It’s not easy to admit it when things just aren’t the same.
Sometimes, you get in a rut where you appreciate something for so long you get blindsided when you wake up and realize things have gone terribly wrong. It’s like being a fan of The Simpsons; people who followed the TV show and grew up with it like me have just kept watching the last few years, waiting for the moment when the show would turn funny again, until you realize you haven’t laughed at a new episode since 2003. Then, you sit there in denial; you know the show’s going to keep going for the next few years, at least, but things aren’t the same anymore and you don’t have the slightest idea how to fix it, wondering how and if it ever will be fixed.
I never thought that type of feeling would creep into my job, the coverage of a sport I’ve been fascinated with since I could write a complete sentence in second grade. But as I finish up my first year of traveling around the circuit, covering the sport as a rookie writer but with a NASCAR obsession that spans back 17 years, I have to admit, I’ve got a Simpsons-like mentality creeping up on me.
I’m getting nervous NASCAR might really be in trouble.
All year, TV ratings for what’s become the No. 2 most watched sport in the country have been down. Significantly down; some weeks, viewership has decreased by over 10%. All summer and fall, I’ve thought the explanation was simple; the TV contract is about to expire, and in the last year of a contract ratings always tend to dip; they did so back in 2000, the year before FOX and NBC took control of the rights. In 2001, Dale Earnhardt‘s death gave NASCAR national attention, ratings took off, and those struggles were a distant memory. Past history, to me, meant that a repeat performance of that situation wasn’t such a stretch.
But 2006 is a different story. In 2000, there was criticism of leaving ESPN mixed with anticipation of the new opportunities FOX and NBC could bring to the sport. Earnhardt was making a run at his eighth title, mobilizing the old guard of fans while captivating those just discovering the sport we all know and love. In 2006, you don’t have that same dynamic. It just feels different, instead of building momentum under the surface for a new start in 2007, the sport feels like a wounded runner that’s limping to the finish line at the end of a long marathon.
Criticism is always rampant in any sport, but you can’t turn anywhere in the garage area today without getting an earful. An equal opportunity employer, this criticism comes roaring from all angles – the fans, the drivers, the crew chiefs, the owners. No one, it seems, is completely happy with the direction of the sport. Your name could be Jack Roush, Terry Labonte or Joe Schmo the Fan – you’re all saying the same thing in slightly different ways. And you’re getting sick of talking to the wall.
I started to wise up to what was happening at Texas. Usually one of the most attended races of the season, the Lone Star State brings a crowd that can approach up to 200,000. The track boasts one of the premier promoters in the business, Eddie Gossage, on its staff; a man who learned his craft under Charlotte President Humpy Wheeler, Gossage could get you to come to a race between a cheetah and a snail – and make you believe the snail was going to win in a once-of-a-lifetime event you just had to see.
But all the promotion in the world wasn’t getting the job done this time. Texas’ crowd was reportedly announced at 165,000, but it certainly didn’t seem like that many. Empty seats in both the Busch race and the Cup race were rampant. And this was at a track where, even with some questionable racing in past years, you’d think crowds would never abandon the product put out on the racetrack. They’d never abandon a sport they’d followed for years, would they?
Admittedly, this is one of those years where the NASCAR product being sold for public consumption looks more like the cheap toy at the dollar store you buy for your kid’s birthday party. Occasionally, you find a diamond in the rough, but for the most part, what you buy gives out a few minutes of enjoyment before the kid finds it boring and throws it away; that is, if it lasts more than five minutes without breaking into tiny little pieces. So many races this year have followed this same pattern; little bursts of excitement followed by single-file boredom to the point “debris” cautions get thrown to bunch up the field. I still maintain that speed is the issue; too many of these tracks have gotten too fast for the cars to run side-by-side with this handling package. Others claim the Chase is the problem (and we’ll get to that). But whatever the reason, the quality of the product on the track is suffering. At Texas, you could count the number of green flag passes on the lead with one hand. That’s one of those Loop Stats NASCAR doesn’t want you to see.
