The Frontstretch: NASCAR: Pandering To Everyone Except Race Fans by Vito Pugliese -- Sunday May 20, 2007

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NASCAR: Pandering To Everyone Except Race Fans

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Sunday May 20, 2007

 

Lug Nut. One of the representatives of Lowe's Motor Speedway. You have often seen him doing donuts in his Legends car on the front stretch, jumping out, his tiny cape flailing in the wind, then climbing the fence like Tony Stewart to the delight of the fans.

Well, with this weekend’s All-Star Race in the books, perhaps it’s time for Lowe’s to take a look at adopting a new mascot; more specifically, a Panda Bear. Why? Because NASCAR, yet again, is selling itself out, trying to pander to the "stick and ball" fans in an effort to (prepare yourself for another cliche’d NASCAR term) grow the sport. With that, I am humbly submitting for your approval, Ying Yang The PanderBear: The Official Mascot of NASCAR.

Now, NASCAR has changed up the rules for the All-Star race pretty much every year since its inception. They’ve done it so much, it's always confusing to figure out what's going on; this year, it was no different, as the race was split into four 20-lap segments. However, the changes are actually a part of the sport’s allure: it’s never the same thing twice in an effort to create exciting finishes for the fans. This is, after all, an event that is dedicated to the “fans.” But after Saturday night, I have to ask the question…which "fans" are the race actually dedicated to? For example, repeatedly during Saturday night's broadcast, the new rules led to references like "Four Quarters, JUST LIKE FOOTBALL!" Wow! It's also sort of like Basketball, too! I bet people who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line might be actually able to follow NASCAR now! There were even more “coincidental” references to stick and ball sports throughout the weekend: Steve Smith, the NFL star receiver, was chosen as an honorary flagman, while Michael Jordan, NBA legend, was the grand marshal of the event. We were even treated to a college football type drum performance that lasted so long, it's still reverberating in my head.

Yes, I understand that all three are staples of North Carolina collegiate athletics. I get that. What I don't get is this constant effort as of late to make NASCAR like other sports. That is not why NASCAR got big in the first place; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. NASCAR ISN'T like other sports. It's different. It's unique. It's special.

At least, it once was.

I remember seeing the cover of the new Sports Illustrated that recently arrived at my barbershop in 1994. There was a black and white photo of Sterling Marlin's No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet on the cover, with the caption that said it all: "America's Hottest Sport." Everyone raved about NASCAR having a demographic that included 40% of women, marketability beyond automotive related products, and attendance only rivaled by the NFL. What happened to that underground sport that people were suddenly catching onto and wanted to be a part of?

Indeed, those were exciting times. NASCAR acted like itself and had its soul intact. You had races on CBS, ABC, ESPN, and Turner cable stations, all of which had their own special way of covering the broadcast for the fans. We weren't beaten over the head with horribly choreographed rock concerts before events, races that didn't interrupt Sunday dinner, mindless banter in a booth between people who don't know a torque wrench from a trailing arm, or commercial breaks brought to you by… more commercial breaks.

Since then, though, the changes the sport has brought to what once was a flawless system have only served to alienate core fans. One of the biggest examples of this in the “new NASCAR” is "The Chase,” a 10-race playoff between the Top 10 drivers in points ¾ of the way through the season. Actually, it's more like the playoffs in college basketball or the NFL...more people can relate to it! That’s reduced what used to be a nine-month long battle royale which produced some of the greatest championship battles in the history of ANY sport to a 10-race exhibition for 12 guys who managed not to wreck a whole lot or blow engines between Daytona and Richmond.

Purists balked, but NASCAR assured us they knew what was better. After all, "they" got us this far.

The Nextel All-Star Challenge continued this practice of jumping on the stick-and-ball bandwagon. At this point, it’s simply four 20-lap segments. No inversions. No elimination spots. Of course not: we wouldn't want someone who has never followed a race before to get confused and have his head explode like that guy in "Scanners.” Then, after every segment, we're told time and time again, "This is halftime….much like in a football game or a basketball game!" It’s enough to make any core fan’s skin crawl.

