Thinkin' Out Loud · Matt McLaughlin · Thursday January 3, 2008
Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series by Matt McLaughlin on fixing NASCAR’s future. Part Two will be posted Friday.
Towards the end of last season, Brian France gave a press conference concerning the state of the sport of NASCAR. Not unexpectedly, given his position and lack of mental ability, for the most part Mssr. France assured everybody all was well despite the sagging TV ratings and blocks of unsold seats in the grandstands. But France did state that NASCAR was determined to keep and win back the longtime fans who have been the backbone of the sport all these decades, those who have been jumping ship in record numbers over the last few years.
That's a Tectonic shift in corporate policy, as such longtime fans have been routinely ignored and alienated for years now. In the past, NASCAR “corporate think” seemed to be, “Aw, let them old-timers go. There are plenty of folks lined up to grab them seats anyway, and we'll have a better class of wealthier and less rowdy followers at the end of the day.” Well, that didn't work out too well, did it? New fans can be a fickle bunch. The same problems that caused them to give up old interests and sports to give NASCAR a shot can drive them away from stock car racing just as readily. Blame it on MTV, blame it on You Tube, USA Today, the Internet, or whatever else – but it just seems that these days, folks don't have much of an attention span anymore. They want their information and entertainment in bite size-easily digested nuggets. A four hour race after a ninety minute pre-race show that is a thinly disguised infomercial just doesn't cut it in this Brave New World of "what have you done for me in the last five minutes?"
Well as a card-carrying, hidebound traditionalist who also doubles as a saddle-weary and scarred longtime fan, I offer the following pointers to the NASCAR powers that be on winning back the old-timers who once kept your trough full.
Lower Prices – Most longtime fans still work for a living, many of them in “blue collar” jobs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but ticket prices to NASCAR races are fricking obscene these days. It's no longer a choice between a race weekend or a weekend hunting in the mountains, it's become a decision between a race weekend and a summer family vacation. Not only have tickets to Cup races become too expensive, often to get them fans are forced to buy tickets to other events at the track they may not wish to or even be able to attend. So, the first step is to do away with these damned "season ticket" plans in deference to the working man; split it up so fans can pick and choose what they want to do.
Of course, the price of a ticket is only part of the expense of a race weekend. Some tracks, most notably those run by Bruton Smith, have tried to rein in the price gouging of local hoteliers who have resorted to inflated rates and demanded lengthy minimum stays on event weekends. It behooves track general managers to work not only with the hospitality industry but with local Chambers Of Commerce to get costs under control for race fans. Let the local politicians know that if the gouging continues, those coveted race dates might just leave the area all together. To show good faith, those track GMs might want to take a look at their own concession stand prices, which amount to legalized larceny as well. Yes, race tracks can try to wring every last dime they can out of each fan that attends a race – but it's not good for repeat business.
Gimme Back My Cooler – Given the high concession prices noted above, race fans have traditionally packed their own coolers with food, soft drinks, and of course, good ol’ beer. Well, back after the tragedy of 9/11 that right – which many fans and myself consider inalienable – began to erode. Tracks limited the number and size of coolers a party could bring into the stands, claiming that it was in the interest of “security.”
Of course, fans saw right through that gambit and responded with outrage. At least other new tracks didn't even try that ruse; they simply banned coolers altogether, admitting they wanted to force fans to buy at the concession stands. Oddly enough, a lot of those same tracks are having difficulty selling tickets these days. Hmm… could it be that fans have decided if their coolers aren't welcome, they aren't welcome either?
All these years after the fact, let's compare terrorist attacks committed by cooler toting bad guys at the tracks that still allow full size coolers to the tracks that limit the size of coolers or ban them all together. Oddly enough, the score is zero to zero.
Gimme Back My Color – Today's generation of race car drivers contains some incredibly talented individuals. I'm an old timer, but I'm not going to say the latest generation of drivers couldn't run with the heroes of my youth (As long as the newcomers were allowed to have power steering, of course). But it does seem to me that drivers in the days of yore were a lot more colorful and interesting than today's crop of drivers; “old time” fans increasingly complain the new generation of competitors is too vanilla.
I've had a peak behind the curtain, and I know that some of the drivers fans complain are too bland are actually pretty colorful guys, some with wicked senses of humor. But in an era where a driver serves as a corporate spokesperson in a clown suit, they watch what they say and what they do. Even one moment of unguarded emotion could have them fined or even suspended.
At this point, it's time for everyone to loosen up a little. Sponsors need to remember that racing is a physical and emotional sport, not lawn croquet. And NASCAR needs to stop penalizing drivers for every emotional outburst. If drivers want to push and shove each other while discussing one another's ancestry, let ‘em do so. If drivers want to rub and bump on the cool down lane or to discuss an on track incident, let them have some slack within reason. To date, I have seen nothing in the last decade that even approaches the sort of beating and banging Bobby Allison and Richard Petty used to do routinely. That’s a problem, because it was rivalries like that Petty/Allison feud and the one between Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip that put a lot of butts in the grandstands. Naturally, that sort of stuff can't be allowed to happen on pit road – where crew members and officials might be hurt – but on the track, a few instances of bad temper give everyone something to talk about for the rest of the week.
Don’t get me wrong; I'm as uncomfortable as anyone when kids hear bad language on TV (to be frank, if I had kids I might not even own a TV these days). But it is the job of the network censors to keep that language off the air more so than it is that of the driver never to issue a colorful phrase or two after an altercation.
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