NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Welcome to My Nightmare

Welcome to my nightmare
I think you’re gonna like it
I think you’re gonna feel… you belong

– Alice Cooper

I’ve long been ridiculed as a prophet of doom. Since Brian France took over as CEO of NASCAR, I’ve been saying that this sport’s best days are behind it and the end is nigh. I’ve also put forth the proposition that the “realignment” of the schedule, the Chase and the Car of Tomorrow have been the three heralds of NASCAR’s impending apocalypse.

All along, I’ve been ridiculed for my gloomy take on things. Even when TV ratings were down, we were told that was an inevitable consequence of the Information Explosion that has left us with 300 channels of TV and the Internet, now competing with the traditional media outlets as a source of information. (I’ve never doubted the latter. The Internet is the cradle that bore me and invited me as a sometimes unwelcome guest into your homes). TV ratings for the stick and ball sports were down even more than NASCAR broadcasts. When the first large blocks of empty seats began appearing in the grandstands, I was told it was just a temporary aberration, a mild failure of the sport’s marketing… and a sign it was time to expand the sport’s all-inclusive fanbase to reach out to newer fans, replacing the old-school ones who were expendable troglodytes.

All was well, I heard over and over again from NASCAR officials and their mouthpieces who constitute the lap dog elements of the mainstream NASCAR media. NASCAR, like the Titanic before it, was unsinkable… and the end was unthinkable. After all, if a global giant like Toyota was willing to plunge headfirst into the pool, it could only be seen as a sign that NASCAR was escaping the stifling constraints of its regional popularity and exploding into the global market. One only remember the huge crowds (well, maybe they weren’t so huge) that crashed the gates to attend the postseason NASCAR events in Japan to see the degree of affection and fascination folks in the Land of the Rising Sun felt towards stock car racing.

Welcome to Fontana, 2009. Welcome to my nightmare. Yes, I am sure that many of you feel I want to see NASCAR fail, if for no other reason than to vindicate the death of Dale Earnhardt and prove true my predictions. That’s far from the case. Stock car racing is a passion of mine that dates back 44 years. This is what I do on Sunday afternoons… this is a major part of my life. God willing, the last Sunday afternoon of my mortal life, I’ll be standing, cheering a last-lap pass in the final stock race I will see from this mortal plain. And if there is truly a paradise beyond life here on earth, it won’t be the last race I plan to watch. I truly believe that a better life awaits us beyond this one; I’m just not so sure I’ll get to cross that river. Like the Boss, I’ve done my best to live the right way – I get out of bed every morning and go to work every day. But your eyes go blind, and your blood grows cold, sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode…

Meanwhile, I’ve got three words for those who thought adding Fontana to the schedule was a good idea: Ontario Motor Speedway. For newer fans, I might add, Ontario wasn’t in Canada. It was built at great expense just outside of L.A. and it too failed miserably. Whether things get better or they get worse, this weekend at Fontana was a bloody black eye for the sport. Attendance at the three top touring division races was nothing short of embarrassing. Who could have predicted such a disaster? I’ve got a better question: Who outside NASCAR officialdom didn’t see it coming like a runaway freight train with sparks flying off its steel wheels as it prepared to jump the tracks?

PUGLIESE: FINDING RELIEF IN RACING’S PAST

I admit a degree of loathing for the track in Fontana, one that surpasses even most of the contempt showered upon this joint by other hidebound traditionalists. After all, Fontana cost us the spring Rockingham race and the Southern “By Gawd” 500 on Labor Day weekend. The loss of those two cherished dates, we were told, was inevitable due to declining attendance. Well, even on their worst dates the Rock and Darlington never featured a disaster like this weekend in Fontana. Had either race ever been this poorly attended, not only would the tracks have been closed, they’d have been razed and plowed under – after which the land that once held them would have been salted.

It’s the economy, I’m told. On a personal level, I am all too familiar with the current state of the U.S. economy. To be blunt, it sucks. Fontana is a newer track, and these might be the most challenging times track management has ever had to face. But the Rock and Darlington were elder statesmen of the sport. They’d endured countless economic downturns previous to this one. They’d survived the manufacturer boycotts by Chrysler and Ford in the ’60s, ones that sidelined countless numbers of the sport’s biggest names. Yet every year, on Sunday mornings when the gates opened, real fans returned to the seats they’d held dear for decades.

