It’s a lot like the first day of school. You believe in possibilities; it’s a brand-new year, and anything can happen. And, poised to start the 2007 NASCAR season on Sunday, it feels a lot like that indeed.
This season will be a lot of things. Exciting, colorful, fleeting. But I also find myself starting off a little skeptical. There have been so many changes in the offseason that I wonder if they’re desperation moves.
2007 could prove to be a make or break season for NASCAR. Despite fan resistance to adding more drivers to the Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR did. Despite opposition to the Top-35 rule, it’s still on the books. The hue and cry about bringing Toyota into the series went seemingly unheard, although that may well have been for the best – NASCAR needs Toyota as the other manufacturers’ profits falter. The Car of Tomorrow is on the fast track despite lingering concerns from fans and teams alike. Longtime fans feel alienated. New fans feel overwhelmed.
Yet the sanctioning body turns deaf ears on the fans and the teams. Sure, that’s sometimes necessary because there are so many opinions and so many ideas out there. In some situations, the engineers and marketing experts probably do know best. But it that always true? This isn’t the NASCAR I fell in love with 10 years ago. The explosion of growth has brought increased ticket sales and television ratings, but it has come at the expense of tradition and even the sport itself as NASCAR abandons the old, quirky tracks and the exciting racing they produced in favor of tracks that look and race alike but hold a lot of fans and have the latest amenities.
Last week I wrote about the vision Dale Earnhardt had for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and how that vision has dimmed since his passing. It made me think about an even bigger issue: Big Bill France’s vision for NASCAR and how far the sport has diverged from that. France was a visionary and made changes to stock car racing that others scoffed at in those days. But the Chase (especially the new “improved” 12-man version), and the Top-35 rule, and all the cookie-cutter tracks, the turning away of the fans that started when the original France was still in charge… how could these things be Big Bill’s dream?
NASCAR needs to grow and change, this much is true. But it could be done in a much more effective manner. NASCAR needs to hire a full-time fan liaison whose job it is to talk to the fans to find out the real concerns of fans both old and new, from every part of the country, and to report to the powers that be. He or she should work with fans and with NASCAR to create changes and innovations that satisfy both the fan of Big Bill’s NASCAR and those who only know Brian France at the helm. Heck, I’d take on that role in a heartbeat. On NASCAR’s part, they need to take the fans seriously because they do, ultimately, pay the bills. The declining television ratings of 2006 are proof that fans are becoming less than enamored with the sport, which is a real shame. The bottom line is, it needs to be about racing, first and foremost. If it is, the money and growth will come. Come on NASCAR, step up to the plate. The time is now, before it’s too late.