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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Are We There Yet? 2008 Season Plods Into Richmond With Chase Set to Begin – Is Anyone Really Paying Attention?

Mercifully, the Pepsi 500 at California’s Auto Club Speedway has come to a close. A race that has supplanted the beloved Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway over Labor Day weekend was the highlight of yet another exercise in futility at a track that has been criticized in recent years for poor attendance, poor racing, and generating all of the anticipation and excitement of a root canal. In that regard, it did not disappoint again, as the Nationwide race on Saturday night saw Kyle Busch lead all but six laps en route to his seventh win of the season.

Sunday evening was Jimmie Johnson’s night to hang one on the field, mimicking his dominance of the Brickyard 400, driving the same car to victory while leading 228 of 250 laps to earn his third win of the season. He did so while brushing off tepid challenges from Greg Biffle and the two Red Bull entries of Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger. This in front of a crowd of approximately 70,000 people – about 40 minutes from one of the largest cities and metropolitan areas on the planet.

Yawn.

Coming into the race weekend, it appeared as if there may be something worth talking about, although it didn’t exactly pertain to the action on the track. The end-of-race fracas between Carl Edwards and Busch the weekend before at Bristol saw the two winningest drivers in Sprint Cup this season placed on an innocuous – if vague – six-week probationary period. A brief war of words had many wondering what would become of this feud as we inch closer to the start of the Chase. Is this the new rivalry that NASCAR has desperately pined for? Might this be the catalyst for renewed interest for what just yesterday seemed like it was far and away the best motorsports had to offer? Could it be possible that a race weekend in Southern California may conjure up something other than fond memories of Darlington, S.C. and Sherman Ramsey’s minnow pond?

Hardly. And you can’t blame Hurricane Gustav, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin for stealing the thunder for this one either.

So what gives? For the last two years it seems things have taken a left turn for the worse in our beloved sport. What once was a cottage industry and an underground pursuit compared to traditionally televised sports, NASCAR’s popularity and character has swapped ends faster than Sam Hornish Jr.’s ham-fisted maneuvering after getting out of the groove by half a car width – for a sport that was to rival the NFL and Major League Baseball in popularity, it failed to equal the attendance of Wrestlemania III.

When Bill Elliott captured the Winston Million in 1985 at Darlington’s Southern 500, 10,000 more people were witness to that feat than were privy to Johnson’s manhandling of the Labor Day weekend event 23 years later. Granted, more people were able to watch it on television thanks to the advent of cable and satellite dishes, but this is a race that takes place right next door to Los Angeles, not modern day Mayberry in South Carolina.

So much for progress.

This is not to disparage Darlington, or any number of small towns in the South that have lost race dates – and tracks – in NASCAR’s quest to gain market share, increase brand awareness or whatever other advertising and marketing jargon are conjured up to justify rolling out an inferior product in the name of gaining legitimacy amongst the sporting elite. I believe it goes far beyond that.

Explain to me how 20 years ago CBS and ESPN could provide better race coverage with a handful of cameras and a crude in-car setup, compared to today’s technological display of High-Definition cameras plastered anywhere and everywhere. How were Ken Squier and Bob Jenkins able to make me feel that something very important was always just about to happen, and that I quite possibly may miss auto racing history if I was to extract myself from my recliner to procure another bowl of homemade potato salad from the kitchen? That sense of urgency to tune in every Sunday or Saturday night has long since faded, and there is no one particular reason behind this. The term “death by a thousand paper cuts” comes to mind. As does a song that B.B. King once wrote entitled, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Apathy has reached levels not experienced since the malaise that washed over the United States in the mid-1970s. Instead of Watergate, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, we have Magnetgate, Busch and Edwards. It is ironic as well, that the cars that are being competed in are about as exciting, aesthetically pleasing, and as well received as those that were cobbled together by American automakers during that same miserable time period. Even more so, this was about the time that Japanese automakers began to seize upon America’s newfound inability to build anything remotely interesting beyond early examples of the B-1 Lancer and F-117 Nighthawk. Toyota has nearly accomplished the same feat in NASCAR’s two lower touring divisions; if not for Edwards and his Ford Fusions, it could very well have seeped into Sprint Cup as well.

The reasons for this abrupt shift in race fan loyalty are many. Some blame the economy and lack of disposable income, others point to the rising cost of fuel prices. To counter that argument, I only need to take a look in my own backyard at the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers still manage to sell out games at a point in the season where they are closer to last place than first, playing in a city that has been the site of more heartbreak than anywhere with the exception of perhaps the Gulf Coast. Heck, even Lions fans manage to pack Ford Field, and this is a team that exhibits all of the indicators of success that Chip Ganassi Racing does.

NASCAR fans could once be counted on to endure virtually any malady, waiting out thunderstorms that would turn the infield into mug bogs and sippy holes, the occasional freak snowstorm in March, or even the loss of one its icons coupled with one of the greatest tragedies on American soil but seven years ago. Even the most ardent NASCAR fan and conscript has had his mettle tested, and it has reached a breaking point.

The simple fact is, the product on the track the last two years has been less than tolerable. NASCAR has missed the boat, jumped the shark, or whatever number of colloquialisms you wish to attach to it. Gone are the rivals and personalities of the past, as are vehicles that are distinguishable from one another. Stock cars stopped being cars that are stock over 40 years ago. That’s fine, but to only be able to distinguish one by it’s headlight or grille stickers – and even that’s difficult when the cameras are focused solely on one of the Hendrick heroes or Busch – has removed any sort of manufacturer identity or brand loyalty that the sport was built upon. Maybe this is at the behest of the automakers that are whittling out non-essential elements of advertising and promotion. And much like during the mid- to late-’70s, our newfound cultural obsession with fuel conservation, has led racing to appear to be somewhat socially unacceptable or uncool.

Classic American muscle cars were all the rage three years ago, fetching what most impending-foreclosure, middle-class homes sell for. Now hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles are en vogue.

What it all amounts to is little more than a collective shoulder shrug as the Sprint Cup Series heads into the final race before the 10-race slugfest for the championship. The only real questions that remain are: Will Clint Bowyer fall out of the 12th and final Chase spot? And can David Ragan or Kasey Kahne capitalize and make it in? What is absent is the nail-biting atmosphere that was present in 2004 or even ’05, when some of the biggest names in the sport were still vying for Chase placement – and the field was set at 10 drivers.

Yes, the Car of Tomorrow is a culprit, but even in the Nationwide Series where they still use the traditional car, there has been little to get excited about. The most interesting thing to happen in Sunday night’s race was the caution lights falling apart, and that was just plain dangerous with cars traveling at well over 200 mph – but probably no more dangerous than tires falling apart and blowing out every 10 laps like at Indianapolis. After all, we shouldn’t have to jeopardize people’s safety in the interest of trying to find something interesting at a NASCAR race.

That used to be a given. Now, it’s an afterthought. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to NASCAR’s ills. It obviously didn’t get this bad overnight and cannot be rectified in such a short time, either. Whether or not the fans stick around to see when it does remains to be seen. If all of those empty seats Sunday night were any indication, the train may have already left the station. If anything, those vacancies let me take solace in the fact, knowing that I am not alone in my opinion.