Our superstars are getting younger. Matt Martin is not yet 10 and he has already been on the front page of the New York Times, which described him as "the most bankable non-Hollywood 9-year old in the country."
This summer you'll find him peering at you from the breakfast table. Matt and his dad will appear on 10 million Cap'n Crunch and Life cereal boxes. You'll have to go to the sports pages for the details.
Matt Martin races midget cars at 40 mph on competitive tracks, and has since he was 7. So intrepid is this tough little tyke that he's already nicknamed "The Little Intimidator." (Dale Earnhardt was the original Intimidator.) Unlike his father, a NASCAR star known for his patience and cunning, Matt has a "quick jugular instinct" to threaten an opponent because he has one goal and that's to win every time.
This is not the Little Engine That Could. This is the Little Engine That Cuts Off Other Little Engines. Matt is a boy hero for our time. Ruthless ambition is in. It's less important where you apply your ambition than that you have it to apply to whatever you choose to do. It's the energy, the guts of the fiercest gladiator, that's admired. Sponsors are betting that Matt's got the right stuff to sell cereal to his generation of kids.
His two quarter-midget cars are sponsored by Quaker Oats - hence Cap'n Crunch and Life. The other kids at his level of competition have only local advertising, the likes of Jake's Body Shop and Spike's Bar and Grill. Matt's mom says she doesn't want him to race, but what's a mom to do?
Matt's father compares his son to Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR driver who was killed in the Daytona 500. We learn that midget car racing may soon be to professional racing what the Little League is to baseball, spawning homegrown players who can make it to the majors. An estimated 4,000 children between 5 and 13 already drive the midget fiberglass racers.
Maybe race car driving will become our national sport. Baseball, with its cerebral elegance and slow tempo, is neither noisy nor bloody enough for modern spectators. Racing cars, vulgar by comparison, is not exactly a sport but it keeps crowds on edge, gleefully anticipating violent death, the grinding crash of metal against metal against concrete, the chilling wail of the ambulance on the track.
Since race-car driving is the comer sport, spoilsports are already trying to ruin it by cutting back on the blood and guts. Dale Earnhardt's widow is fighting the Orlando Sentinel, trying to block the release of her husband's autopsy photographs, as prescribed by Florida law. Lots of important people agree with her.
Sentinel editors, saying they have no intention of publishing the photographs, want independent forensic analysts to examine the photographs of Earnhardt's head injuries to resolve certain questions in the official medical report and to determine whether safety requirements for racing cars should be amended.
Why, for example, did NASCAR wait five days to concede that Earnhardt's seat belt snapped in the crash? Why did his head strike the steering wheel? News organizations supporting the Sentinel include the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Society of Professional Journalists.
Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, nevertheless supports new legislation that would exempt autopsy pictures from the mandated disclosure of public records. He has received thousands of e-mails and telephone calls supporting his position. Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, wrote a letter to the Sentinel accusing the editors of going "outside the bounds of common decency."
There's a lesson already learned from the grisly nature of the Earnhardt death. As long as we romanticize as heroes men who risk their lives in a daredevil "sport," we ought to understand the darker side of the romance. When a car hits a wall at 180 miles an hour, as Dale Earnhardt's did, the internal body organs continue to move at 180 miles an hour. No body can withstand such trauma. (This might give Quaker Oats pause, to consider what might happen when a crash at 40 mph makes Cap'n Crunch of little Matt Martin.)
We hear a lot about the awful cultural messages of shock-and-schlock TV, anesthetizing the senses and blocking young men and women from making intelligent judgments about living a full and meaningful life. There are many ways to anesthetize the common senses as well. Making "The Little Intimidator" of a 9-year-old strikes me as one of them.