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 byâ€¦ 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 Â¾ 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 halftimeâ€¦.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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