NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR Limps Home, Its Future Uncertain

Jeff Gordon said in his memoir that in 2003 NASCAR was drastically different than it was when he came up in 1993, and that in 2013 it would look nothing like it did in 2003. Even three years out from his prediction it’s safe to say he was right, but it’s doubtful that this is what he meant.

As NASCAR comes home to Charlotte nearly halfway through 2010, it’s difficult to remember so many empty seats at NASCAR events. Bristol Motor Speedway’s 28-year sellout streak has ended—and not by a small margin. Tracks everywhere else are offering astoundingly cheap tickets in an effort to put butts in seats. Entire sections have been covered by ads at many tracks, even at Dover, one of the sport’s most exciting venues – and a place surely close enough to major markets and gainfully employed people with disposable income. Whatever the economy’s role, it’s rare that a recession alone has this much of an impact.

The sport’s standing in people’s homes is even worse. The television audience has been steadily shrinking for nearly half a decade now. Efforts to create more exciting finishes and a new attitude of virtually zero punishment for putting another driver on his roof have done little to spark ratings. More and more, broadcast teams in the booth seem eager to sell the on-track product with phrases like “shootout-style,” in the apparent belief that the racing needs talking up. Rumblings from insiders strongly suggest that networks are not happy with the cost of broadcasting the sport, as it becomes less and less profitable.

Since the last time Gordon took home a championship trophy, a superstar driver has won four straight titles, a feat heretofore unmatched and extremely rare in any sport. Yet rather than heralding him as one of the greatest drivers of his or any generation, fans yawn at the uncontroversial, well-behaved champion. He simply doesn’t generate anti-fans like his teammate and mentor once did. Nor has he attracted a whole new crop of fans to root for a proven and devastatingly efficient winner.

Meanwhile, the most beloved competitor on the track continues to struggle mightily, out of excuses and sometimes, it seems, out of desire. Instead of stories documenting an occasional win for the son of a legend or his standing in a championship battle, the news about the sport’s favorite son rehashes an endless parade of questions, accusations, and theories regarding two and a half years of performances that have been unremarkable at best and unworthy of a Cup driver at worst. And so a chunk of fans grow weary and tune out, as with any underperforming team in any sport. It’s not wrong or right, it’s just what is.

Well-funded companies like DeWalt, Jack Daniel’s, Kellogg’s, Old Spice and perhaps soon even DuPont no longer see the benefit of paying millions to put their logos on a racecar. New teams fighting to get footing in the sport and existing teams fighting to stay alive start races each week only to run a few laps before bringing the car into the garage, unable to afford new tires.

Articles relating to the state of the sport are heavily commented on by disgruntled fans, who often list a litany of reasons why they no longer watch, even as they care enough to still read about and comment on it. It’s as if a part of them still wants the hard-nosed racing they loved to return, and is willing to forgive all if it does.

A sanctioning body that once laid down the law with an iron fist, disallowed criticism from press who wanted to keep their credentials, muzzled their drivers and dismissed objections from fans are now seeking out the same folks to whom they once dictated the terms without regard or reservation. Drivers are summoned for town hall meetings. Writers with little more on their resumes than an Internet connection are welcomed into a Citizens’ Journalist Corps. A Fan Council is formed to offer suggestions. After refusing to hear what anyone wanted for decades, now NASCAR doesn’t even seem to know.

As if all that weren’t enough to contend with, the two most exciting events of 2010 were pushed to Mondays, and much smaller audiences, by Mother Nature.

Just a few years removed from seriously challenging the NFL as the nation’s pastime, a perfect storm of unpopular leadership decisions, lesser performances from popular drivers and a national recession have combined to put a sport on the ropes, desperately trying to stop its free fall.

How did we get here? How did NASCAR go from being the fastest growing sport to arguably the fastest shrinking sport in the nation?

NASCAR, in a way, became too big for itself. It’s difficult to imagine how a sport could become decidedly less popular by going mainstream, but NASCAR is a case study in just that. Television contracts totaling billions of dollars resulted in race broadcasts far too frequently disrupted for obscene profit breaks, in the one sport where commercial timeouts are not feasible. A top series title sponsor shelling out hundreds of millions was rewarded with a playoff that has been decidedly not well received. The sport has moved out of the Southeast, where it was regarded with slightly more devotion than God, and into markets where it has encountered an audience that has proven to be much more fickle.

Rather than continuing to let fans come to them, which had been working very well, NASCAR disrupted a core fanbase in search of a casual one. Both have been slowly disappearing. Granted, some recent changes were necessary, like safety measures in the new car, and some were understandable without the benefit of hindsight, like accepting billions in broadcasting and title sponsorship revenue without thinking of the implications. But the weight of that combined with some radical and unnecessary alterations to the competition collapsed on a foundation already weakened by disgust over disregard for the most devoted of fans.

It’s hard to say what NASCAR’s future will look like, but at the moment it isn’t bright. With a playoff that strongly encourages points racing still firmly in place and the prospect of even less variety in the schedule on the horizon, it’s hard to expect that the racing will become more exciting, no matter how many green-white-wreckers attempts there are in a race.

One shudders at what will become of the sport when Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs up his gloves. As well below expectations as Junior has run, the loudest cheers in the stands by far still ring out when the No. 88 car takes the lead. The last link to the sport’s tobacco-chewing roots isn’t going to be around forever. Joey Logano’s a great kid, but he isn’t going to replace a fanbase that large.

Certainly, networks will still take on the task of broadcasting NASCAR, but the sport isn’t going to be able to command the price it once did. Will they be smart enough to arrange contracts that make for better broadcasts, even if it means taking less money? It’s doubtful that the sport can swallow such a bitter pill. They weren’t willing to accept less money for title sponsorship of the Nationwide Series until they had to. But it may be necessary. The last thing NASCAR needs now is to alienate remaining fans.

Reversing the damage done is going to be difficult and costly. It’s going to take more than double-file restarts to bring back fans. NASCAR needs to be willing to accept some short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s also going to take the discipline of knowing when to leave something alone.

It’s not an easy thing. But nor is watching the current state of the sport.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I’m still laughing at the events in the Dover Nationwide race. Did anyone catch Clint Bowyer making a masturbatory gesture on his way to the hauler after his turning into Denny Hamlin during the caution? And here I was watching it with my in-laws in the room; fortunately none of them were interested. Who says there’s no old-school racers left?
  • It’s a bummer for Brian Vickers to be out for three months, but blood thinners aren’t something you want to take a chance with. I’m sure anyone close to him would prefer he do what is necessary to get himself well.
  • If you’re so inclined, don’t forget to get your fan vote in for Jeff Burton. He deserves it.
  • This Sunday the kind folks at the Carey and Coffey Show on ESPN radio have invited on yours truly to talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr. of all things. Can’t imagine why they chose me; I don’t know anything about him. But you can listen in Sunday morning here. I’ll take questions via e-mail afterward.

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