NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: It’s Better To Be Marketable Than Good

Remember, not to long ago when NASCAR was a well-mixed blend of veterans and younger guys? Me too. And it occurred to me how much that’s changed recently with the influx of corporate sponsors who want more bang for their buck. Very young drivers were once a minority – it was not unusual for a driver to begin a career in the top series at age 30 or older. But not any more.

It’s a rather disturbing trend that has veteran drivers being shoved aside for youngsters who have yet to prove they have the talent to belong at NASCAR’s upper echelon. They certainly don’t have the experience. Even if they have raced from the time they were five years old, the upper levels of NASCAR are not the place to learn the sport. But the sponsors don’t seem to care.

If a driver is young enough to sell to the all-important 18-34 demographic and good looking enough to make the teenage girls swoon, it seems as if a ride is virtually guaranteed, regardless of the fact that a large part of the airtime the sponsor gets is often the marketable young driver hitting the wall… or causing someone else to hit it instead.

Now call me crazy, but how exactly is that marketable? (Although even I have to admit there is a certain irony about the AAA car creating the need for an awful lot of tow trucks this year!) When did looks become more important than talent, drive and experience? If I were looking to dump several million dollars into the paint job on a racecar, I’d want a driver who isn’t only going to get airtime when wrecking someone more popular. I’d want it on a driver with miles under his belt, especially if I were investing in a team capable of contending for wins every week from the get-go.

Meanwhile there are a host of talented drivers with proven track records and scores of fans settling for any ride they can find-if they can find one at all. Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, Joe Nemechek, Kenny Wallace and Ward Burton are casualties of no longer looking like David Ragan, David Gilliland, JJ Yeley, Brian Vickers or AJ Allmendinger. These veterans have 23 Cup wins between them. The young guys listed? One. Taking into account that Wallace never had a great ride for more than a few races and Burton only ever drove for a mid-level team at best; while all the young guys, with the exception if Allmendinger, have raced for the sport’s top organizations, it’s hard to fathom the sponsors’ insistence on the younger list.

And it isn’t as though none of those drivers have a large fanbase. All five have many fans and have had stellar relationships with sponsors. None are wreck magnets or get bad press for, well, for anything. All five have proven themselves in the Busch and Cup ranks. Obviously my degree is not in marketing because, I don’t get it. Why on Earth would looks be more important to a sponsor than talent? Sure there are good-looking, talented, winning drivers, but what gives?

Makes you wonder what would have happened to the likes of Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, Dave Marcis and others had they been entering the twilight of their careers in this new era of marketability. It wouldn’t have been good for racing then, and it isn’t good for racing now. It must pad some pockets somewhere, but not having the number of solid veterans in top rides in the series as there once was simply hurts the racing. Where a veteran can find or make a hole relying on experience and respect, a youngster may not be able to.

And then the wrecking starts. Not to mention, the young guys used to have to learn and earn respect from the veterans who surrounded them on track every week. Now many of them seem to take for granted that someone will move for them simply because they are the Next Big Thing, and it doesn’t work that way. Maybe it’s simply a microcosm of our own society, where people seem to feel they’re entitled these days, but it translates into stupid moves and avoidable crashes on the racetrack. Nobody benefits from this type of racing, but it’s only going to get worse.

I don’t watch racing to look at all the cute drivers in commercials. I watch racing to watch racing. And I want the best drivers to be doing it. Even if teenage girls don’t squeal over every driver (Even IF?! More like thank goodness they finally shut UP!), the racing is (or at least WAS) the point. Good racing is marketable. Yet another DNQ or DNF might net you some airtime and another shot of a cute face on TV, but it doesn’t buy credibility for the team or driver. If the trend continues, I can image lots of NASCAR fans sitting on the porch with their grandkids, saying “Back in MY day the drivers had this one little thing. It was called talent. But wow, your guy, Bob Wrecksalot, he sure is cute on TV!”

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