The constant comparisons and parallels to other sports are so numerous, they’ve become transparent, yet NASCAR is wondering why its ratings are declining. It's simple: NASCAR isn't NASCAR anymore. Much like New Coke in the mid-1980's, they had the perfect original formula, and they're screwing it up.

Now, let's not get too carried away with racing and take ourselves too seriously. At its heart, it really is a bunch of cars going around in a circle, just like basketball is a bunch of guys running up and down a wooden floor, trying to put a ball in a hole. Granted, most of them can touch the rim just standing there, so forgive me and my 5'9” frame if I don't get all excited about it. Racing, however, has its own nuances and strategy that make it different from stick and ball sports. After all, that's how it thrust itself into national prominence in the first place.

Unfortunately, NASCAR is coming dangerously close to joining the stick and ball sports in one dubious category: joining the NHL and MLB as sports that nearly killed off their fan base. In 1994, major league baseball had a strike halfway through the season, and it took a home run race featuring juiced balls and equally geared up players to get fans on board with the sport all over again. Now, the juice is threatening to upset one of the most coveted and respected records in baseball and all of sports, drawing the ire of both the public and the United States Congress.

Meanwhile, the NHL was going gangbusters along with NASCAR with rising ratings in the mid to late 1990s; then, suddenly their sport began to fade a bit in the face of too many rules and too little scoring. Following a strike in 2004 that eliminated the full season, they're still struggling to regroup. Having games televised on the Outdoor Life Network and now, the Versus channel, typically does not foster success for sport that likes to consider itself “major.”

As NASCAR tries to plan for its future, it needs to realize it’s not that far away from being in the same boat. Just take a look at where the race was aired on Saturday night: SPEED serves as a fantastic network for the gearhead in all of us, but it's still a small, boutique network that isn't available everywhere.

Well, it’s time for a sport that has gotten so busy diversifying to remember its roots. There is a very good reason that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the sports most popular driver, why people don't boo Mark Martin at driver introductions, why fans get angry the Southern 500 disappeared, or heave objects over the fence at Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin. These are (or were) some of the last links to NASCAR's past, representative of what was right with the sport a decade ago.

With more and more signs indicating the sport is going downhill, you can’t emphasize the central point enough: NASCAR needs to pull back and stop trying to make itself something that it's not. It became the fastest growing sport in the Milky Way from 1948-1998 by doing it different than other sports, but in an effort to attract new fans at all costs, it's losing the current ones faster than they can be replaced. There is still time for the sport to be saved. It only recently started seeing a downturn in ratings after they began jerking with the system. At some point, the recipe for disaster needs to be addressed, and hopefully somebody in Daytona Beach is back from his trip to China to realize this and do something to stop it.

If not, maybe they'll have to find themselves some big, furry black and white suits, asking Humpy Wheeler if he's seen the keys to the donut car: that might be the only job left available to NASCAR execs should the sport continue its current downward spiral.

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Ed
05/21/2007 05:58 AM
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Great column! For several years now, the broadcasters have often talked about how some folks think the drivers aren’t “athletes” aka ball bouncers, football/hockey players. Who cares? They are race car drivers. If they are in good shape fine, if not, so what? I don’t think Jr. Johnson went to the gym every day and he didn’t have power steering or a cool suit. Of course he wore only a t-shirt. I too, got tired of hearing about halftime and 4 quarters, etc. That certainly proves that todays talking heads in the booth are under the absolute control of the France family.

Brian France Sucks
05/21/2007 09:48 AM
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Great column. Maybe the Frances, Ramey Poston, and Mike Helton will read this and pull their heads out of their a$$es. Not likely. Go KY Speedway!

scott oliver
05/21/2007 09:50 AM
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I’m only 39 yyrs. old,but grew up listening on the radio with my dad on sunday’s.nascar stayed the course even when tv came about.but the last few years have been appaling.soon the only real racing your going to see is at your local track.about 20 years ago bruton smith toyed with the idea of his on sanctioning body,sounds like a good idea.

