The Frontstretch: NASCAR Not the Only Winner in the Blame Game by Amy Henderson -- Sunday April 11, 2010

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NASCAR Not the Only Winner in the Blame Game

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Sunday April 11, 2010


NASCAR is boring.” Or so say many race fans and media, frustrated with the changes in the sport in recent years. We heap the blame on the sanctioning body for everything from A to Z; and let’s face it, we enjoy it. NASCAR is such an easy target for everyone’s frustrations, especially considering the facts; over the last decade, to say they’ve screwed up a lot is putting it mildly.

But not all the time. That’s right: despite what you might think, the sport’s recent decline is not all NASCAR’s fault.

Here’s where I’m sure some readers will accuse me of being in NASCAR’s pocket, or some such nonsense. Look, I’ve never been slow to blame the sanctioning body for a lot of things – most of them deserved. But I’m not going to blame the organization for every problem when some of the issues clearly aren’t of their making.

So with NASCAR off the hook for some of these issues, that begs a simple question: who is to blame for them instead?

The answer is fairly complex. Turns out lots of people, from race tracks to race fans, had a hand in a decline that’s been a long time in the making. Here’s a look at some of them, and what they should rightfully share responsibility for:

Tracks While it’s hard to separate the venues from the sanctioning body (and that’s doubly true for those owned by International Speedway Corporation, which, like NASCAR, is majority owned by the France family), but each racetrack is an independently operated and contracted facility. Most tracks are owned either by ISC or by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., under Bruton Smith, though Indianapolis, Dover and Pocono are independently controlled, as are some Nationwide and Truck Series tracks. Consequently, NASCAR itself cannot control such things as ticket prices, carry-in policies, or maintenance at these facilities.

When there was an issue with the track surface at Daytona during the sport’s biggest race, many fans were quick to point the finger at NASCAR for the subsequent red flag periods where they failed to repair the surface. But in that instance, NASCAR did nothing wrong, and in fact, handled everything right. The race was stopped when there was an apparent safety issue, as it should have been. In the end, the responsibility for failing to maintain the track over the long-term could be pointed at ISC, not NASCAR, who quickly joined in the process of studying the structural soundness of the racing surface. The same goes for things like ticket prices (which many tracks have addressed, though there are holdouts), concessions, or seat size (of the permanent variety, not the fan variety). Should NASCAR have standards for the tracks it grants races to? Yes, absolutely. But the tracks play a huge role in their own fate.

While NASCAR told drivers to “have at it,” sponsor Scotts didn’t share that opinion after Carl Edwards wrecked Brad Keselowski on purpose at Atlanta.

Sponsors The “boys can be boys” all they want in NASCAR’s eyes, but in the end, it’s not NASCAR paying for their expensive equipment; the sponsors are, and that gives them the final word on how their drivers act when the cameras are rolling. That means that more drivers than we’d like toe the company line. It might even mean that they drive less aggressively than some of their competition, or at least apologize more profusely afterward. But if you don’t think that every driver should thank their sponsor and God – in that order – after a race, think again. That’s a part of the deal. Or at least the sponsor part is.

The poster child for boring drivers is four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is unfailingly polite, making sure he thanks the right people and says the right thing. And you can be sure that he will continue to do so until the day he retires, unless Lowe’s suddenly decides they don’t want to hear all that. Until then, Johnson is stuck, as are the rest of his peers. If the champ sounds more polished than most, bear in mind that he had no money to race on as a youngster, and that meant playing nice to the sponsors to get to the track. No money means no chance, a lesson that Johnson knows all too well; in those days, he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder worrying a ride would be lost if he did anything untoward. Those survival instincts have followed him up the ladder, and the same goes for everyone else who regurgitates the same lines week in and week out. They don’t do it because they want to or because they think it’s compelling; they do it because it’s their job, and they’re well paid to do it. So while NASCAR may say “have at it,” the sponsors may well be saying, “not so fast.”

