The Frontstretch: New School NASCAR Non-stalgia Eroding Sport’s Fan Base by Doug Turnbull -- Monday March 29, 2010

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New School NASCAR Non-stalgia Eroding Sport’s Fan Base

The Cool Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday March 29, 2010

 

My tenure as a NASCAR fan has been contained entirely in the “New School Stock Car Era”. The first race I watched from flag-to-flag on TV was the 2001 Daytona 500, where I saw my favorite racer, Dale Earnhardt, crash on the final lap defending the turf for the two cars he owned to win the race. I found out at church that night that The Intimidator perished in that wreck. Many “Old School” fans mark this moment as the day NASCAR changed – and did so for worse.

Earnhardt’s passing and the new, huge network TV contract that put NASCAR in almost every household in America joined in shining a blinding spotlight on the sport. But with increased popularity, came skyrocketing costs for both sponsors and race teams and a changing agenda for NASCAR executives. The agenda, of course, drifted away from how to keep the racing entertaining and competitive and more on what gimmicks could bring in richer fans from bigger markets. Races at Darlington at Rockingham were sacrificed in favor of additional events at California and Texas. The outcry from the “Old Schoolers” eventually began turning into apathy, and then disdain, for the changing sport. Another historic NASCAR track, Martinsville Speedway, has been rumored to have at least one of its dates on the chopping block. The same rumors have been swirling around Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking two races out of the last three that these speculations have been taking place.

While schedule realignment continues to be a major spark of ire amongst the NASCAR faithful, apathy toward the sport has been even more poisonous to its health. A major cause for said apathy has had plenty to do with the rising costs of the sport. As race teams became more innovative and willing to spend to win, sponsorship costs soared and sponsor demands began to dictate too much of both drivers’ and owners’ behavior. Gradually, Fortune 500 companies became less likely to spend the $15-30 million annually needed to fully fund a team as a primary sponsor. Instead, they realized that they could gain similar exposure for a fraction of the cost, by only committing to some races or by only becoming associate sponsors of teams. The result: less and less memorable driver, team, and sponsor combinations.

Through the years, fans have been able to easily identify drivers by their sponsor and car number. Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP car, Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 Goodwrench or Wrangler Chevys, Darrell Waltrip’s No. 11 Junior Johnson machines, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Budweiser Chevy, and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, No. 4 Kodak, Morgan-McClure Chevy and No. 28 Texaco/Robert Yates Ford are among many examples from NASCAR’s 60-plus year history. The importance of these iconic combinations and paint schemes may not seem great, but they define generations. Many fondly recall the glory years of both Petty and Earnhardt. They can attach certain periods of their personal life, even, to when certain legendary drivers and teams were wrapped in the colors of a product that they proudly used to tune their car, clean their clothes, or quench their thirst. But times have changed.

As sponsorship commitments splinter, so has fan identification with drivers, teams, and their backers. Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 DeWalt Ford was one of the most recognizable entries on the track. So attached was his paint scheme to his team, that his crew was called “The Killer Bees” in the Robbie Reiser-led days, after DeWalt’s black and yellow paint scheme. Unfortunately, the downturn in the housing market and construction industry forced DeWalt to pull the plug on its power tools sponsorship, leaving Kenseth to the purple hue of Crown Royal for about half of the races in 2010. The balance of his sponsorship schedule will be filled by whatever leftovers Roush Fenway Racing marketing department has set aside in the sponsorship fridge.

While Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevy and four-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy stand out as two of the longest , most recognizable partnerships in the sport, another Hendrick Motorsports teammate went through a bit of an identity crisis this offseason. Mark Martin’s first season in the No. 5 Chevy gleaned five victories and a second place points finish, but longtime No. 5 sponsor, Kellogg’s, decided that the burden of a full season, primary sponsorship was too much to bear. Arguably America’s most recognized cereal brand jumped from the HMS ship to Roush Fenway Racing, where it would set sail with a partial sponsorship of Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Ford. Martin now has a flashy GoDaddy.com paint scheme for most of the season, but also will see his remaining races filled by several sponsors.

