Saturday, September 28, 2013

Extremely Dumb And Incredibly Stupid, Part II

You know I’m not a fan of racing cards. They take the loudest, fastest, rudest, most spectacular sport this side of hurling and make it look like Sunday in the park with George.

Lots of things marginalized racing cards, especially the trend towards larger sets. Mainly, though, racing cards were a victim of the very thing that made other sports cards better through the ‘80s and ‘90s, namely: better photographs.

As cameras and lenses and film and computer color-correction improved, the quality of action photography on trading cards blew up. I sat in photographers’ wells at major stadiums with trading-card shooters like Brad Newton and saw how they’d leave a camera with a telephoto lens the size of a Jack LaLanne juicer focused on second base. When there was a play at second they wouldn’t even look away from their main camera. They’d just reach over to the second-base camera and hit the shutter. They didn’t have to focus or put their eye to the viewfinder or anything. They’d have a perfect play-at-second-base photo frozen like Ted Williams’ head, and it was effortless.

The problem with this high-tech photography when it’s applied to racing is that every vestige of speed disappears. What makes Ty Cobb sliding into third the greatest baseball photo ever isn’t that every grain of dirt he kicks up is frozen stock-still; it’s that some dirt is just a blur. The photo makes Cobb look like he’s exploding into third, and that’s because the picture was shot using relatively primitive equipment and a relatively slow shutter speed.
That doesn’t happen with contemporary racing photography. Unless you’re shooting dirt-track racing – and no one was – a fast camera with a fast lens shooting fast film is going to make a car racing on asphalt look like it’s standing still – because that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Problem is, cars standing still ain’t racin’. Unless you’re Danica Patrick.
No one ever understood that about racing cards. For a short time we had Maxx Racing Cards as a client. Maxx was located in Mooresville, N.C., a holler and a half from Charlotte and smack-dab in the middle of NASCAR country. Those boys knew racin’ with a capital apostrophe – so naturally, they wanted to do draft-pick cards.
We sat with them in the posh dining room of the Mooresville Country Club, complemented the proprietor on the genuine knotty-pine paneling they’d picked up at Lowe’s, drank sweet tea, and talked trading cards. Never did the Maxx boys acknowledge that one of the major failings of racing cards was they didn’t show racing.
It wasn’t just photography stringing up the Dukes of Mooresville. Thanks to NASCAR’s all-seeing eye, cards of crashes were out, and so were cards of the Busch brothers giving each other the finger. All Maxx had to work with were cards of cars standing still, cards of drivers wearing mirror shades, cards of crew members reading newspapers, and cards of trailers.
Companies like Maxx and Action Packed that did racing well could make something reasonably compelling out of that. It was the amateurs that brought racing cards’ shortcomings into focus.
A& S Racing Collectables (sic) made cards of Indy-car racing, a type of racing that’s better in every tangible way than NASCAR – faster, louder, more dramatic – yet still manages to be an inferior product. (That takes work, let me tell you.)
That inferiority carries over to the 1985-vintage C/DA-PPG set. It’s the Indy-car racing of racing-card sets, and this Derek Daly card represents the absolute nadir of racing carddom – a crummy, static picture of a mediocre driver (12th at Indy, but didn’t race at Michigan or Pocono, and was sitting at 39th in the Indy-car standings at the time these were printed), on flimsy cardstock festooned with homemade graphics and the letter “W” placed on the card front for no apparent reason.
If you’re looking for a reason why SkyBox, Action Packed, Pinnacle, Maxx, Traks, Pro Set, Press Pass, Finish Line, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Racing Champions made NASCAR cards, and none of them wanted in on Indy-car racing, here’s your reason. They saw this card.
Hard to drive with blood on your hands, eh, Derek?

Many columns ago we explained how Pro Set’s Young Indiana Jones set was not the victim of a whack print job. Au contraire, Eau Claire: Pro Set meant to do this. The cards are 3-D, and here’s the viewer put in every pack to make the cards look normal (or as normal as anything can look when viewed through red and blue cellophane).
I have a problem with the larger concept of 3-D, especially as it’s applied to movies (The Great Gatsby in 3-D? Really? What’s next? Wuthering Heights in 3-D? Finnegan’s Wake with flying pronouns? Macbeth 3-D?), but I’m semi-okay with the 3-D glasses-things. Still, what does it say about your set if you have to put a device in every pack to keep the product from looking defective?

Smaller card manufacturers in the Handful O’Landfill era lived from license to license. If the movie or comic book or TV series hit (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Evil Ernie/Lady Death) the card company ate steak. If it didn’t (Pagemaster, Dinotopia) it ate hot dogs.
If you imagine smaller manufacturers playing The Game of Life, their path to wealth and happiness was the long one. The really long one. The one that went off the board and twice around the coffee table, down the stairs, over the dog, in and out of the hutch, and through the breakfast nook. If a couple of peg children fell out in the process, so be it. Life’s tough when you’re a small cardmaker in a plastic car.
It’s a 1930s M-G-M-musical approach to business, with the aspiring starlet crushing it in the high-school musical while a Hollywood producer just happens to be sitting in the audience, and it would have worked if these companies hadn’t had such a tin ear for licenses. Lime Rock went from Mad magazine cards to NBA cheerleader cards to muscle-car cards to draft-pick sets to Desert Storm cards to cards of Starlog magazine covers and Bozo the Clown. Little Sun careened from Major League Writers to high-school baseball all-stars to Wooden Award winners. Collect-A-Card bounced from Coca-Cola to Campbell’s Soup to Dinotopia. But no one was less skilled at riding winners than Kayo.
Kayo started with a demi-successful boxing-card set, and when that grubstake was overrun by Ringlords and others swiftly locked down the license for the Professional Spring Football League. When the PSFL turned out to be as substantial as a Miley Cyrus B-side, Kayo swooped in and picked up the license for the National Skateboard Association.
Yeah, I didn’t know it existed, either, but here’s your proof: A Chris Miller prototype card (and not the Chris Miller of the multiple concussions and unfulfilled NFL promise, though I can totally understand why someone with a history of head injuries would consider a pro-skateboarding career), replete with the claim that “Chris enjoys surfing and artsy stuff.”
(What? Surfing's not artsy?)

Okay, but the thing is Kayo was probably thrilled to get the National Skateboard Association license, because it probably had competition.
The Kayo Kidz were not on an island here. No no no no no no no no no. They undoubtedly had to beat back Little Sun and Lime Rock with their PSFL contract to bring home this puppy. And after they got it I'm sure they celebrated. Went and looked at artsy stuff or something.
Kayo had the best mascot in trading cards – a kangaroo, shown here riding a skateboard[1] – but having the best mascot in trading cards is like having the longest toenails in Major League Soccer. It’s a whole lot better to have something that makes money.
On the other hand, if you had a marginal property like Prancercise and wanted a trading-card set, it was always nice to have a number to call or a booth to visit at the licensing show and hear an eager voice say, “Prancercise cards? You bet!”

The call from reality could wait.

[1] Not that it had a lot of competition. Bazooka Joe doesn’t count. Neither does Lud Denny.

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