The Frontstretch: The Media and NASCAR: A 2011 State of the Union by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday January 10, 2011

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The Media and NASCAR: A 2011 State of the Union

Monday Morning Tear-Down · Bryan Davis Keith · Monday January 10, 2011


On the track, 2010 was far from a lean year for stock car racing. But for all the on-track highlights of the season past, from Justin Allgaier topping teammate Brad Keselowski to score his first Nationwide Series victory at Bristol, to Denny Hamlin’s show-stopping performance to steal a grandfather clock on a Monday afternoon in Martinsville, to Jimmie Johnson staring down the toughest challenge to his now five-year reign at the top of the Sprint Cup ranks (however manufactured that points race may have been), there was no stopping a continually rising tide of negativity surrounding the NASCAR community.

Sponsorship woes plagued all of NASCAR’s top three national touring series at levels not seen since 2004, where only 45 cars showed up for the Daytona 500 in February. Attendance at race tracks nationwide continued to dwindle, with Cup companion Nationwide Series races at times struggling to bring even 20,000 fans through the turnstiles. And while TV ratings largely held serve for the Nationwide and Truck Series, the same could not be said for the Sprint Cup, which even with a championship that came down to the final race at Homestead still faced double digit percentage decreases in viewership even as the vaunted Chase wound down.

So for all that went right in 2010, NASCAR did not shake off the slump that the sport and industry as a whole has found itself in the past few years. And while thousands of theories, ranging from the ever-sagging economy to a disconnect with its former core fans have been floated, there appears to be consensus in a great number of drivers’ eyes anyway that the downward spiral in big-time stock car racing can be attributed to one source.

The media.

“I’m going to blame you [media] guys, and you guys have to take some of the responsibility for it,” said Stewart at Pocono this past July when discussing the current negative wave cresting over the garage.

“When you finally tell someone that the racing is bad enough, long enough, you’re going to convince people that it really is.”

Speaking to NASCAR Illustrated, Brad Keselowski noted, “I think the sport in general is going through some tough times, and a portion of that can be attributed to the media and their own struggles.”

“Some of the print media is killing the sport to save their own job.”

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are just two of many drivers blaming the media for NASCAR’s rapidly declining ratings and attendance numbers. But is that actually true?

Perhaps most pointed of all drivers was Ryan Newman, who in criticizing Frontstretch’s own Jay Pennell went as far as to say, “It’s your job to write good things about our sport, otherwise we don’t want you here.” That’s the used-to-be-the-Rocketman’s loss; Jay’s a good guy.

To be fair, none of these drivers went as far as to say the sole cause of NASCAR’s current troubles was the media covering it … and they’re not the only ones. Dennis Michelsen of Race Talk Radio echoed these sentiments, noting in not so many words during a December 29 broadcast that it often seemed that NASCAR’s established writers seemed to be trying to out-duel each other week after week, trying to write the most damning and sensational indictment they could to backhand both the sanctioning body and the sport at-large while encouraging their implosion.

Certainly, Michelsen makes a point that can’t be ignored. It’s hard to discredit how much influence the media does have over not just NASCAR, but modern sport in general. This holds especially true in stock car racing, where sponsorship and corporate involvement play such a critical role.

That being said, the power of the media and its ability to sway NASCAR’s fans (the ones that are left, anyway) is far from absolute, and is far from being responsible for even the portion of blame that Smoke and Special K are so quick to pin on. Let’s face it; if motorsports media truly were able to alter the behaviors of stock car racing fans to the point that their attendance, their very perception of the sport as a whole, were based solely on the written words of the media corps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wouldn’t have nearly the number of fans he continues to have show up on race weekend… because he’s never going to win a race again. The grandstands from Loudon to Homestead would have had nary an empty seat… because it was the closest and best Chase ever! (I don’t care how much venom print and Internet journalists expound on hating the Chase, there’s no way it topped the volume of hype that ESPN doled out for this past season’s 10-race “playoff.” Then again, was anyone watching?)