Sharing a shop with Martin is the sport’s highest-paid and most well-liked driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. After leaving DEI and his long-occupied No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, Junior’s sponsorship load is now split between Amp Energy and the National Guard. Dale Jr. fans first identify now-driver No. 88 with Amp Energy, but often see Earnhardt in National Guard colors. After a few years of struggling, Dale Jr.’s fan base is loud, but less ecstatic than before and harder to see. The once sea of red that flooded the grandstands every week is an awkward field of blue, white, green, and black flowers. Kasey Kahne’s popularity and association with Budweiser pale in comparison to what Junior once ignited with the Bud suds through most of the 2000s.

Other examples of NASCAR crises include the double title sponsorship of races (like the race I called last night for the USA Racing Pro Cup Series: The Racing Electronics 250, brought to you by Live Oak Plantation…oh yeah…and that’s the old Hooters Pro Cup Series…remember that?), the rapidly changing title sponsors of series (remember a certain change from Winston to Nextel Cup and then the quick shift to Sprint after only four years?), and fading away of familiar stars in favor of young hot shoes due to sponsor demands (David Stremme in place of Sterling Marlin in the Ganassi Coors Light No. 40 Dodge never, ever seemed like a good move).

Who goes there? With sponsors changing teams faster than most fans’ short-term memories can fail, NASCAR’s identity is in danger of disappearing.

These examples and other similar instances all funnel to down to fan apathy. From week-to-week, vanilla drivers in hardly memorable racecars march calmly to a 1.5 mile, cookie-cutter track nowhere near where most fans live, say the same things to reporters after each race, and then spend much of the race waiting for the final 50 laps before making their charge. Since fans have not let their memories latch onto the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, what entry and driver will do more to define this generation, especially after Gordon retires? An argument could be made for Kasey Kahne in the No. 9 or Kevin Harvick in the No. 29, but neither is committed to those teams after this season. Tony Stewart is quickly becoming recognizable in his red, black and white No. 14, but Old Spice and Office Depot split sponsorship of his ride, adding to the identity crisis, and Stewart is still too easily placed in the No. 20 Home Depot machine that he raced for a decade at Joe Gibbs Racing. Maybe young Joey Logano, the new driver of the No. 20 Toyota, can fill generation-defining shoes, but he must win more first. His JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are easily attached to their sponsors, but neither is exactly iconic or likeable to fans…at least, yet.

Having a favorite driver and car to root for is a great elixir to help race fans forget some of the harder-to-cure apathy-causing aspects of NASCAR. But since most the cars look the same, manufacturer allegiances cause less bickering amongst impassioned fans. The generic merry-go-round of sponsors from week-to-week and drivers from car-to-car also has diluted what could be a field of competitive, easy to root for drivers each week in each of NASCAR’s top three series. Apathy is killing NASCAR racing right now, despite the sport’s recent efforts to infuse excitement into the racing. If sponsors and drivers do not wise up to this fact, not only will fans stop watching the sport now, but the few bits of great racing that are left today will not be infused into their memories. And with little to be nostalgic about, these fans will not have fond memories to share with coming generations. And that will be the death of NASCAR.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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TitanTerry
03/29/2010 07:05 AM
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You nailed it! I told a relative just yesterday: “I have given up on the sport because it has evolved into nothing more than a 3 hour commercial, it’s not about racing anymore.

J.Wink
03/29/2010 09:36 AM
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You’ve hit the nail on the head. Idiots like DW keep pushing their own agenda’s (Toyota) and personal websites by pretending to be unbiased commentators…ever count how many mistakes DW makes in a single race? NASCAR isn’t about racing and cars anymore. Pity. I heard a comment made by an IRL driver in St.Pete where he actually said that he wasn’t “into” cars!! Look where IRL is NASCAR. Keep up the same BS as IRL and you’ll be in their shoes before you know it!

jim
03/29/2010 11:00 AM
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Lets not forget the chase, what a load of crap that is it probably cost Jeff Gordon 2 championships and also what could have been a great story line last year with Tony as a start up team

Richard in N.C.
03/29/2010 02:18 PM
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Despite the best efforts of the NASCAR-bashers in the media I am still a big fan and have been since The King ran hemi’s. NASCAR isn’t perfect, but it never was, and still beats what’s second.

