The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Welcome to My Nightmare by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday February 26, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Welcome to My Nightmare

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday February 26, 2009

 

Welcome to my nightmare
I think you’re gonna like it
I think you’re gonna feel… you belong

- Alice Cooper

I’ve long been ridiculed as a prophet of doom. Since Brian France took over as CEO of NASCAR, I’ve been saying that this sport’s best days are behind it and the end is nigh. I’ve also put forth the proposition that the “realignment” of the schedule, the Chase, and the Car of Tomorrow have been the three heralds of NASCAR’s impending apocalypse.

All along, I’ve been ridiculed for my gloomy take on things. Even when TV ratings were down, we were told that was an inevitable consequence of the Information Explosion that has left us with 300 channels of TV and the Internet, now competing with the traditional media outlets as a source of information. (I’ve never doubted the latter. The Internet is the cradle that bore me and invited me as a sometimes unwelcome guest into your homes). TV ratings for the stick and ball sports were down even more than NASCAR broadcasts. When the first large blocks of empty seats began appearing in the grandstands, I was told it was just a temporary aberration, a mild failure of the sport’s marketing… and a sign it was time to expand the sport’s all-inclusive fan base to reach out to newer fans, replacing the old school ones who were expendable troglodytes. All was well, I heard over and over again from NASCAR officials and their mouthpieces who constitute the lap dog elements of the mainstream NASCAR media. NASCAR, like the Titanic before it, was unsinkable… and the end was unthinkable. After all, if a global giant like Toyota was willing to plunge headfirst into the pool, it could only be seen as a sign that NASCAR was escaping the stifling constraints of its regional popularity and exploding into the global market. One only remember the huge crowds (well, maybe they weren’t so huge) that crashed the gates to attend the postseason NASCAR events in Japan to see the degree of affection and fascination folks in the Land of the Rising Sun felt towards stock car racing.

Welcome to Fontana, 2009. Welcome to my nightmare. Yes, I am sure that many of you feel I want to see NASCAR fail, if for no other reason than to vindicate the death of Dale Earnhardt and prove true my predictions. That’s far from the case. Stock car racing is a passion of mine that dates back 44 years. This is what I do on Sunday afternoons… this is a major part of my life. God willing, the last Sunday afternoon of my mortal life, I’ll be standing, cheering a last lap pass in the final stock race I will see from this mortal plain. And if there is truly a paradise beyond life here on earth, it won’t be the last race I plan to watch. I truly believe that a better life awaits us beyond this one; I’m just not so sure I’ll get to cross that river. Like the Boss, I’ve done my best to live the right way — I get out of bed every morning and go to work every day. But your eyes go blind, and your blood grows cold, sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode…

Meanwhile, I’ve got three words for those who thought adding Fontana to the schedule was a good idea: “Ontario Motor Speedway”. For newer fans, I might add, Ontario wasn’t in Canada. It was built at great expense just outside of L.A. and it, too, failed miserably. Whether things get better or they get worse, this weekend at Fontana was a bloody black eye for the sport. Attendance at the three top touring division races was nothing short of embarrassing. Who could have predicted such a disaster? I’ve got a better question: Who outside NASCAR officialdom didn’t see it coming like a runaway freight train, with sparks flying off its steel wheels as it prepared to jump the tracks?

I admit a degree of loathing for the track in Fontana, one that surpasses even most of the contempt showered upon this joint by other hidebound traditionalists. After all, Fontana cost us the Spring Rockingham race and the Southern “By Gawd” 500 on Labor Day weekend. The loss of those two cherished dates, we were told, was inevitable due to declining attendance. Well, even on their worst dates the Rock and Darlington never featured a disaster like this weekend in Fontana. Had either race ever been this poorly attended, not only would the tracks have been closed, they’d have been razed and plowed under — after which the land that once held them would have been salted.

It’s the economy, I’m told. On a personal level, I am all too familiar with the current state of the U.S. economy. To be blunt, it sucks. Fontana is a newer track, and these might be the most challenging times track management has ever had to face. But the Rock and Darlington were elder statesmen of the sport. They’d endured countless economic downturns previous to this one. They’d survived the manufacturer boycotts by Chrysler and Ford in the sixties, ones that sidelined countless numbers of the sport’s biggest names. Yet every year, on Sunday mornings when the gates opened, real fans returned to the seats they’d held dear for decades.