Media We’re not perfect, and we’re not blameless, though we are between a rock and a hard place sometimes. The media report on the stories that, like it or not, are news. If Carl Edwards intentionally spins Brad Keselowski and flips him in the process, well, you’re going to hear about it. Probably a lot. Why? Simply put, media outlets compete – the more people that watch or read, the more advertising dollars are generated – so if there is a story, everyone is going to talk about it, and hope that the fans are paying attention. Of course, in the process of going for big names to make the big bucks (think: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Danica Patrick), that means some storylines get overlooked. Unfortunately, this works both ways… sometimes a story that’s not big news gets overlooked by viewers, and that means next time, that reporter will have some pressure to write about the big story instead.

The television broadcasts for the races are another animal entirely, and they do shoulder a lot of the blame for the complaints of boring racing. Often, the networks are so focused on either one or two popular drivers or the race leader that they fail to show viewers at home what’s happening throughout the field, and that’s detrimental. For one thing, fans don’t get to see their favorite drivers if they’re not running up front or don’t have a big story to follow. Fans also don’t get to see much of the hard racing that’s going on, leading to unfair criticism of boring races when they’re anything but at the racetrack itself. That misperception hurts the sport as a whole, as casual fans watching on TV may decide against going to races because it’s not exciting. For example, having gone to many event at New Hampshire and not watched at home, I always wondered why people said the races were boring when I was there and they were much more exciting. Then, I saw one on TV and knew the answer. It’s another story for another time, but the broadcasts of the races are a huge part of the problem with the perception of the sport today, shouldering some of their own blame for declining ratings the past five seasons.

Drivers Yes, it’s true that the drivers are sometimes hampered in their public persona by their sponsors, by NASCAR, and by the FCC. But many fans do have the perception that some drivers don’t care about the average fan, and there are some drivers whose lack of public availability contributes to that perception. Again, part of this problem lies with the sponsors – they want their driver in the corporate suite on Sunday morning, and that takes time away from a fan appearance. But it’s hard to buy that every driver couldn’t find time to sign a hundred autographs at the hauler every couple of weeks. Even fans who don’t follow someone in particular seem to have a different perception of those who are out there every week and those that are not.

Casey Mears comes to mind as a great example of a driver whose fan appreciation has never wavered. Even when with a full-time team like Hendrick Motorsports, Mears took time to greet his fans nearly every week, and as a result, few speak ill of him. Even if they didn’t get an autograph, Mears was visible, and that made him more likable. On the flip side, a driver like Johnson or Tony Stewart, who rarely have public appearances at the racetrack, can easily gain the reputation as standoffish; whether that’s true or not, that can carry with a driver throughout their career. It won’t change the mind of a diehard fan, but can make the difference to the casual one who doesn’t yet have an opinion on that driver. So those wheelmen need to keep in mind many fans feel as though, through patronage of the sponsors, they are helping pay a driver’s bills and like to feel as though that is appreciated – so a little would go a long way. That responsibility doesn’t fall on NASCAR, who already allows a huge number of fans on pit road during race weekends; instead, it falls to the role models who, like it or not, are all somebody’s hero.

Fans Yes, fans do have a certain culpability here, on a couple of levels. One, many fans have complained about certain tracks losing race dates; but at the same time, those complaining were not attending the races in their hometowns, which would have kept attendance up and NASCAR profit margins from biting them in the butt. By staying home, fans voted with their pocketbooks – against those very racetracks whose demise they mourn. Yes, I understand that NASCAR needs to put better racing out there for the fans watching on TV; there are far more of them than at the track, and places like Rockingham would make for an afternoon better spent than one watching a race at tracks like Fontana. But the fans in the seats are the ones paying the track’s bills, and they have to provide a large part of the purse for the race. If they can’t fill the seats, NASCAR isn’t going to keep them, whether that’s fair or not, so it’s up to the fans to save the tracks they enjoy the most.

Also, sometimes fans do have expectations that no organization, race, or driver could possibly live up to. Not every event is going to have five drivers racing for the win on the last lap, no driver can possibly sign every item, and no venue can provide everything that every fan wants for half the price that they currently charge. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the best NASCAR has to offer on any given Sunday; but there are times the sanctioning body (and everyone else involved) still does everything they can only for the on-track action to wind up a stinker. So on weeks where all of those involved do the very best they can, it’s time to be satisfied.