Bad Wolf
03/29/2010 02:27 PM
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Don’t forget that the cars used to actually be Fords, Chevies and Mopars and were based on factory (but well modified) drivelines and bodies. Nascar Kit Cars do not incite passion to the gearheads, and the fans can no longer root for “their” brand of car.

The Bear
03/29/2010 06:44 PM
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Wow Doug;You must really be a NASCAR newbie!Your little part in this story proves that if you really believe 35 of 38 races is half a season.By the way,35 is the number of races Crown Royal will be 0n Matt’s car this year.The other 3 were left for Valvoline to support a champion’s car.Oh yeah,Valvoline has sponsered Roush cars for quite a while,as has crown royal.Yes it’s too bad the economy finally made DeWalt pull the plug,but I believe if they ever come back,the first place you will see the colors is on a Roush car!Hopefully Matt is still around!And Crown’s brands are not a stranger to Matt’s cars either.{reference Smirnoff Ice}

mkrcr
03/29/2010 10:09 PM
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It only takes one thing to describe what’s wrong with NA$CAR…Brian France. All complaints about the “sport” starts with this name. Just like Al Davis, until he’s gone, there’s no real hope of recovery.

Tommy
03/30/2010 01:08 AM
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Imagine if the Packers or UT switched their team colors several times a season. Do you think fans would be upset? Suppose Duke decided that they should wear green uniforms for the final 4 because those were “special” games.

I grew up during a time where you could instantly identify a NASCAR team by the paint scheme. Some, like the Wood Brothers kept the same paint job for many years. It was disappointing to see Petty Blue become less and less significant on the #43, but I was astonished to see that it had disappeared altogether for most of the 2010 races. Lime green on the 43? Sorry King, but after forty-two years, this is where we go our separate ways. The new owners just admitted that you’re nothing but a mascot for the team.

Richard in N.C.
03/30/2010 03:06 PM
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Changing colors is not unique to NASCAR. Some of the throwback uniforms in the NFL and NHL, in my opinion, are just butt ugly – in particular the Pittsburgh Penguins Carolina blue ones. And what about the Duke black uniforms, which I do happen to like.

DansMom
03/30/2010 09:09 PM
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How was Dale Sr. your favorite driver when the first race you really watched was the 2001 Daytona 500???

VABlueGrass
03/30/2010 09:25 PM
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Could not disagree more:

Tracks like Darlington, Rockingham, and yes even HISTORIC Martinsville need to update their facilities to remain relevant in today’s market. Sure the races are great, but the facilities are AWFUL. yankee stadium (the greatest tradition in the country) got a complete overhaul last year. A face lift to some of NASCAR’s older facilities wouldn’t have hurt. Too bad it’s too late. The time for that change was the early 2000’s. That’s something that those track owners will never recover from.

And don’t blame sponsorship dollars on NASCAR’s decline. Ever stop to think that placing ad’s on automobiles is a dumb idea anyway. If it was so ingenious who don’t regular cars have ads plastered all over them??? I’d drive an ugly as sin PEPSI car as my daily commuter if i got paid 3 million dollars. But that idea makes NO SENSE!

You’re 9th paragraph makes me think that you don’t understand racing at all. OR you’re just in the business of pissing people off.

Apparently no one lives in Atlanta, Southern California, Las Vegas, or Texas???? Here’s a better thought, lets buy up all the foreclosed homes in some major cities and build a race track there!!!! ISC can use the multiple $8,000 bail-outs to bring you the “Inner City 400 brought to you by the US Government!”

I SWEAR NASCAR is the only sport that people who hate still watch, and people who hate it more get paid to write about… GET A REAL JOB!