The rural Southeastern United States where the Rock and Darlington are located has perhaps cruelly always been the canary in the coal mine of the U.S. economy. Folks in these parts were enduring the closure of textile mills, tobacco farms, and furniture factories even back when Wall Street was soaring and GM had to work three shifts to churn out enough crappy unreliable cars and trucks that began rusting on the transporters on the way to dealerships to meet demand. After all, Cale, Darrell, and Dale drove Chevys; and what Dale drove to Victory Lane on Sunday, Southerners proudly drove to work on Monday. The Deep South has endured many indignities and challenges, from Union occupation and the carpetbaggers, to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, to the original advent of outsourcing good-paying jobs overseas. Yet, in the modern era on four cherished weekends a month, they flocked to the Rock and Darlington. They sat in the same seats their granddaddies did in starched white shirts and skinny ties. They sat in the same seats their dads sat in to cheer on Cale and Dale, two true-born sons of the South. And they continued to buy those tickets in an area where stock car racing is a religion second only to Christianity in the Heart of the Bible Belt. They weren’t always the most affluent of fans, the best educated, or the most photogenic — but they were loyal in an area where the word “loyalty” still means something beyond a Hallmark greeting card. Southern fans were as loyal to the sport as a well-fed hound dog is to its lifelong master.

Once upon a time, racing at Darlington proved the lifeblood of Labor Day Weekend. Now, the track has been pushed aside — with just one lone date remaining on the Sprint Cup schedule.

But their hard-earned greenbacks and generations of loyalty weren’t enough for the poltroons of NASCAR and its new TV network partners, one of which is trying to recreate the sport as a freak show and the other of which treats it like one — already bouncing the end of Chase races to tertiary outlets so America’s Funniest Home Videos can air without delay. There’s nothing amusing about that.

Once upon a time, NASCAR and TV envisioned a brave new world where stock car racing was transported from the fertile soil of the South to the seismically unstable dirt of the Left Coast. They lusted after a new sort of fan: wealthier, hipper, better-looking, and freer spending. But in doing so, they well and truly screwed the pooch, fathering a generation of puppies that is even now chewing up the corporate couch. The thing about the newer fans is that they just don’t have a sense of loyalty. They latched onto NASCAR back when it was the next big thing, the same way they became devotees of Pilates exercise equipment, Lexus’s, and David Madoff-backed investments. When times got tough, as they have now, they moved on to the next big thing — investing their dwindling expendable income elsewhere.

There must be some reason AMA Supercross, a bastardization of the purer sort of that sport, can sell out three nights in L.A. while NASCAR can’t. Longtime fans were a different sort of human being; and even in the worst of times, folks always need some entertainment in their lives. For example, the Depression and the dark days of World War II spawned some movies we still consider classics… even if they were filmed in black and white. And those longtime fans didn’t cash in a hot stock to get money to attend a race weekend. They carefully stashed away their ones and fives in the cookie jar to make sure they could make it. They’d forego dinners out, family vacations, and a new car to make sure they were there for the Southern 500. Maybe they’d curtail their white-tail hunting trips from a week to a long weekend just to make the show. There was an attitude that the sacrifices were worth it to be there for something special, the only big thing that rolled through the area annually worth attending.

Sadly, those days might be gone. The powers-that-be tried to turn NASCAR racing from a sport to entertainment. The problem is what they call “the product” lately isn’t very entertaining. The drivers are increasingly hard to embrace. They’ve become carefully spun marketing automons, with all the personality of a mayo on white bread sandwich. It’s hard to imagine a rabid army of fans clinging to them as a member of the extended family, the way countless contingents of folks in black number 3 T-Shirts once embraced Dale. It’s hard to imagine any of them having the rocks to stand up and call NASCAR officials out onto the carpet, the way Earnhardt once did when he had his backup. “This ain’t real racing,” Earnhardt once said of restrictor plates. Sadly, in the end it was plate track racing that cost him his life. He lost. They won. But the victory now seems shallow and short-lived. When Dale left us, a sizable contingent of his fans left the sport. And they ain’t coming back…

At this point, a lot of longtime fans have left the sport once and for all. They were slapped in the face, taken for granted, and belittled too often. NASCAR’s mindset once seemed to be, “If you want to leave, go and don’t let the door hit you in the ass. There’s hundreds more folks who will pay better money to take your place.” Well, judging by Fontana, that once ravenous demand is a thing of the past.

