NASCAR was looking to be in rough shape towards the end of last season. Ratings were consistently down, attendance figures were beginning to wane, and the general feeling amongst many fans was that the Cup Series party was over. Pessimism, not optimism, was the order of the day; the sport that had thrust itself into the American lexicon to become as mainstream as the NFL was sputtering as it began to crest. Things were looking bleak; not as bleak as, say, living in Michigan where this scribe resides.. but clearly, there was cause for concern.
So, what happened? The powers that be at NASCAR began to realize that, and for 2008, vowed to take action.
During the sport’s preseason media blitz, one of the recurring themes from NASCAR President Brian France was his insistence that the sanctioning body make an effort to regain the patronage and trust of the one entity that helped the sport get to the level it had achieved: the "core fan."
That wasn’t an easy task, for to say these fans were skeptical of the younger France's promise was putting it mildly. To many, France represents the Captain Ahab (or Kwame Kilpatrick for those of you in the mitten state) of NASCAR, and his words are usually taken with a grain of salt — no matter the circumstances.
Well, considering how most feel about the sport’s CEO, I can’t do any worse by throwing my two cents into the mix, can I? After all, I was exposed to the sport early in my life and decades ago, having attended my first race at five years of age. I didn't really start getting into the sport until the late 1980's and early '90's, mainly because I did not have cable television; but once I did, I developed into a "core fan” long before I received the added bonus of writing about the sport I love.
So, seeing as I am a self-appointed expert on everything, have spent countless hours (or hour) in deep thought and solemn reflection on Brian’s challenge, figuring out how NASCAR may preserve the sport of big-time stock car racing. The following is the product of my contemplation.
Just The Tracks, Ma'am: There is an old saying in real estate: Location, Location, Location. Nothing could be more true when it comes to NASCAR racing; in short, there needs to be some serious consideration as to when and where the series travels. How many people — particularly the "core fan" that the sport is suddenly so concerned about — bemoan the loss of iconic institutions such as Rockingham and the running of the Southern 500 at Darlington? In fact, there are countless numbers of fans that are still bent about North Wilkesboro not being on the docket anymore; did you realize it's been over a decade since a Cup car last dropped a tire off into the dirt there?
Today, the Southern 500 is not run next to a minnow pond, but to what once resembled a toxic waste dump. The race also draws just about as many spectators and as much interest as a Head Lice Convention; there is a reason that the camera doesn't pan out and show the stands, you know. The abomination continues West of the Mississippi, as Phoenix gets two dates a year and Chicago — with an attendance capacity that rivals Monster Jam in the RCA Dome — hangs onto one. Someone might want to break out an atlas and realize the complexity and irrationality behind having California and Las Vegas on back-to-back weekends to start the season while we're at it. The bottom line is the schedule needs some geographic realignment; and that’s putting it mildly.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: The practice of Cup drivers infiltrating and dominating the Nationwide Series has got to stop. It is diluting that series into little more than an extra few hours of Cup practice, while affording Cup regulars the opportunity to pocket more money and sell more merchandise in the process. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a class warrior and am all for capitalism â€” Viva Adam Smith! There are, however, long-established teams who helped sustain the series for many years that are being pushed out, unable to compete with satellite Cup teams with better technology, drivers, and resources. The same goes for the Craftsman Truck Series to some extent, as well.
How do you fix this? NASCAR could require drivers in the Top 35 of Cup owner points to declare a series in which they will compete for the year, limiting them to five appearances throughout the season in a lesser division. They can still run select races, but cannot run roughshod through what are essentially the minor leagues of professional motorsports.
Time Is On My Side: Is there a reason we can't get the show on the road (literally) before 3:00 PM EST? Seriously. This has gotten out of hand, particularly during the summer. OK, fine; I understand that the networks and the sport are trying to cash in on the West Coast markets, which are three hours behind the heartland. But having said that, why do the rest of us have to suffer?
I like to watch Formula One races on Sunday. So, you know what I do? I get up early, watch the race in Monaco, and crash on the couch later. Is that not an option in California? It is, after all, a small price to pay for living in paradise. I'm not a meteorologist, but the hottest part of the day is in the mid- to late-afternoon, and as much fun as it is to get all beered up and bake on an aluminum cookie sheet posing as a grandstand, it makes for a long day and an even longer ride home when at the track. Here's a wacky concept instead: Ditch the useless hour-long pre-race show, and talk to the drivers after the event has actually been completed. They can still work in sponsor plugs, but will not be able to lie and say that they, “got a real good car today.” If it was terrible, fans will all know it, and they’ll want to hear about just how bad it really was.
Ken Squier, Where Art Thou?: Can someone please explain to me how CBS and ESPN were able to cover racing better 20 years ago with only three cameras at their disposal? Why did the in-car cameras back then show so much and give a more vivid depiction of the action than today? I'm sure lots of people think that Jeff Gordon's car is pretty, but it is not the focal point of action on the racetrack 90 percent of the time. There is rooting, gouging and â€” God forbid â€” racing in the middle and the back of the pack all race long. Why not show it?
Memo to Fox: that camera you jammed in the pavement were there a long time ago, dating back to ESPN's Thursday Night Thunder sprint car races and even in the mid- to late- 90's at Indy when ABC was covering The Brickyard 400. What does it show? Nothing. Tape that same camera to the side of a guy's helmet or stick it in the headrest. And putting it on the roof accomplishes nothing, either. The driver is not sitting on the roof, he is inside the racecar.
Also, is it so hard to ask a legitimate question to a driver after an unfortunate occurrence? What are you really trying to elicit when you ask Tony Stewart after crashing out of an event, "Tony, you almost won the race but smashed your car into a wall. How do you feel about that?" And just for the record, "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" does not bother me as much as Jeff Hammond saying, "basically" and "kinda like" each time he is charged with explaining why a tire is no longer inflated.
Out of Stock: Henry Ford's theory on participating in auto racing was "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday." Sell what? Grill stickers? Let's remember what NASCAR stands for. Literally: National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Yes, I know; the days of "stock cars" racing died about the same time Mama Cass was crushing a ham sandwich. But is it so much to ask that they at least look like stock cars â€” or at least not be identical to one another? There is nothing worse than a spec-racer series, and a reason why, like communism, they always fail miserably. The Car of Tomorrow is safe; but did they really need to make it look so painful to look at? There is nothing endearing about this vehicle cosmetically. In fact, it's repulsive.
While NASCAR saw fit to hamstring teams with a rulebook that has templates for every nook, cranny, and decal on the machine, could it not have at least made templates to make them look like stock machines? Sure it's a brick, but at least make them glue a Camry, Charger, Fusion or Impala nose onto it. Get it off the ground, put some soft tires on it that actually offer something in the form of traction and the name of the series may once again carry some semblance of legitimacy.
Manufacturer identify used to be a part of the sport. Chevy guys hated Ford guys, Ford guys hated Chevy guys, and Mopar guys hated everybody. That is missing from the sport today, and it's desperately needed â€” as much for the fans as it is for the manufacturers to have a reason to remain involved. Otherwise, they make take the millions they are pumping into the sport each year and spend it elsewhere.
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