The rural southeastern United States where the Rock and Darlington are located has perhaps cruelly always been the canary in the coal mine of the U.S. economy. Folks in these parts were enduring the closure of textile mills, tobacco farms and furniture factories even back when Wall Street was soaring and GM had to work three shifts to churn out enough crappy unreliable cars and trucks that began rusting on the transporters on the way to dealerships to meet demand. After all, Cale, Darrell and Dale drove Chevys; and what Dale drove to victory lane on Sunday Southerners proudly drove to work on Monday. The Deep South has endured many indignities and challenges, from Union occupation and the carpetbaggers, to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, to the original advent of outsourcing good-paying jobs overseas. Yet, in the modern era on four cherished weekends a month, they flocked to the Rock and Darlington. They sat in the same seats their granddaddies did in starched white shirts and skinny ties. They sat in the same seats their dads sat in to cheer on Cale and Dale, two true-born sons of the South. And they continued to buy those tickets in an area where stock car racing is a religion second only to Christianity in the Heart of the Bible Belt. They weren’t always the most affluent of fans, the best educated, or the most photogenic – but they were loyal in an area where the word “loyalty” still means something beyond a Hallmark greeting card. Southern fans were as loyal to the sport as a well-fed hound dog is to its lifelong master.

But their hard-earned greenbacks and generations of loyalty weren’t enough for the poltroons of NASCAR and its new TV network partners, one of which is trying to recreate the sport as a freak show and the other of which treats it like one – already bouncing the end of Chase races to tertiary outlets so America’s Funniest Home Videos can air without delay. There’s nothing amusing about that.

Once upon a time, NASCAR and TV envisioned a brave new world where stock car racing was transported from the fertile soil of the South to the seismically unstable dirt of the left coast. They lusted after a new sort of fan: wealthier, hipper, better-looking, and freer spending. But in doing so, they well and truly screwed the pooch, fathering a generation of puppies that is even now chewing up the corporate couch. The thing about the newer fans is that they just don’t have a sense of loyalty. They latched onto NASCAR back when it was the next big thing, the same way they became devotees of Pilates exercise equipment, Lexuses and David Madoff-backed investments. When times got tough, as they have now, they moved on to the next big thing – investing their dwindling expendable income elsewhere.

There must be some reason AMA Supercross, a bastardization of the purer sort of that sport, can sell out three nights in L.A. while NASCAR can’t. Longtime fans were a different sort of human being; and even in the worst of times, folks always need some entertainment in their lives. For example, the Depression and the dark days of World War II spawned some movies we still consider classics… even if they were filmed in black and white. And those longtime fans didn’t cash in a hot stock to get money to attend a race weekend. They carefully stashed away their ones and fives in the cookie jar to make sure they could make it. They’d forego dinners out, family vacations and a new car to make sure they were there for the Southern 500. Maybe they’d curtail their white-tail hunting trips from a week to a long weekend just to make the show. There was an attitude that the sacrifices were worth it to be there for something special, the only big thing that rolled through the area annually worth attending.

Sadly, those days might be gone. The powers-that-be tried to turn NASCAR racing from a sport to entertainment. The problem is what they call “the product” lately isn’t very entertaining. The drivers are increasingly hard to embrace. They’ve become carefully spun marketing automons, with all the personality of a mayo on white bread sandwich. It’s hard to imagine a rabid army of fans clinging to them as a member of the extended family, the way countless contingents of folks in black number 3 t-shirts once embraced Dale. It’s hard to imagine any of them having the rocks to stand up and call NASCAR officials out onto the carpet, the way Earnhardt once did when he had his backup. “This ain’t real racing,” Earnhardt once said of restrictor plates. Sadly, in the end it was plate-track racing that cost him his life. He lost. They won. But the victory now seems shallow and short-lived. When Dale left us, a sizable contingent of his fans left the sport. And they ain’t coming back…

At this point, a lot of longtime fans have left the sport once and for all. They were slapped in the face, taken for granted, and belittled too often. NASCAR’s mindset once seemed to be, “If you want to leave, go and don’t let the door hit you in the ass. There’s hundreds more folks who will pay better money to take your place.” Well, judging by Fontana, that once ravenous demand is a thing of the past.

No, this isn’t the end of the world as we know it… at least not yet. My guess is the crowds at Las Vegas next week will be much better. After all, the folks from Bruton Smith’s SMI have always treated fans as an audience that needed to be courted and catered — and it’s time for the folks at NASCAR and the ISC to adopt that same attitude. A good start is to admit that Fontana was a well-intended experiment that failed miserably… and it’s hard to argue with this weekend’s empirical evidence.

It’s a hard thing for a proud man – and an even harder thing for a bloated corporation – to swallow its pride and admit they’ve screwed up mightily and need to make amends. But NASCAR could start by returning the Rock’s date as the second race of the season, as well as moving the Southern 500 at Darlington to its place of prominence – on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day Weekend. And let the networks bitch. Their solutions to the problems that face the sport today seem to be an animated gopher and his buddies… and that ain’t going to work. Remember, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than find oneself at the bottom of the food chain in a larger body of water.

Meanwhile, gentle readers, please keep your hands and feet inside the car. This is going to be a dark ride.

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