No, this isn’t the end of the world as we know it… at least not yet. My guess is the crowds at Las Vegas next week will be much better. After all, the folks from Bruton Smith’s SMI have always treated fans as an audience that needed to be courted and catered — and it’s time for the folks at NASCAR and the ISC to adopt that same attitude. A good start is to admit that Fontana was a well-intended experiment that failed miserably… and it’s hard to argue with this weekend’s empirical evidence.

It’s a hard thing for a proud man — and an even harder thing for a bloated corporation — to swallow its pride and admit they’ve screwed up mightily and need to make amends. But NASCAR could start by returning the Rock’s date as the second race of the season, as well as moving the Southern 500 at Darlington to its place of prominence — on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day Weekend. And let the networks bitch. Their solutions to the problems that face the sport today seem to be an animated gopher and his buddies… and that ain’t going to work. Remember, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than find oneself at the bottom of the food chain in a larger body of water.

Meanwhile, gentle readers, please keep your hands and feet inside the car. This is going to be a dark ride.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Kevin in SoCal
02/26/2009 01:52 AM
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Just remember, it was not the track’s fault. NASCAR did this. I dont remember the track crying for a second date the way Las Vegas and Kansas are. And yes I’d gladly give up one date as long as Fontana keeps one date. As crappy as you think the track is, the track sold out every year when it had one date.
With the Chase the way it is now, do you think if the Southern 500 was run at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, it would be as good as it once was? Just look at how neutered the Bristol night race has become now that its so close to the Chase cutoff.

Doug in Washington (State)
02/26/2009 02:58 AM
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I still don’t understand how some folks think that Rockingham pulled better attendance. It’s last 2 Spring races had worse attendance than any of California’s Spring attendance, except the Monday-rain mess in 2008. Even then, they sold more tickets than the Rock did.

True, Rockingham had less empty seats, but they still had empty seats. They just had less seats total. So they put too many seats in Fontana.

Not to say I wouldn’t rather see racing at Rockingham- I would. But California deserves one date. But not just California… ALL the 1.5-2.0 mile tracks deserve ONE date. Not 2.

Funny how folks always blame California for the loss of Darlington’s second date. You’d think the name “Ferko” would come to mind. Texas is another track that doesn’t deserve 2 dates, but you can thank lawyers for that one.

jim
02/26/2009 04:38 AM
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How true…At this point, a lot of longtime fans have left the sport once and for all. They were slapped in the face, taken for granted, and belittled too often. NASCAR’s mindset once seemed to be, “If you want to leave, go and don’t let the door hit you in the ass. There’s hundreds more folks who will pay better money to take your place.” Well, judging by Fontana, that once ravenous demand is a thing of the past.

marshall
02/26/2009 05:13 AM
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No Kevin , i don’t really think anyone blames the track or the tracks’ management for this mess . The track itself is no better or worse than any of the 1.5 mile tracks . And Ms. Zucker has certainly done everything that could possibly be asked of a track manager / promoter .
But the California fans don’t buy tickets , and many fans don’t watch on tv .
Fontana does need to go back to once a year , and at the right time of the year .
And i have no doubt that given its’ proper Labor Day race back , Darlington would be as great a show as ever .

Bria France Sucks
02/26/2009 05:40 AM
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Kevin, the reason Fontana didn’t cry for it is because I$C and NA$CAR are the same damn thing. Its in NA$CARS interest to give more races to I$C tracks, because they get more money. Fontana flat out sucks, and now they get a Chase date. Just when you think dumb@ss Brian and the tools can’t do anything else as stupid as the previous stupid move, they give California a Chase date. The racing and finishes at Atlanta were consistently better, but Bruton Smith owns Atlanta, not FRANCECAR.

