfollowing the sport. And to tell you the truth, there’s nothing easy or spectacular about stepping away from something that has been such a huge part of one’s life for so long – but sometimes it’s exactly what one needs.

I want you to think about what you love in life. What things bring you joy, make your heart race and leave you giddy with excitement and emotions. We all have them, and they are magical things – be they movies, TV shows, books, games, sports, whatever. They are passions we feel compelled to pour time, energy and money into, and they create wonderful memories, shared experiences and potentially lifelong friendships. They aren’t that dissimilar to people, in many ways. But as relationships can deteriorate over time, enacting a natural law of diminishing returns and changing in ways that cause those involved to grow apart, the same is true for our passions. For me, NASCAR went from something that captivated me as a fan to an entity which pretty much defined me as an online personality. My entire time on Youtube was mostly spent producing content relating to the sport, and regardless of it not being a NASCAR show in any way, the Motorsport101 podcast would regularly receive mail and questions relating to NASCAR addressed specifically to me. Getting to interview top figures and becoming a respected authority of the sport, all the while starting to make some sort of career out of it as well – this is the dream, right?

This would all be predicated on the assumption that I’m still just as enthusiastic and passionate about the sport as I was as an enthralled 9-year-old all those years ago. On the outside, you’d think so. But after a couple of years of introspection, turns out that enthusiasm and passion had gone AWOL. How bloody inconvenient.

Here’s why, though. The sport has changed beyond recognition, with the core of what made me a fan in the first place – y’know, the actual racing – slowly becoming lost under constant changes, gimmicks and an overarching feeling that NASCAR didn’t really want me as a fan anymore. I was also regularly being put in the very awkward position of being asked to justify elements of NASCAR I was uncomfortable with; public endorsements of Donald Trump, drivers deliberately crashing into each other in ways that made Talladega Nights look like a documentary, and nauseating marketing bombardments to rebrand the sport in ways which it arguably didn’t need to be rebranded in the first place.

So in short, at the tail-end of 2016 I found myself in a situation where I was presenting myself as a fan and knowledgeable figure of a sport I was struggling to remain engaged with. I’d grow more and more frustrated and outwardly negative about the product, leading to that most tedious of responses: ‘don’t like it, don’t watch it!’ – or the slightly more snide variant, ‘we all know you’ll keep watching regardless’, as if daring me to actually switch off. Surprise, smartass, that’s EXACTLY what I’m doing.

It sounds blindingly obvious, but when a passion or hobby starts to feel like work, a tedious obligation to be grinded through, that’s the biggest red flag one should need. Much like a breakup though, the process of disentangling oneself can be very difficult. Fan loyalty (particularly in sport) becomes an odd kind of gaslighting; yourself and fellow fans feel duty bound to stay engaged and question your own negative feelings. I know Formula One fans who grapple with this, too – Dre from M101 refers to F1 fans in the main as masochists, and he might not be far wrong. On the face of it, why should you keep investing so much in something that does nothing but frustrate and bring you down?

(Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Ironically NASCAR made yet more drastic format changes in January 2017, which some may have thought was the straw that broke the camel’s back; the truth my mind was made up by December 2016, although said changes did absolutely nothing to make me reconsider. In fact, if anything it confirmed further that I was making the right choice for me. This disengagement has also provoked a reinvention for me online; if I wasn’t a NASCAR personality and creator anymore, what shall I be? Given how much of my life revolved around the sport, what would fill the vacuum once it was gone? In truth, I’m still working that out.

A blank slate is both terrifying and liberating in equal measure, and it’s amazing what passions I previously pushed aside are returning to fill the void.

Removing the obligation to play the latest NASCAR game every week on Youtube enabled me to start the Armbar Arcade, and in the process fall in love with gaming all over again. This blog is a wonderfully cathartic platform, and talking wrestling, mental health and whatever else comes to mind has done wonders already for my self-confidence.

I’m not writing this post as some anti-NASCAR rant. My criticisms and reasons for disengaging are entirely subjective. Many friends of mine in the sport will continue to be fans, and to those of you I say; more power to you. I hope you enjoy this season and get as much joy out of the sport as I did in previous years. And there’s every chance that burning passion returns and I come back to the sport in time. But in truth, I know exactly where my disengagement from the sport first began – in October 2015 after reading this guest column by Matt Gross on journalist Jeff Gluck’s website. Quotes like ‘I think I’ve been a pretty good fan for these past 25 years, but it’s just getting so hard to hold onto what little is left of the sport I fell in love with in that movie theater in 1990’ resonated with me and made me realise that, holy shit, I’m in the same scenario.

And after a year of hoping I wouldn’t have to do so, I unfollowed at the end of 2016.

My subscription to Premier Sports will become a subscription to FloSlam or NJPW World. Money I spent on diecast model cars will now be spent on PROGRESS tickets or Will Ospreay T-shirts. Time spent making NASCAR content will be used to write blogs and have fun playing retro games with Nay. And if you’re in this similar scenario, questioning whether to disengage from a passion that has taken up so much of your life for so long, here’s a message from the other side; the grass can indeed be greener if you give it room to grow.