Trying to attribute the decline of interest and viewership that NASCAR has been and continues to endure, one that has seldom if ever been seen in professional sport, to condemn the tone and content of media coverage is about as sound as blaming the Drudge Report for the stubbornly high unemployment rate. Clearly, we as a nation would see better job creation if Matt Drudge would stop posting links to news stories describing how the unemployment rate is only going down thanks to changes in statistical reporting. Clearly, NASCAR’s grandstands would be nowhere near as barren if the’s of the world would stop lamenting the loss of a 36-week schedule and instead would harp on how the annual points reset makes things ‘oh so close’ and exciting.

Going back to Brad K’s quote about print media bringing the sport down to save themselves… that makes sense, how? The media are going to preserve their jobs as NASCAR reporters by deliberately saying whatever they have to to drive paying viewers away from NASCAR? Anyone out there that buys that logic, here’s a suggestion. Go find a bookie and put your savings on Robby Gordon to win the 2011 Cup title.

The fact of the matter is simple, a point that can’t be emphasized enough as the 2011 season approaches. Those of us that are fortunate enough to cover stock car racing as accredited media have a tremendous responsibility. When dealing with stories that have millions of dollars and dozens of jobs potentially riding on them, it’s important to do the utmost to be accurate… and be fully willing to take responsibility and face the consequences when not. When articulating an opinion, it’s important not only to make that clear, but to back it up.

And that responsibility carries over further: When presented with a pig, one must refrain from putting lipstick on it and calling it something else.

The on-track portion of NASCAR is not in dire straits right now. Unfortunately, a number of elements within the industry that put the cars on said tracks are. And it’s not the responsibility of the media to gloss over those facts to give Brian France’s pie-in-the-sky rhetoric credence. NASCAR has a PR department for that. They’re paid well, and they’re awful good at playing dress-up with swine.

- – - –

In the same NASCAR Illustrated interview quoted earlier, Brad Keselowski asked a six-year-old race fan why he was a Joey Logano supporter. The six-year-old responded, “because TV says he’s good.”

The fact that Logano actually is a good race car driver is beside the point. The vast majority of NASCAR’s fanbase is not six years old, and not susceptible to the same power of suggestion that leads a small child to climb into a black van looking for a puppy. The majority of them may not be rocket scientists (don’t get bent out of shape; honestly, how many people out there actually know a rocket scientist?), but they’re certainly more than capable of making their own informed decisions about the state of racing today.

Then again, maybe that’s the issue that so many drivers can’t come to terms with. This problem isn’t going to be solved amongst the incestuous inner circle that the racing industry has become. It’s going to take winning over those who have become the outsiders for real change to take hold – and that isn’t going to be done from the comfort of million-dollar motorhomes and 30 second soundbites.

The horror!

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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01/10/2011 12:18 PM

Thanks Brian. BZF can call a cow patty a hamburger all he wants to, but the truth will eventually come out.

01/10/2011 02:09 PM

I used to think Ryan Newman was cool until he told the media it was their job to kiss NASCAR’s ass.

When 55% of the remaining fans still hate the Chase according to NASCAR’s own poll, how is it the media’s fault?

Used to Care
01/10/2011 03:49 PM

You speak the truth.
Unfortunately, “the truth hurts.”
NASCAR is only reaping what it has sown.
The once grand sport, so beloved by worshipping lemmings, becomes more dissipated with each passing day.
The only thing going fast is how quickly racing is turning into an anachronism, with no social significance.
Don’t the drivers “get it?” They’re history!
Don’t blame the media for a sub-standard product.

Don Mei
01/10/2011 04:35 PM

Blaming the media for NASCAR’S decline is an insult to every serious fan of the sport. Do those blaming the media think we are too stupid to see the futility of the chase, or the spec car series that has evolved and its affect on brand loyalty? Do they really think we can“t figure out for ourselves that the so called “leadership” of Nascar wouldnt be able to run a 7/11 were it not for the Lucky Sperm club? Give us a break guys…a lot of smart people out here losing faith in a sport they love for a whole host of reasons. For every RG, there are a thousand of us with a brain.Im surprised at Newman and Stewart and suggest they focus their wrath elsewhere where it might do some good.

01/10/2011 08:03 PM

The drivers blaming the media is the result of the drivers being forced to drink the Na$crap “Kool Aid”.