Bill B
02/26/2009 07:24 AM
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I am too the point where all I’d like to hear is NASCAR say that MAYBE they were wrong with some of the changes they have made in the last 5 years. Even if they don’t change anything, I’d just liket an admission of error.

MJR in VA
02/26/2009 08:00 AM
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Boys, now let’s not get all waded up here and forget what’s truly at the focal point of this mess. My Daddy always told me “desperate men do desperate things.” When you break that down it truly describes Brian France to a T. He has found himself in one hell of a mess (because of greed and power no doubt) and now he must find his way out. Yes, you can manufacture excitement – they do it in the movies all the time. But you can’t manufacture a true fan. Those you have to come by honestly. The have to be culled and catered to, they have to be respected. Many of us “true” fans can stand up and say that hasn’t been the case as of late. I truly believe that France has tried to grow this sport. He didn’t need to; it would have grown itself all on its own. It didn’t need all the gimmicks and gadgets. Now he is in a real pickle of a mess and his pig-headed ego won’t allow him to admit it. He hears what the fans have to say through venues like the FS and he sees how the fans are reacting through the ratings and attendance figures. Many of his recent decisions did not work out too well and I’m guessing they won’t get much better. It’s real damn hard to shovel sand against the tide. But now he is a desperate man doing desperate things….see how that comes around again?

Janice
02/26/2009 08:26 AM
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well labor day weekend race is getting closer to darlington this year…it’s here at atlanta. i’m still on the fence about going…more like holding onto my money as long as possible and knowing i’ll have a job in september to spend the money for tickets, gas and food.

2008 was the first season in 25 years that i did not attend at least one cup race. follow the leader, blown right side tires, constant aero push complaints and passing in the pits isn’t worth the time and money it costs. i’ve been listening to radio to try to win tickets to the race here in a week. that’s the only way i’d go. besides i have a feeling weather will be an issue for ams. the track’s website posted photos of people who camped and stood in line for 1000 tickets at $17 a pop (2nd year they did number who won the daytona 500, certain tickets would sell for that amount of money). the folks in the pics look like na$car’s non-demographic fan…..working guy and gal who have supported the sport for years. they sold the 1000 tickets in 15 min.

there are a lot of fans, albeit middle age fans, who still proudly wear the black 3 shirts. every weekend i’ll see gear still being worn someone in a store. i still do. maybe i do it to cling to the memory of days gone by. what incredible times i had at races.

Janice
02/26/2009 08:32 AM
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i wonder of na$car is starting to get nervous with jr’s performance and points standing. can you imagine the blacklash if he falls out of the top 35 in points and isn’t “guaranteed” a starting spot in a couple weeks when the 2009 points standings are used?? if that happens, we’ll probably see a rule change.

itsborken
02/26/2009 08:57 AM
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This was my first year not going to Ontario. I didn’t miss it; having wasted enough driving time between Phx and LA to see the most boring races ever. This year’s finish was marginally better than usual but in the end, I keep in mind the rest of the race. No I won’t be back next year either.

Annie Mack
02/26/2009 09:59 AM
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I wonder if the fact that Nascar has become so ensconced in and dependent on the sponsorship deals has anything to do with their inability to unravel the mistakes they must know they’ve made. Or it could be they just don’t want to give up the almight dollar. I just can’t get Kyle Busch’s interview out of my head. Just hearing him say that he heard ‘something’ about the economy being bad but he has a good job and he isn’t affected drives me crazy. Have some compassion for the fans who pay for the tickets and buy your souveniers, for pete’s sake! I have to believe that the France family is living in the same bubble, so they don’t have a clue. It might be nice if you heard from the family once in a while. Heard them acknowledge the hardships their fans are facing and say how much they appreciate those who are still buying track tickets and sponsor products. Perhaps bankruptcy will wake them up. I doubt there will be a government bailout for Nascar.

PontiacGuy
02/26/2009 10:51 AM
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Matt, thanks for putting it all together. At least for this Old Time Fan, you hit the nail on the head.

How soon until *oyota’s contract is torched, and we contract back to the Southeast only? Maybe then NASCAR can get its soul back.