Until then (and everyone has some work to do!), fans and the media should complain. Without that, nothing would change. But to blame only NASCAR, when NASCAR simply cannot control it all, is a fruitless pursuit at best, because the sport didn’t break anything alone, and cannot fix anything alone. It’s a multi-way street here; the blame game is on, and everyone is a winner.

And Another Thing:

- While I understand his desire to stick it out, I’m not convinced that Denny Hamlin made the smartest choice by racing almost 400 miles Saturday night. Hamlin had a competent backup available in Casey Mears, and he admitted after the race that he was in a lot of pain. Pain is Mother Nature’s way of saying “Stop here, going further could be detrimental;” ignoring that might be brave, but it’s just not smart.

- Kudos to NASCAR this week for making the right call not once, but three times. First, the penalty handed to Jason Leffler was too lenient, but it was exactly what he should have gotten after Carl Edwards got the same for crossing much further over the line. Second, the two restart calls that Kyle Busch complained about in the Nationwide race were dead-on correct by the rulebook. Too bad for Busch he was on the short end of the stick on both, but… his bad both times.

Contact Amy Henderson

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
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Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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04/12/2010 07:19 AM

Ordinarily I’d disagree about the whole field of drivers not getting as much coverage as it should, because I don’t think the problem is as bad as people say.

Then I think of the first three Nationwide races this year, where an unproven driver even in her own series got so much coverage that there was clearly no concern about Danica Fatigue.

04/12/2010 08:23 AM

You make some good points. Not all of them are valid, but still there are some good ones.
The boring “cookie cutter” tracks ARE NASCAR’s fault. Before a track is ever built, the landowners try to assure that the track will have a date on SOMEBODY’S calendar. NASCAR is quite capable of telling a prospective track owner that they would like to see a “North Wilkesboro” that seats 120,000 in Southern California. Or a “Rockingham” in Kansas. But NASCAR has made it apparent that they want 1.5 mile tri or quad-oval designs.
Don’t blame Johnson for not signing enough autographs. The more successful a driver is, the more scheduled appearances they have to make. That is why Casey Mears had an awful lot of time to sign autographs. He might very well be the nicest man on the planet, but his competition level in a racing car NEVER rose above mediocrity. Sad but true.
It is hard to blame NASCAR OR the fans for some track’s failures. To begin with, in it’s infancy, NASCAR was a regional sport. The tracks were built in that region, go figure. That was fine when 12,000-50,000 people were all that was needed to keep a track alive. But as the popularity grew, could the citizens of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia really show up for EVERY race at North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Charlotte, Richmond, Bristol, Rockingham, Darlington, and Atlanta? And it is hardly fair to expect families from the west coast to drive cross country for a weekend in february. Logistically, it can’t be done. But it will never explain why the attempt was not made to recreate the failing tracks in other markets.

04/12/2010 09:28 AM

Well guess what, Amy. The economy sucks. But even when the economy sucks the sponsors are rich, the track owners are rich, Nascar is filty rich, and the drivers are all stinking filthy rich. A good number of the fans are unemployed or underemployed and we’re oh so sorry we haven’t been to a Nascar race to keep the wealthy and the profit margins warm at night.

That was a very short-sighted article, Amy. Shame on you.

04/12/2010 09:38 AM

You’ve got a lot of nerve trying to put any blame on fans. It’s not only the economy, but the price gouging regarding the venues and lodging prices. Why support an organization that only looks at the bottom line. There are a lot of factors involved in nas$car’s woes, but even hint at the fans as at fault is stupid and inane. What a crock.

04/12/2010 09:58 AM

The problem: David Hill and fox. They bring us dumb, that gopher, and dumber, Darrell Waltrip, who would pimp Bin Laden if NASCAR told him to do so; filter the car so not to show the sponsor unless they spend additional dollars with them; changed start times; hype things that don’t need to be hyped.
Now, they do have some good, Mike Joy, the best; Larry Mac, excellent!; and the entire pit team with Jeff Hammond.

