NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Not the Only Winner in the Blame Game

“NASCAR is boring.” Or so say many race fans and media, frustrated with the changes in the sport in recent years. We heap the blame on the sanctioning body for everything from A to Z; and let’s face it, we enjoy it. NASCAR is such an easy target for everyone’s frustrations, especially considering the facts; over the last decade, to say they’ve screwed up a lot is putting it mildly.

But not all the time. That’s right: despite what you might think, the sport’s recent decline is not all NASCAR’s fault.

Here’s where I’m sure some readers will accuse me of being in NASCAR’s pocket, or some such nonsense. Look, I’ve never been slow to blame the sanctioning body for a lot of things – most of them deserved. But I’m not going to blame the organization for every problem when some of the issues clearly aren’t of their making.

So with NASCAR off the hook for some of these issues, that begs a simple question: who is to blame for them instead?

The answer is fairly complex. Turns out lots of people, from racetracks to race fans, had a hand in a decline that’s been a long time in the making. Here’s a look at some of them, and what they should rightfully share responsibility for:

Tracks

While it’s hard to separate the venues from the sanctioning body (and that’s doubly true for those owned by International Speedway Corporation, which, like NASCAR, is majority owned by the France family), but each racetrack is an independently operated and contracted facility. Most tracks are owned either by ISC or by Speedway Motorsports Inc., under Bruton Smith, though Indianapolis, Dover and Pocono are independently controlled, as are some Nationwide and Truck series tracks. Consequently, NASCAR itself cannot control such things as ticket prices, carry-in policies or maintenance at these facilities.

When there was an issue with the track surface at Daytona during the sport’s biggest race, many fans were quick to point the finger at NASCAR for the subsequent red-flag periods where they failed to repair the surface. But in that instance, NASCAR did nothing wrong, and in fact, handled everything right. The race was stopped when there was an apparent safety issue, as it should have been. In the end, the responsibility for failing to maintain the track over the long-term could be pointed at ISC, not NASCAR, who quickly joined in the process of studying the structural soundness of the racing surface. The same goes for things like ticket prices (which many tracks have addressed, though there are holdouts), concessions or seat size (of the permanent variety, not the fan variety). Should NASCAR have standards for the tracks it grants races to? Yes, absolutely. But the tracks play a huge role in their own fate.

Sponsors

The “boys can be boys” all they want in NASCAR’s eyes, but in the end, it’s not NASCAR paying for their expensive equipment; the sponsors are, and that gives them the final word on how their drivers act when the cameras are rolling. That means that more drivers than we’d like toe the company line. It might even mean that they drive less aggressively than some of their competition, or at least apologize more profusely afterward. But if you don’t think that every driver should thank their sponsor and God – in that order – after a race, think again. That’s a part of the deal. Or at least the sponsor part is.

The poster child for boring drivers is four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is unfailingly polite, making sure he thanks the right people and says the right thing. And you can be sure that he will continue to do so until the day he retires, unless Lowe’s suddenly decides they don’t want to hear all that. Until then, Johnson is stuck, as are the rest of his peers. If the champ sounds more polished than most, bear in mind that he had no money to race on as a youngster, and that meant playing nice to the sponsors to get to the track. No money means no chance, a lesson that Johnson knows all too well; in those days, he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder worrying a ride would be lost if he did anything untoward. Those survival instincts have followed him up the ladder, and the same goes for everyone else who regurgitates the same lines week in and week out. They don’t do it because they want to or because they think it’s compelling; they do it because it’s their job, and they’re well paid to do it. So while NASCAR may say “have at it,” the sponsors may well be saying, “not so fast.”

Media

We’re not perfect, and we’re not blameless, though we are between a rock and a hard place sometimes. The media report on the stories that, like it or not, are news. If Carl Edwards intentionally spins Brad Keselowski and flips him in the process, well, you’re going to hear about it. Probably a lot. Why? Simply put, media outlets compete – the more people that watch or read, the more advertising dollars are generated – so if there is a story, everyone is going to talk about it, and hope that the fans are paying attention. Of course, in the process of going for big names to make the big bucks (think: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick), that means some storylines get overlooked. Unfortunately, this works both ways… sometimes a story that’s not big news gets overlooked by viewers, and that means next time, that reporter will have some pressure to write about the big story instead.