Of course, there’s far more being criticized than just racing quality. The Car of Tomorrow has been hit from all angles: you could fill a library with all the complaints filed so far with the powers that be. Anything from “The templates change too much” to “It’s causing us unncecessary work” to “It doesn’t cost less” to “the safety features could be added to the car we have now;” it’s a load of dirty laundry that would leave any mom intimidated. But the most telling criticism coming from everywhere is that the quality of racing isn’t better, that the dreaded “aero push” and “aero loose” are still a part of the new car. If that’s even close to being the case, NASCAR needs to, has to, investigate those concerns. It’s bad enough the new cars don’t look street stock anymore; I think fans can adjust to that, but if they lose the “stock” in “stock cars” and they don’t see the quality of racing improve dramatically with the new car, there’s going to be a backlash. Yet, NASCAR seems ruggedly determined to push ahead with the new car template, even pushing at one point this fall to run them in more than the 16 races currently announced.
Then, there’s the new culture of the Chase for the Championship. While the playoffs have created an atmosphere where more than two or three cars are eligible to win the title each year, it’s becoming painfully evident by year three that the system rewards who has the best luck over who has the best car. The 10 teams nominated for title contention couldn’t let the black cat walk in front of their car fast enough in 2006, making them even more fearful of racing aggressively in their quest to assert themselves on top of the standings. Meanwhile, the sport’s defending champion has been making a mockery of the whole process after failing to make the Chase, scoring more points and winning more races than anyone during the playoffs while claiming he’d do nowhere near as well if he had to utilize the “strategy” involved of competing for this championship. Inadvertently, Tony Stewart has let us all in on the secret of why the Chase is failing; it doesn’t allow you to take risks. Isn’t risk what racing is all about?
It’s worth noting that the old points system discouraged risk-taking, too, but no one ever noticed it because only two people were eligible for the title down the stretch, or the point leader was so far ahead by the end of the season everyone running behind him HAD to take outrageous risks in order to try and catch up. But now, with the Chase system, you’ve got 10 people who are the center of attention during the race simply because they’re eligible for the title; yet, the “strategy” they have to employ in order to win means they spend the majority of their days running like your grandmother on the Jersey Turnpike; just trying to get out of the way and hoping something bad doesn’t happen. You don’t need me to tell you that doesn’t make for quality television.
Those two issues are just some of the problems NASCAR’s preparing to handle in just one short week. Toyota’s entrance in the sport. Rising ticket prices. The Top-35 rule. Clarifying pit-road penalties. These are all things that should be on NASCAR’s radar screen; yet, the biggest piece of news from the past week involved the sport’s leader as the subject of a 911 call posted all over the internet, hitting both cars and a tree because of “coke spilling on his lap.” NASCAR was quick to clarify the situation, claiming CEO Brian France had a perfectly good explanation and would be willing to comment, but no one’s been willing to ask the tough questions, questions that would be denied regardless of guilt or innocence (I’m just as guilty; I haven’t). Meanwhile, the police are busy investigating whether another famous person may have indeed gotten off the hook in what could have otherwise been a much more serious situation. Even if you assume the best, which you have to, one is always innocent until proven guilty, this little incident isn’t necessarily a confidence-builder that the sport’s ready to handle the most important offseason it’s had this decade.
Until then, there’s a championship to decide and one more race to hope for the best until two and a half months where the racing calendar goes dark. That leaves time to heal criticism and rejuvenate attitudes for the coming year; but these problems aren’t the kind that get shoved under the rug. I do believe in NASCAR enough to know that these are situations that are fixable. People that have been a part of this sport know that the recent history of NASCAR at its best is unmatched. But, at the same time, the sports highway of the past 50 years is littered with those that tried to challenge the popularity of the four major sports, having a short-term run of success only to lose focus and self-destruct. This offseason will do much to ensure things don’t start heading in that direction for NASCAR.
Let’s hope they make all the right choices.