04/12/2010 10:53 AM

Do not forget we lost some short tracks, because they could not pay the huge sanctioning fee nascar charges. I know this was many in Busch not Cup.

04/12/2010 11:18 AM

I think it’s the actual tracks themselves that have caused boring races. It’s too bad that when the tracks were built in the 90s, they were also built for IRL cars. Maybe Fontana, LV, etc could’ve been fun short tracks.

04/12/2010 01:18 PM

Casey Who?… Did you mean Kasey Kahne signs autographs? Who’s this other Casey fellow?

04/12/2010 01:34 PM

The Denny Hamlin situation brings up an argument that has been made for years, that recently has gone unmentioned.

With so much emphasis placed on driver safety from the track (SAFER barriers, Catch Fences) and the cars (COT, HANS) shouldn’t a driver health be a consideration.

If a driver is unfit to run the entire race, couldn’t he be considered a threat to his peers on the track? Whether its illness or injury – NASCAR should have a more predominate voice in who’s allowed to drive 150 mph in a racecar under their watch.

Secondly, Amy’s Love for Casey Mears aside, why does Ricky Rudd get massive kudo’s for running Talladega with his eyelids taped open, and everyone is questioning Hamlin’s decision to stay in the car at Phoenix?

Personally, I think NASCAR should allow drivers to take 1 or 2 races off in the regular season – either for a break, or health reasons. Take points from the a drivers top 15 races from the first 26.

Under that points system, imagine being a button on Jeff Hammond’s calculator come Richmond. You’d be banged around worse than Michael Waltrip at Bristol!!!

04/12/2010 02:23 PM

The poll didn’t include the media, Fox, DW, and Larry Mac. No point in voting.

04/12/2010 04:28 PM

Well written article Amy. I agree that all these factors contribute to the current state of the sport. Major for me is the tv coverage – or lack thereof. We have been fortunate to attend about 40 races. Astounding difference between being there and watching on tv. Easy to find battles all around the track while there in person. Not subjected to the one or two driver coverage written into the script for that week’s tv show.
Also want to point out that Kurt Busch ALWAYS is at his hauler signing autographs at some point EVERY week. I admire the Cup champion for that commitment.

Bad Wolf
04/12/2010 06:00 PM

It’s Nascar, as the sanctioning body, that needs to address all of these issues. They are the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and could fix ALL of the items you mentioned if they chose to throw their weight around, but they have grown fat and happy on the stupid money Fox threw their way, and they think the fans are pigions to be plucked for their gain.

This would have never happened if Bill France Jr. had not installed his inept son at the helm. It’s time for Amy to put down the Pom Poms and face reality.

04/12/2010 07:42 PM

I used to watch every race for years.Then something happened,i don’t know just what it was.The Busch clash was great as a short half hour race.then it went big time, now it sucks.Then we had restrictor plates…then it was more glitz and showbiz.Now the same guy wins almost every week,lets go back to one team one car.And thats how i feel.

Kevin in SoCal
04/12/2010 09:50 PM

Amy said: and places like Rockingham would make for an afternoon better spent than one watching a race at tracks like Fontana.

And the weekly anti-Fontana slam rears its ugly head. As Matt proved in his column on Monday, just because its a 1-mile track, does not mean it’ll always be a good race. And like you said about New Hampshire, races are much better in person than what the TV people decide to show us.

04/13/2010 12:53 AM

I don’t know about the rest of the tracks but Jimmie came out to Infineon last April for a session with the fans prior to the June race and this year he is doing a Q & A with the fans again before the race

old farmer
04/13/2010 02:17 AM

What’s wrong with the races?

One thing is very easy to see: debris cautions.

A small piece of rubber appears on the track & out comes a debris caution to clean it up. I understand that.

What I don’t understand is how it takes the length of an entire set of pit stops for everyone who might want one and then a full set of seemingly endless commercials, all for removing what often turns out to be a spring rubber or water bottle.

Removing something such as that should take about 30 seconds once the cars are safely out of the way. Instead, there’s usually time for a sandwich and watching an inning of baseball without missing anything.

That’s one of the big things wrong with the races.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.