The television broadcasts for the races are another animal entirely, and they do shoulder a lot of the blame for the complaints of boring racing. Often, the networks are so focused on either one or two popular drivers or the race leader that they fail to show viewers at home what’s happening throughout the field, and that’s detrimental. For one thing, fans don’t get to see their favorite drivers if they’re not running up front or don’t have a big story to follow. Fans also don’t get to see much of the hard racing that’s going on, leading to unfair criticism of boring races when they’re anything but at the racetrack itself. That misperception hurts the sport as a whole, as casual fans watching on TV may decide against going to races because it’s not exciting. For example, having gone to many event at New Hampshire and not watched at home, I always wondered why people said the races were boring when I was there and they were much more exciting. Then, I saw one on TV and knew the answer. It’s another story for another time, but the broadcasts of the races are a huge part of the problem with the perception of the sport today, shouldering some of their own blame for declining ratings the past five seasons.

Drivers

Yes, it’s true that the drivers are sometimes hampered in their public persona by their sponsors, by NASCAR, and by the FCC. But many fans do have the perception that some drivers don’t care about the average fan, and there are some drivers whose lack of public availability contributes to that perception. Again, part of this problem lies with the sponsors – they want their driver in the corporate suite on Sunday morning, and that takes time away from a fan appearance. But it’s hard to buy that every driver couldn’t find time to sign a hundred autographs at the hauler every couple of weeks. Even fans who don’t follow someone in particular seem to have a different perception of those who are out there every week and those that are not.

Casey Mears comes to mind as a great example of a driver whose fan appreciation has never wavered. Even when with a full-time team like Hendrick Motorsports, Mears took time to greet his fans nearly every week, and as a result, few speak ill of him. Even if they didn’t get an autograph, Mears was visible, and that made him more likable. On the flip side, a driver like Johnson or Tony Stewart, who rarely have public appearances at the racetrack, can easily gain the reputation as standoffish; whether that’s true or not, that can carry with a driver throughout their career. It won’t change the mind of a diehard fan, but can make the difference to the casual one who doesn’t yet have an opinion on that driver. So those wheelmen need to keep in mind many fans feel as though, through patronage of the sponsors, they are helping pay a driver’s bills and like to feel as though that is appreciated – so a little would go a long way. That responsibility doesn’t fall on NASCAR, who already allows a huge number of fans on pit road during race weekends; instead, it falls to the role models who, like it or not, are all somebody’s hero.

Fans

Yes, fans do have a certain culpability here, on a couple of levels. One, many fans have complained about certain tracks losing race dates; but at the same time, those complaining were not attending the races in their hometowns, which would have kept attendance up and NASCAR profit margins from biting them in the butt. By staying home, fans voted with their pocketbooks – against those very racetracks whose demise they mourn. Yes, I understand that NASCAR needs to put better racing out there for the fans watching on TV; there are far more of them than at the track, and places like Rockingham would make for an afternoon better spent than one watching a race at tracks like Fontana. But the fans in the seats are the ones paying the track’s bills, and they have to provide a large part of the purse for the race. If they can’t fill the seats, NASCAR isn’t going to keep them, whether that’s fair or not, so it’s up to the fans to save the tracks they enjoy the most.

Also, sometimes fans do have expectations that no organization, race, or driver could possibly live up to. Not every event is going to have five drivers racing for the win on the last lap, no driver can possibly sign every item, and no venue can provide everything that every fan wants for half the price that they currently charge. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the best NASCAR has to offer on any given Sunday; but there are times the sanctioning body (and everyone else involved) still does everything they can only for the on-track action to wind up a stinker. So on weeks where all of those involved do the very best they can, it’s time to be satisfied.

Until then (and everyone has some work to do!), fans and the media should complain. Without that, nothing would change. But to blame only NASCAR, when NASCAR simply cannot control it all, is a fruitless pursuit at best, because the sport didn’t break anything alone, and cannot fix anything alone. It’s a multi-way street here; the blame game is on, and everyone is a winner.

And Another Thing…

  • While I understand his desire to stick it out, I’m not convinced that Denny Hamlin made the smartest choice by racing almost 400 miles Saturday night. Hamlin had a competent backup available in Mears and he admitted after the race that he was in a lot of pain. Pain is Mother Nature’s way of saying “Stop here, going further could be detrimental;” ignoring that might be brave, but it’s just not smart.
  • Kudos to NASCAR this week for making the right call not once, but three times. First, the penalty handed to Jason Leffler was too lenient, but it was exactly what he should have gotten after Edwards got the same for crossing much further over the line. Second, the two restart calls that Kyle Busch complained about in the Nationwide race were dead-on correct by the rulebook. Too bad for Busch he was on the short end of the stick on both, but… his bad both times.

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