L Taylor
02/26/2009 11:22 AM
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I have no clue as to how much the procedes from tickets sales at the various tracks affect Nascar’s bottom line, but I’m willing to bet that sponsorship dollars are where the real bucks come from.

Don’t know about you guys but because of late starts and boring races at the cookie cutter tracks I tevo most races. I’ll watch the race and zip through cautions, commercials and anything connescted with that idiotic gopher.

Therefor, I miss the commercials that these sponsors are paying for.Wonder if any of the sponsors have people paid to monitor things like this. If many of you have the same routine the sponsors are wasting money. I wonder if TV ratings are affected by people who record?

The point is until the consequences seriously affect Nascar’s bottom line I doubt we’ll see any change in Nascar policy. Lousy tracks, plate racing, Goodyears, etc.

What will get their attention? Lower attendance, lower ratings, equaling less income.

Maybe then they will start catering to the serious fan’s wishes-or not

midasmicah
02/26/2009 11:36 AM
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At a time when nas$car needs to re-connect with it’s fan, I fear that they will do nothing. They can’t. Sadly they don’t even control their own product. I say product because that’s what it is treated like. Just another generic product from an assembly line. Vanila drivers, vanila cars, and vanilla tracks. When we want action what do we get? An idiotic rodent that’s God awful at it’s best. Sadly the sport I’ve watched for 25+ years is getting more unwatchable with each passing year. I hope nas$car will wake up and realize they’re headed down a one-way dead-end road. I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

ginger
02/26/2009 11:37 AM
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Matt, I will simply say this is the best and most honest article I’ve read regarding Nascar. You have put words to my thoughts. Thank you.

Melissa
02/26/2009 11:39 AM
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It’s funny how you knock the drivers for being a little to PC but yet you are the first person to knock on Tony Stewart for speaking his mind.

Kevin in SoCal
02/26/2009 12:20 PM
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L Taylor said: “I wonder if TV ratings are affected by people who record?”

Only the households with a Nielson box affect the ratings. Nielson doesnt use the statistics from people who use DVR’s or TiVo’s. You can look up Nielson Ratings on Wikipedia for more info.

And what’s the big deal with California having a Chase race? Its the same as Charlotte, Texas, Kansas, Atlanta, or Homestead having a Chase race, they’re all speedways. And they’ve all been known to have bad races, even Atlanta.

Kevin
02/26/2009 12:22 PM
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A reasonable and thinking person would realize that at one point in our country’s history horse racing and boxing were the biggest sports. I would love to know what happened to them. But something went wrong and now both are niche sports (horse racing still makes headlines – but only for a few races.)

Of course NASCAR isn’t run by anyone who is reasonable or thinking. And those who ignore history…

So PontiacGuy – get ready as I really believe there will be a day when Brian pulls his million dollar golden parachute. NASCAR will shrink back to the South as a niche sport and will only make national news for the Daytona 500.

Dennis
02/26/2009 02:22 PM
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NA$CAR is following the path of a thousand failed business models that went on before them. NA$CAR has it’s niche, but they want to expand. But the mistake they are making is in expanding outside that niche. Like Dunkin’ Donuts selling Pizza, or Indian Motocycles trying to make boat motors and washing machines in the 30’s and 40’s. Trying to expand out of what you do best can kill you. NA$CARs recent success was not from going head to head with NFL, but filling the void to it. Early Sunday starts gave new fans something to see before the late Sunday games, and us loyal fans the rest of our Sunday with family (or in daylight traffic from the track). When the cars were closer to the stickers they wore, and the competition was all but manufactured, the sport we loved could be nothing but successful. But now NA$CAR is refusing to dance with the ones that brung’em. The TV coverage sucks, and the racing sucks, and they can’t figure out why the Ratings suck! Week after week we see 300 to 500 miles of fuel saving, by a bunch of less than talented but more photogenic drivers who ride around in cookie cutter cars that can pass a kidney stone easier than another car. All waiting for the only race there is (the one off pit road) to be first in clean air. Any given Sunday it’s the same thing, baring a storm or an idiot move, one of less than the same 10 cars will ride around out front all day then take the checkers. Well that is till August when it seems to be just one car. All this, so obvious, so sad.

