There has been a lot of talk this season about NASCAR’s declining ratings, and if fewer TV viewers are a valid indicator, the sport’s declining popularity. Fans say they just don’t care as much as they used to, that the races aren’t as exciting, and that the television coverage is subpar. NASCAR blames anyone they can… except themselves. The sad part is, NASCAR either had the opportunity to fix many of the things that fans have cited as reasons for leaving and refused, or whistled innocently and pointed the finger anywhere but at themselves. Thinking about what the real problems in the sport today are, and how easily they can/could have been fixed, makes me really wonder what is going on in the heads of the powers that be. Not that NASCAR has done anything to make us think they actually care about the fans, but sometimes it seems as though they only keep some things in place to save face and not look stupid.
What exactly is wrong with NASCAR today? Well, that could take all night, but here are my top picks, in no particular order.
1. Inconsistency in enforcing the rules. Contrary to reports of sightings at Roswell and the Enchanted Forest, the rulebook does in fact exist. There’s a copy on the coffee table, if you want to know the truth. The problem is, even when there are specific consequences written, the sanctioning body skirts them; and where they aren’t written, they vary from team to team, apparently on a whim. They crack down on some teams harder than others for the same offence and choose not to punish some offenders at all while nailing others to the proverbial cross. I don’t care who sells the most merchandise or diversifies the field, anyone who commits the same crime should do the same time.
2. Ridiculous race times. Remember when races started at noon or one o’clock and ended before dinnertime? Me too. I used to watch them in their entirety then. I understand the need to accommodate west coast fans, but come on. Accommodate them when the race is on the west coast. Oh, wait, they don’t actually GO to the race if it’s out there, yet they’re mysteriously going to watch it? Please. Go back to one o’clock and maybe fans won’t ditch the broadcast in favor of a family dinner.
3. The Chase. Excitement cannot be manufactured. Note to NASCAR: We know it’s fake. If you’re 600+ points behind the points leader with 10 to go, there’s probably a reason (like, you haven’t performed as well as he has), and you do NOT deserve the championship. Period. Yet they have points handed to them for their substandard performance and pretend they were contenders all along. Don’t try to sell me on that. 10th or 12th place is an impressive season, but not a championship run. Let the REAL championship-caliber teams fight it out. We got a champion who flat didn’t deserve it one year, and one cheated out of the closest title margin in history (although at least the real winner got to take home the trophy) another. The Chase has worked out once in three years. Only in baseball should you be considered a success if you fail two out of three times.
4. The Top-35 rule. Where in the real world are people rewarded for something they did last week, or even last year, if they don’t do their job this week? Imagine some guy winning Employee of the Week even though he lost three clients and bombed a presentation… because he did well six months ago. You’d be pissed. But here we are, being told by NASCAR that we love this rule because we’re guaranteed to see all the top drivers every week. That’s a deep load to be buried under. Qualifying should reward the fastest drivers right now, not yesterday. Nobody who beats 10 cars in time trials should go home because he wasn’t good enough last week… he’s good enough now. Sure, there should be a system in place for someone who crashes on his run, especially if it’s due to rain or someone else’s oil slick, but five or six cars should not be going home each week when five or six other cars ran slower. Don’t insult our intelligence… we know the definition of the word race, and “slow guy wins” isn’t it.
5. TV coverage. It doesn’t matter what network it’s on, ultimately NASCAR could have had more control over the contracts and still come out with a gajillion dollars in profit. They could have had in the contracts that the networks must show all restarts live, must come back from break if there is a caution and must limit the number of times they explain “tight” and “loose.” But it might have meant a few grand less in their pockets, so we’re stuck with more “entertainment” and less racing.
6. Ignoring their storied history. Want a quick and easy fix that would be a great PR move and would cost nothing? Return Darlington to the schedule at Labor Day instead of Mother’s Day. NASCAR’s not going to give the storied track a second date, but they could give them the right date, and create a lot of goodwill in the process. After all, if, as NASCAR preaches, the best dates are doled out to the tracks who sell the tickets, Darlington deserves that date even more. After all, they sell out their one race each spring. California can’t even fill the stands once, let alone twice, so it doesn’t matter what two dates they run. But restore the Southern 500, and it just might appease some old-time fans. At least a little.
7. Marketing to the wrong audience. The fans NASCAR has attracted in the recent growth spurt are all well and good; some will no doubt become diehard fans. But many I fear are simply latching onto a trend, and will move on once the next big thing rolls around. By catering to this new breed of fan and ignoring the fans who have always been there, NASCAR is creating a precarious situation. Someday they might turn around and find there’s nobody left.
8. Trying to be something they’re not. Racing is not a stick-and-ball sport. Its beginnings are in the Southern Appalachians where the toughness and bravery of many of the moonshiners would put the most hardened NFL linebacker to shame. Don’t try to be something you’re not, especially when what you have is something unique and special.
9. Ignoring the fans. NASCAR would do well to select a panel of fans at each track and sit in a room with them, and just listen. They would find that often what fans want is simple. If the sanctioning body actually listened, and weren’t afraid to admit they were wrong when something like the Chase or the qualifying rules doesn’t work for the fans, and made changes accordingly, it just might restore the ratings.
10. Sacrificing good racing for demographics. The argument for taking first one date, then two, from Rockingham was that the track wasn’t selling out. So California got two dates instead… and they don’t sell out either. I’d be willing to bet that a race at Rockingham would be consistent in the television ratings with most of the others, maybe a bit better, like Bristol tends to be, because the racing is exciting. If the product isn’t good, consumers won’t buy it for long… and nobody likes cookie-cutter product. Unless, of course, it’s a cookie.
So, there, in a nutshell, is my take on what’s wrong in NASCAR today. It’s painful to look at. But it’s fixable. It would all be fixable if only NASCAR knew it was broken.