My tenure as a NASCAR fan has been contained entirely in the “New School Stock Car Era”. The first race I watched from flag-to-flag on TV was the 2001 Daytona 500, where I saw my favorite racer, Dale Earnhardt, crash on the final lap defending the turf for the two cars he owned to win the race. I found out at church that night that The Intimidator perished in that wreck. Many old-school fans mark this moment as the day NASCAR changed – and did so for worse.
Earnhardt’s passing and the new, huge network TV contract that put NASCAR in almost every household in America joined in shining a blinding spotlight on the sport. But with increased popularity, came skyrocketing costs for both sponsors and race teams and a changing agenda for NASCAR executives. The agenda, of course, drifted away from how to keep the racing entertaining and competitive and more on what gimmicks could bring in richer fans from bigger markets. Races at Darlington at Rockingham were sacrificed in favor of additional events at California and Texas. The outcry from the old-schoolers eventually began turning into apathy, and then disdain, for the changing sport. Another historic NASCAR track, Martinsville Speedway, has been rumored to have at least one of its dates on the chopping block. The same rumors have been swirling around Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking two races out of the last three that these speculations have been taking place.
While schedule realignment continues to be a major spark of ire amongst the NASCAR faithful, apathy toward the sport has been even more poisonous to its health. A major cause for said apathy has had plenty to do with the rising costs of the sport. As race teams became more innovative and willing to spend to win, sponsorship costs soared and sponsor demands began to dictate too much of both drivers’ and owners’ behavior. Gradually, Fortune 500 companies became less likely to spend the $15-30 million annually needed to fully fund a team as a primary sponsor. Instead, they realized that they could gain similar exposure for a fraction of the cost, by only committing to some races or by only becoming associate sponsors of teams. The result: less and less memorable driver, team and sponsor combinations.
Through the years, fans have been able to easily identify drivers by their sponsor and car number. Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP car, Earnhardt’s No. 3 Goodwrench or Wrangler Chevys, Darrell Waltrip’s No. 11 Junior Johnson machines, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Budweiser Chevy and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, No. 4 Kodak Morgan-McClure Chevy and No. 28 Texaco/Robert Yates Ford are among many examples from NASCAR’s 60-plus year history. The importance of these iconic combinations and paint schemes may not seem great, but they define generations. Many fondly recall the glory years of both Petty and Earnhardt. They can attach certain periods of their personal life, even, to when certain legendary drivers and teams were wrapped in the colors of a product that they proudly used to tune their car, clean their clothes, or quench their thirst. But times have changed.
As sponsorship commitments splinter, so has fan identification with drivers, teams, and their backers. Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 DeWalt Ford was one of the most recognizable entries on the track. So attached was his paint scheme to his team, that his crew was called the “Killer Bees” in the Robbie Reiser-led days, after DeWalt’s black and yellow paint scheme. Unfortunately, the downturn in the housing market and construction industry forced DeWalt to pull the plug on its power tools sponsorship, leaving Kenseth to the purple hue of Crown Royal for about half of the races in 2010. The balance of his sponsorship schedule will be filled by whatever leftovers Roush Fenway Racing marketing department has set aside in the sponsorship fridge.
While Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevy and four-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy stand out as two of the longest, most recognizable partnerships in the sport, another Hendrick Motorsports teammate went through a bit of an identity crisis this offseason. Mark Martin’s first season in the No. 5 Chevy gleaned five victories and a second-place points finish, but longtime No. 5 sponsor Kellogg’s decided that the burden of a full-season primary sponsorship was too much to bear. Arguably America’s most recognized cereal brand jumped from the HMS ship to Roush Fenway Racing, where it would set sail with a partial sponsorship of Carl Edwards’s No. 99 Ford. Martin now has a flashy GoDaddy.com paint scheme for most of the season, but also will see his remaining races filled by several sponsors.
Sharing a shop with Martin is the sport’s highest-paid and most well-liked driver, Earnhardt Jr. After leaving DEI and his long-occupied No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, Junior’s sponsorship load is now split between Amp Energy and the National Guard. Dale Jr. fans first identify now-driver No. 88 with Amp Energy, but often see Earnhardt in National Guard colors. After a few years of struggling, Dale Jr.’s fanbase is loud, but less ecstatic than before and harder to see. The once sea of red that flooded the grandstands every week is an awkward field of blue, white, green and black flowers. Kasey Kahne’s popularity and association with Budweiser pale in comparison to what Junior once ignited with the Bud suds through most of the 2000s.
Other examples of NASCAR crises include the double title sponsorship of races (like the race I called last night for the USAR Pro Cup Series: The Racing Electronics 250, brought to you by Live Oak Plantation… oh yeah… and that’s the old Hooters Pro Cup Series… remember that?), the rapidly changing title sponsors of series (remember a certain change from Winston to Nextel Cup and then the quick shift to Sprint after only four years?), and fading away of familiar stars in favor of young hot shoes due to sponsor demands (David Stremme in place of Sterling Marlin in the Ganassi Coors Light No. 40 Dodge never, ever seemed like a good move).
These examples and other similar instances all funnel to down to fan apathy. From week-to-week, vanilla drivers in hardly memorable racecars march calmly to a 1.5 mile, cookie-cutter track nowhere near where most fans live, say the same things to reporters after each race, and then spend much of the race waiting for the final 50 laps before making their charge. Since fans have not let their memories latch onto the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, what entry and driver will do more to define this generation, especially after Gordon retires? An argument could be made for Kahne in the No. 9 or Kevin Harvick in the No. 29, but neither is committed to those teams after this season. Tony Stewart is quickly becoming recognizable in his red, black and white No. 14, but Old Spice and Office Depot split sponsorship of his ride, adding to the identity crisis, and Stewart is still too easily placed in the No. 20 Home Depot machine that he raced for a decade at Joe Gibbs Racing. Maybe young Joey Logano, the new driver of the No. 20 Toyota, can fill generation-defining shoes, but he must win more first. His JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are easily attached to their sponsors, but neither is exactly iconic or likable to fans… at least, yet.
Having a favorite driver and car to root for is a great elixir to help race fans forget some of the harder-to-cure apathy-causing aspects of NASCAR. But since most the cars look the same, manufacturer allegiances cause less bickering amongst impassioned fans. The generic merry-go-round of sponsors from week-to-week and drivers from car-to-car also has diluted what could be a field of competitive, easy to root for drivers each week in each of NASCAR’s top-three series. Apathy is killing NASCAR racing right now, despite the sport’s recent efforts to infuse excitement into the racing. If sponsors and drivers do not wise up to this fact, not only will fans stop watching the sport now, but the few bits of great racing that are left today will not be infused into their memories. And with little to be nostalgic about, these fans will not have fond memories to share with coming generations. And that will be the death of NASCAR.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.