01/11/2011 11:46 PM

I always understood the purpose of the media is to cover NASCAR, not glorify it. I can reason and have my own opinion, despite the fluff on tv and the internet. NASCAR doesn’t seem to get that.

In any article, someone can disagree. But it is not the writers job to put a positive spin on everything.

01/12/2011 07:41 PM

As usual in a disagreement, I think the answer lies in the middle. The media frequently over covers the “bad” but NASCAR needs to cure their “cranial rectal inversion” and try to solve the problems. Racing grew too fast and we are seeing a natural contraction, but I think the boys at NASCAR need to get back to basics. That would be that the fastest car wins, not the fastest car among the top 35 in points who has the biggest budget to hire NASA type scientists to reduce the drag coefficient .02%. Get back to racing cars that kinda resemble cars.

01/12/2011 09:27 PM

Quite the dictatorship. Drivers fined last year for negative comments about NASCAR and news reporters scolded for reporting negatives about NASCAR. When does the book burning start?
If people don’t like the Chase, they just don’t, and you can’t force them to like it no matter how much censorship you enforce. Wait until Jimmy wins #6 this year. Congrats in advance, but: Zzzzzzzz. Jimmy’s pretty young too, this could be a long decade. May Kyle help us out of this ultra boring rut.

01/12/2011 11:28 PM

Tiggers, the greatest thing will be if JJ wins until there is no longer a Chase. That will be a victory two fold. No more Chase and the last of the JJ * Chumpionships. Anymore, I just laugh.

01/13/2011 06:42 AM

I enjoy all the social discourse in NASCAR! If everything was all sweetness and light all of the time, I would be bored as hell. At least dissenting opinions give us something to talk about.

01/13/2011 01:28 PM

I agree with the point that the media is not totally responsible for the downturn in the sport. I for one used to stop watching NASCAR in September to concentrate on NFL and fantasy leagues.

I continue to watch now and went to a race this year, a chase race, for the first time in many years. The old points sysyem was boring and I can’t imagine how many people like me would have abandoned NASCAR altogether due to it.

But getting back to the topic there are some of the writers on this site and others I no longer read because I am sick of hearing it. When I read the ‘however manufactured that points race may have been’ I almost stopped reading this one! The old points system was ‘Manufactured’ too, it is manufactured differently now. Here’s a shock to you all (or 55%) some people like the chase and have remained fans because of it!

Happy trails.

Bad Wolf
01/14/2011 12:49 AM

In other news, the NFL is enjoying record ratings this year, Brian France is not in control and the booth crew does not yell “Strap on that helmet and tie your shoes tight, BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY, LETS PLAY FOOTBALL BOYZ!!!” during the kickoff.

phil h
01/15/2011 01:26 AM

Nascar was such a rising juggernaut in the 1990’s,every year the sport far out attendanced all US sports by a longshot.The sport grew so fast,that venues couldn’t keep pace with the demand for fans and to put 43 cars in starting lineups.Thus,tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham faded from view.

However,like the old addage says,what goes up must come down.

Nascar ballooned so fast,naturally in time it had to level off.Now,thats what we are witnessing.

It’s easy to say!! OMG!! low attendance,low ratings,Bristol doesn’t sell out!!The sport is over!!

No way!It doesn’t bother me if there aren’t 43 cars in the field. 30 or more is plenty to me.Sponsors may not be jumping to the sport like they used to be,maybe that could drop some of this 4 or 5 owners that field the entire starting grid anyway.

I understand speedway owners and television honchos must be worried,but it goes with the territory,they will have to adjust to a leaner Nascar.

I don’t like that,and tv could drop the races if it gets any worse.That would be tragic.

phil h
01/15/2011 01:39 AM

so, hopefully for our sport,this lull has leveled off,and 2011 will be a much better year.In both attendance and television viewers.

J Ray
01/16/2011 09:52 PM

We have always enjoyed any Nascar racing we could find on tv.Most of it seems to be on Speed Channel so with most of their good programms being polluted with Darrel Waltrip silliness, we find we are now watching less and less.