Brian France, there’s something I think you should know: my grandmother was always right.
What does that have to do with the future of this sport we all love? Absolutely everything.
As I went through my rebellious teenage phase growing up, I would always seek out the beloved matriarch of our family when I thought I needed advice. Of course, think would be the operative word here; my stubborn mind was too closed-minded to be offered up a change of pace. Still, I went to my grandmother anyway – mistakenly thinking I’d get an automatic wave of support for making decisions that were, in hindsight, incredibly stupid.
It never happened.
Instead, her years of wisdom doled out advice that all too often landed along the lines of, “What you’re doing is wrong.” Of course, it was absolutely the opposite of what I was thinking – and that caused the defect of words going in one ear and out the other. I was too headstrong, too young, too full of my own ideas to look at the world through the eyes of someone that already had all the right answers. And all too often, I wound up wishing I would have listened. Mistakes were made, experience was gained, and looking back, my biggest regret is that whenever my grandmother opened her mouth, I never actually paid attention in the way I should have.
The lesson I’m sending this message is simple: there’s a reason we’re often told to respect our elders. And as the sunset dawned on the 2007 season Sunday night at Homestead, to me that’s the story of the sport right now; far beyond that of Jimmie Johnson‘s respected yet expected second straight title. It’s a tale of abandoned tradition, of people, places and things aging to the point they’re no longer a part of the fabric of a sport they love; an older generation of racing fans and personnel faced with a number of changes that they simply don’t agree with.
The result, of course, is a wave of elders leaving the sport in droves; some through the natural order of things, but far too many forced out of the loop. At least my grandma never turned her back when the worst unfolded; but unfortunately, these people are turning theirs, and at an alarming rate at that.
Look what a terrible mess that we’ve made
The sun beats us down as we search for the shade
And yes, it is true, death is everyone’s fate
But we made it this far, it’s time to celebrate
In one sense, celebration was an emotion based out of respect for how many things were officially changed from “is” to “was” after Sunday. The Car of Today is now officially the Car of Yesterday, put out to pasture after ushering in the Golden Era of the sport back in 1981. The second-longest driver/crew chief relationship in the sport today – Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser – no longer exists. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will no longer drive a car that used to be owned by his father. Robert Yates will no longer be involved in owning a car, period.
It was that retirement, along with Ricky Rudd‘s, that seemed to rouse particular interest; such exits were filled with a poignant sense of longing for the past. At 51, Rudd walks out the door shortly after legends like Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace all stopped driving full-time in no less than a three-year span. Unlike them, he took a one-year hiatus before deciding to return to the sport, ready and raring to prove he still had something left in the tank after time to figure out his future. Yet by the end of the season, Rudd looked like a lost soul, in a world he no longer fit into and relieved he was allowed to exit stage left at the earliest possible opportunity. His era was over; apparently, it wasn’t even strong enough to ever override TV’s focus on a championship battle that had all but ended one week earlier. Behind Rudd was Yates, the 1999 Nextel Cup champion whose 20-year tenure of running championship equipment had ended with him selling out to survive; while the team will be owned by son Doug in part, its heart and soul have undergone a transplant that’s made the team better known as “Roush B.” The move allows a true independent and a hard-nosed racer to be replaced by a seven-team powerhouse and a driver in Travis Kvapil who has yet to prove his worth in the Cup Series.
That worries me. Indeed, this is not your father’s NASCAR; but frankly, it’s likely your father is no longer watching.
A report on television ratings released this week was a snapshot of a ratings machine in sharp decline; that much, we all already knew. But hidden within depressing realities was a number that made you realize just how much the sport had changed; the biggest percentage of those turning their backs were the audience listed as over 55.
That’s right; NASCAR’s version of the AARP is fed up with the way the sport has catered to the younger crowd, disillusioned and disenchanted with how the races of 1977 or even 1987 bear no comparison to what we saw across the board this season. Their generation no longer represented, personal favorites long sent packing into their own racing retirement, these men and women no longer had the patience or the wherewithal to believe the product they were watching was capable of improving with the proper guidance and support. That’s a big indicator of how badly the changes occurring in NASCAR this decade were perceived in some circles; even the staunchest traditionalists from other sports hang on at times, viewing compromise on certain issues an inevitable possibility. But for these disillusioned souls, their versions of best-case scenarios had already been thrown out the window a decade ago, their time no longer worth a sport they felt was beyond saving.
While viewership for those over 55 is way down, the numbers for those 18-34 remained flat. It’s a number trumpeted by everyone under the sun as to why the health of the sport couldn’t be better; but exactly who are these people, and what do they want out of racing? Are they merely going to follow the sport for a few years, then disappear – no matter what NASCAR does to either attract or appease them – or are they newly racing zealots, supporters that will fill the stands for upwards of the next 30 years?
I’m part of that age group, and I honestly couldn’t tell you the answer. But make no mistake about it; France is sold on their presence. He won’t tell us why, but it’s right up there with all the justifications for why the Chase and the Car of Tomorrow and owning all the racetracks is exactly the right thing to do.
I’d challenge that, but it’s a waste of space; France will do whatever the heck he wants. Just don’t expect him to listen; he’s already got all the right answers he needs.
Or maybe, just maybe, he’s just removed everyone else that could have told him that he’s wrong.
You place something high enough
The harder it can fall
But you knew that.
You’re a know-it-all