HenryM
02/26/2009 02:57 PM
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I have been to a few races at Michigan and they were uniformly boring. Track is too flat for good NASCAR racing. I was amazed when Roger Penske (one of the sharpest and shrewdest people around) announced that he was going to build a duplicate of in at Fontana, but with less banking!
A prescription for disaster from the start.
I have always said that if IRL/CART could run on a track, then NASCAR should not. Too flat! I rest my case.

Brian France Sucks
02/26/2009 03:07 PM
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atlanta has endured some bad races, just not as consistently mediocre as the “racing” at fontana. All the passing is either done in the pits or in the first 2-3 laps after restarts. Kevin, I respect your opinion on NASCAR events in SoCal, you guys deserve one, just at a different track that actually justifies having it. You need a better track so that fans will actually show up, and the racing will not be mediocre at best. It would be nice if they built something from .5-.75 miles in length out there that could run 2 grooves in. Larger tracks provide boring racing.

Mike
02/26/2009 05:47 PM
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Ontario failed because it was a replica of Indy, which is a horrible place to see a race.

Fontana sells out? Who says, NA$CAR? 3 years ago when we lived in Palmdale they were giving tickets away.

California has a lot of race fans. Just not a lot of NA$CAR fans.

Last I knew they had more short tracks than any other state.

Jim
02/26/2009 07:58 PM
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Thanks ! What’s odd is that I’ve seen similar actions by other types of business’s where they alienate their base to try and draw a larger audience only to see the whole thing fail. The problem with Nascar is that it’s not just boring but it’s actually becoming annoying.

usetawuz
02/26/2009 08:00 PM
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bold wonder of na$car is starting to get nervous with jr’s performance and points standing. can you imagine the blacklash if he falls out of the top 35 in points and isn’t “guaranteed” a starting spot in a couple weeks when the 2009 points standings are used?? if that happens, we’ll probably see a rule change.bold

Janice, should Jr. have to qualify with the Go/Go home crowd and not make the race, I can almost assure you that he will receive a ‘Promoters exemption’ which will make for a 44 car field.

We are, after all, talking about Jr. an underachieving, less than average driver, who has a blind following

Chris2
02/26/2009 10:13 PM
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Matt, best article yet. I’ve said recently on another article regarding California that people should really look at all the 1.5 cookie-cutters as just about all of them are pretty boring unless you consider “pit-strategy” a form of racing. Lets face it, NASCAR has even found a way to suck the life out of Bristol. Thanks to the COT and the Chase we now have everyone driving Bristol like they are doing 55 on the highway..may as well install turn signals on the car. I’m not looking to watch a wreckfest but really, lets face it, most of us grew up watching local short track racing where guys were leaning on one another and not exactly being the most polite to one another which is what Bristol used to be…not the Ms. Manners event that we see now. NASCAR has really lost sight of how they got here and has been mentioned already they aren’t much different than companies we’ve seen recently on Wall St.

Ed
02/26/2009 10:17 PM
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As another old time fan, thanks Matt. My sentiments exactly. I hardly notice the races anymore. I watch a few laps now and then, but my passion is gone. The tickets are too expensive, the drivers too boring, and the TV coverage too terrible to describe. I yearn for the Rock, North Wilksboro, and Darlington on Labor Day. Real men, who knew which end of a wrench to use, and who were able to race the big time until they wanted to quit, not when the sponsor said so, drove the cars. It didn’t matter if they didn’t have a generic accent or their hair wasn’t perfect or they were over 40. They lived to race and didn’t worry about the money. Money is at the root of most of NASCAR’s evils and it will bring it to it’s knees sooner than later. Hopefully, this economic downturn will bring NASCAR back to its roots and take down the new cookie cutter, boring tracks. Time will tell.

allen
02/27/2009 01:07 PM
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great column matt.
WAS a nascar fan for 50 yrs. attended daytona for 28 years. Quit going after 2005. Saw it coming.
your articles are right on the money.
If nascar is so fan friendly why do the drivers wear those stupid sun glasses so you can’t see their faces? Kind of represents nascar in a way,trying to hide something? just like tv hiding empty seats.
Its a shame what has happened to nascar racing as I knew it.
give me a good saturday night dirt race, thats all the real racing left.

thank you