Bob
05/21/2007 10:25 AM
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Vito Pugliese’s column should be required reading for all race broadcast producers and camera personnel too! Memo to you guys. The RACE is the thing!!
Not the fancy MTV videos, nor the stupid human interest stories that I’m sick of seeing 500 times, not the cut away to the stands or some crew chief/owner/wife/girlfriend’s poignant look watching the racing. It’s the RACE!! Let me repeat that. It is the RACING!! That is what makes it exiting. Not all of the other peripheral BS. Not just five cars that pay the network the most money. 43 cars are in the event, and they are RACING. They are digging trying to pass each other for 21st place, back and forth, underneath or around the outside. This is what made this popular to begin with. It is the RACING!! This is what is exiting. Not if some stupid rapper or country artist who have never been to any type of race in their life is singing a crappy, disrespectful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. It is the RACING!!
These stupid suits, yes stupid is a good definition for someone who takes a perfectly good product, and instead of adding it to enhance it, they completely try to manipulate it, and redo it, and along the way, ruin the product. It is the RACING!! How many times have we seen a movie where the original story or book was perfect only to be “made better” by some Hollywood producer with car crashes, blow things up scenes, altered and rewritten story lines, whatever. And ruined the story. It is the RACE!! Put the camera on the RACING and watch the action that will happen.

Just think. It’s only Monday.

William T.
05/21/2007 10:31 AM
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Awesome Column!!! I too am sick and tired of all this mumbo jumbo. It has gotten ridiculous

marc
05/21/2007 10:35 AM
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vito : you must be from ny city you just don’t understand nascar and the france family bussiness. get the money
i mean get the money first then refloat the sunken ship later. when it dies and it headed that way they’ll regroup and go back to depending on the fans going to races but right now the tv people have cash their handing out so get the money who cares about the fans we can get new ones later !!!!!!!!!!!!

btw the articles right on target.

driver3
05/21/2007 11:14 AM
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The All star race Sat. nite was a perfect example of what has become of Stock car racing at the top level.
Poor execution, of the Star Spangled Banner, driver intro’s, Grand Marshalls ( why the hell is MJ here????) tweak’n with the system, 4 racing quarters gimme a freak’n break, Speed channel only?? I thought Nascar was trying to gain fans? OPPS forgot, its now called pay per view. I can’t wait to sit through 575 miles of commercials, to get to 25 laps of racing next Sat nite. So its off to the dirt track, were they still RACE

Doug
05/21/2007 12:39 PM
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Great writing and summation of today’s NASCAR as we know it!

And they wonder why TV ratings are down over 10% for the year and the stands at EVERY race have MANY open seats!

NASCAR today is a BIG JOKE!

Kenny
05/21/2007 01:03 PM
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ctually, I thought Saturdy nite’s rendition of the National Anthem was one of the best I have ever heard at any sporting event.

But I can side with Vito on the issue of Nascar pandering to the public in general.

It stinks that they have taken out the bump, grinding, and pushing that made Nascar the epicenter of excitement.

I agree with making the sport national as opposed to regional but they should not do it at the expense of good old racing. Racing I may add that is seen at tracks from West to East and from North to South.

Sonny
05/21/2007 03:01 PM
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Awsome article. I have enjoyed watching the ARCA and Outlaws on Speed more than I have enjoyed watching NEXTEL racing this year because of all of the inconsisencies, COT, and the favoritism being show in the sport. Thanks Vito for showing our side of the story…just for the fans sake.

Scott
05/21/2007 03:11 PM
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The main cause of this decline is Brian France. He has taken the sport that Big Bill France worked so hard for years to build up to the point that it was and is slowly tearing it down. Brian France is more concerned about getting the money from the sponsors, fans, etc., and is not concerned with doing what is best for the fans like Big Bill did.

