Kurt Smith · Thursday April 28, 2011
Greetings, Race Fans! Kurt Smith here filling in for the inimitable Matt McLaughlin this week. In case you’re wondering what happened to “Happy Hour” on Fridays, I’ve been forced into an early retirement from covering racing. Seems I did a little clapping at seeing Jimmie win another championship, and then I tweeted about it, and…well, I won’t go into the details.
You get the idea.
Actually what has happened is that I’ve struck out on my own, with a blog and Web site dedicated to making life better for baseball fans called “Ballpark E-Guides.” With the attention that requires, I just don’t have the time or energy to cover the sport full-time anymore, even at the salary of untold millions that the Frontstretch paid me. And hey, if you’re a baseball fan who enjoys going to ballgames, check out the link at the end of this article.
Anyway, since the ever-curmudgeonly Mr. McLaughlin generally devotes this space to the history of the sport and detailing where things have gone wrong in its current state, in that vein I thought I’d examine the Nationwide Series.
There’s been lots of grumbling about NASCAR’s Junior Circuit over Cup stars moving down a level to mercilessly beat up on lesser drivers (come to think of it, the beatings may have be the reason for the past term “Buschwhacker.”)
The last full-time Nationwide driver to win the championship was Martin Truex Jr. in 2005, when it was the Busch Series; and he was practically crowned before the season started that year because the rest of the competition was already weakening. Since then, non-Cup drivers win maybe three races a year, four or five if a road course ringer takes one in Montreal.
Lots of fans and media have suggested solutions for this problem, and NASCAR attempted to address it with its latest rule of drivers declaring a series to run for a championship, and running for points only in that series. (Hey, remember when Brian France said that NASCAR has had all the change it could stand for a while? I’m hard pressed to think of any aspect of the sport that’s been left alone since then.)
So much for the exciting possibility, however remote, of Kyle Busch winning three series championships in one season. But more to the point, not only does this make the points standings look very awkward, with no race winners anywhere in the standings as Rich Allen pointed out, it has done nothing to address the issue, as has quickly become obvious.
A sponsor doesn’t give a whit that Kyle Busch isn’t running for the championship in the lesser series. If they’re forking over considerable greenbacks, they want to see some return on investment; like people seeing the car they paid for appearing on TV frequently, preferably in victory lane, or at least driven by a swimsuit model. If the owner wants to put the car on the track, he’s going to have to give the sponsor what they want, and if a Cup driver wants to help his owner out, he’ll race the car for him.
Anyone’s fault in particular? Not really. In the end everyone wants something in return, and you can’t necessarily blame people for that. You may not like seeing talents like Justin Allgaier not getting much of a shot, but not letting Carl Edwards score points doesn’t make a difference to a sponsor.
So what to do? Darrell Waltrip suggested a year ago in a tweet that NASCAR put some more short tracks on the schedule, putting results more in the hands of drivers and not engineers, and enabling drivers to have a chance at passing the stars without having to make up two miles of ground and grapple with “aero push”. He has a point. On the big tracks aero rules the day, and in the shop funding rules the aero.
But that isn’t the whole of it. Sponsors might be willing to spend cash on an unknown if they could count on a larger audience in the stands and watching on television. Like the Cup series, the Nationwide Series has seen a downturn in ratings, for many of the same reasons.
In reality I think that this situation is probably a by-product of reduced interest in the sport in general. Who watches minor league racing? It’s not the same as college football or college basketball, where there are more meaningful championships and for most of the participants it’s the biggest mark they’ll make. There isn’t local city or alma mater pride involved in auto racing, for the most part. Unlike college, minor league baseball or NASCAR is where the seeds of future stars are planted, but are still unknowns until they prove themselves. So the audience is likely to be real hardcore fans interested in what the sport’s future will look like.
I expect you know where this is headed. The hardcore fan base, as we all know since many of us were a part of it, has become far less devoted to seeing every race of the season and spending their dollars on ridiculous hotel rates. In the past they tolerated it, but the deliberate departure from many established traditions have turned them off. Fewer short tracks on the schedule is a part of that, but only a part. We all have a favorite whipping boy of NASCAR changes that have irked us, and it’s been apparent that a large part of the core is, at the very least, not planted in front of the TV every Sunday.
The new Hall of Fame has a similar problem. Attendance is low enough at the Hall that it has yet to turn a profit, to the point where they’re cutting the budget to meet a worst-case scenario. I won’t sit here and say I know what’s causing the low attendance. I’m sure the economy has something to do with it. But I’d be willing to bet that disenchantment of the core fan—the type of person who would shell out $19 to see shrines of past heroes—could be a factor too.
So yes, DW is right in that more short tracks need to be added to the schedule—but not just in the Nationwide Series. NASCAR needs to recapture or rebuild a fanatical fan base again. Rather than look for quick fixes with rule changes every season, or hope against hope that Danica or Junior performs, NASCAR might be better served by undoing the many and unpopular changes that got them here in the first place.
Asking racing fans to watch 70-plus races a season is an awful lot, and that’s not even counting Camping World Truck Series races. Asking a fan of any sport to watch that many events in a season is an awful lot. I don’t know many full season ticket holder baseball fans that aren’t downright fanatics. The NASCAR fanatic isn’t as common as he used to be, and he (or she) isn’t watching as much. And with less of an audience, a sponsor is going to take less risks. And so the big name gets the seat, and the unproven talent sits on the sidelines.
It took some years for NASCAR in general and for the Nationwide Series to get into this position. They’re not going to get out of it overnight.
What’s Kurt Smith been doing these days? He’s been fanatically dedicating himself to you the consumer…or more correctly, you the baseball fan consumer…with Ballpark E-Guides, your comprehensive and inexpensive guides to major league ballparks! Learn how to get tickets, where to sit, how to get there, what to eat and much more, and save a bunch doing it! If you’re headed to a game in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia soon, check out Ballpark E-Guides!
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