Larry Burton
05/21/2007 05:10 PM
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I agree too that a big part of the problem is Brian France. From what I understand, Brian has no interest in Nascar other than just running it. He doesn’t care about nascar racing from what I have heard and understand. Again, trying to make Nascar the in thing by having all these non nascar celebrites at the races is crazy. A lot of the old stars they had at the tracks for National Anthem and Grand Marshalls were actually fans of nascar. Another reason for empty stands is the price of admission tickets-its out of the roof and most working folks can’t afford to go and carry their kids so you are losing a lot of up and coming kids as nascar fans. Another thing that irks me is this drive for diversity. Look, I’m not prejudice, but going out of your way to try and get females, blacks, hispanics involved in a sport that most don’t care about is crazy also. I don’t see a drive for diverstiy in the NBA or NHL! Nascar is not a stick and ball sport and doesn’t need to be compared to as such! Nascar needs to look at ten years ago and get back to what made them popular and also the ESPN Broadcasts and how they were done. ESPN done a great job back then but seem to have lost their way now!

Web
05/21/2007 06:01 PM
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Vito, you nailed it. Hope it helps but I doubt it will. Bob, your comments should also be required reading for the powers that be.

Roger Barnett
05/21/2007 07:07 PM
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AMEN BROTHER! Brian France has taken NA$CAR the other way since he has taken over, I jumped off the train a couple years ago and I don’t regret it! Move over NHRA

T. W.
05/21/2007 07:51 PM
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Great comments all around. Another realizm of the decline of NASCAR is, just a few years ago Nascar and the teams were always searching for more sponsor money- NOW what do they do ? File lawsuits in court to prevent sponsors from placing there logo’s on cars- wouldn’t wanna hurt Nextel’s feelings, now would we ?
Why is it Bud, Coors and Miller can be competitive and Nextel can’t give an inch ? Perhaps Nextel should just paint all the cars yellow and sponsor them all.
Ill be watching local short track racing, so who cares.

Chris2
05/21/2007 08:24 PM
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Vito..You’ve hit the nail on the head with this article..as like the recent article you wrote regarding Dick Trickle they seem to go hand in hand as Dick represents what racing should be about whereas NASCAR today is all about the show. It’s painful enough when I hear a driver regarding to the race as a “show”,(“We just want to put on a good show for the fans..”). I don’t want a “show”..that is what Broadway is for..I want hard racing. This is not to say that drivers and teams aren’t giving it their all but more the point that they may be the only ones at the track concerned about racing as it sure isn’t NASCAR. Their concern is whether of not they can get Aerosmith to the stage on time..sigh..Great article Vito..be a little something extra in your check this week..;-)

falcon325
05/21/2007 10:28 PM
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>>Much like New Coke in the mid-1980’s, they had the perfect original formula, and they’re screwing it up.

Joe
05/21/2007 11:40 PM
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MJ gave the second most boring command EVER (#1 goes to Dubya at the 500 a few years ago) take a cue from Lenny Kravitz a couple years ago at CMS (yes, CMS, screw sponsorship of tracks) and say it like you mean it

the All Star race (i like the idea of an all star race so i say keep it) should be something like 50/30/15 laps with a mandatory pit stop during the first segment

oh and i agree with this article, i just wanted to add my two cents

Scott Lodoen
05/22/2007 05:12 PM
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Great and accurate article, unfortunately money and egos will rule the day. For the first time in over 20 years following NASCAR I dont watch every race and I have cut back on attending races from 10-15 per year to 2-3.

Tom
05/23/2007 11:19 AM
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Grate article, I like the four part format, but they don’t have to keep refering to it as four quaters and half time,well you know what I mean. I agree with the comment on the singing of the National Anthem, NASCAR claims to be so patricotic, they need to give the teams a civics lesson, the right hand goes over the left brest or over the heart, if you are wearing a hat your hat is removed andwheb grasped by the bill the cap portion should rest on your sholder, and your supposed to stand facing the flag or the music, all these rules are readily available from any VFW post.

Joe
05/27/2007 06:27 PM
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Vito, great article….If I have to hear the Daytona 500 referenced as “the Superbowl of stock car racing” once more, so help me…. I will throw up!! Keep up the great work partner!!

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