NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Media and NASCAR: A 2011 State of the Union

On the track, 2010 was far from a lean year for stock car racing. But for all the on-track highlights of the season past, from Justin Allgaier topping teammate Brad Keselowski to score his first Nationwide Series victory at Bristol, to Denny Hamlin’s show-stopping performance to steal a grandfather clock on a Monday afternoon in Martinsville, to Jimmie Johnson staring down the toughest challenge to his now five-year reign at the top of the Sprint Cup ranks (however manufactured that points race may have been), there was no stopping a continually rising tide of negativity surrounding the NASCAR community.

Sponsorship woes plagued all of NASCAR’s top three national touring series at levels not seen since 2004, where only 45 cars showed up for the Daytona 500 in February. Attendance at race tracks nationwide continued to dwindle, with Cup companion Nationwide Series races at times struggling to bring even 20,000 fans through the turnstiles. And while TV ratings largely held serve for the Nationwide and Truck Series, the same could not be said for the Sprint Cup, which even with a championship that came down to the final race at Homestead still faced double digit percentage decreases in viewership even as the vaunted Chase wound down.

So for all that went right in 2010, NASCAR did not shake off the slump that the sport and industry as a whole has found itself in the past few years. And while thousands of theories, ranging from the ever-sagging economy to a disconnect with its former core fans have been floated, there appears to be consensus in a great number of drivers’ eyes anyway that the downward spiral in big-time stock car racing can be attributed to one source.

The media.

“I’m going to blame you [media] guys, and you guys have to take some of the responsibility for it,” said Stewart at Pocono this past July when discussing the current negative wave cresting over the garage.

“When you finally tell someone that the racing is bad enough, long enough, you’re going to convince people that it really is.”

Speaking to NASCAR Illustrated, Brad Keselowski noted, “I think the sport in general is going through some tough times, and a portion of that can be attributed to the media and their own struggles.”

“Some of the print media is killing the sport to save their own job.”

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Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are just two of many drivers blaming the media for NASCAR’s rapidly declining ratings and attendance numbers. But is that actually true?

Perhaps most pointed of all drivers was Ryan Newman, who in criticizing Frontstretch’s own Jay Pennell went as far as to say, “It’s your job to write good things about our sport, otherwise we don’t want you here.” That’s the used-to-be-the-Rocketman’s loss; Jay’s a good guy.

To be fair, none of these drivers went as far as to say the sole cause of NASCAR’s current troubles was the media covering it … and they’re not the only ones. Dennis Michelsen of Race Talk Radio echoed these sentiments, noting in not so many words during a December 29 broadcast that it often seemed that NASCAR’s established writers seemed to be trying to out-duel each other week after week, trying to write the most damning and sensational indictment they could to backhand both the sanctioning body and the sport at-large while encouraging their implosion.

Certainly, Michelsen makes a point that can’t be ignored. It’s hard to discredit how much influence the media does have over not just NASCAR, but modern sport in general. This holds especially true in stock car racing, where sponsorship and corporate involvement play such a critical role.

That being said, the power of the media and its ability to sway NASCAR’s fans (the ones that are left, anyway) is far from absolute, and is far from being responsible for even the portion of blame that Smoke and Special K are so quick to pin on. Let’s face it; if motorsports media truly were able to alter the behaviors of stock car racing fans to the point that their attendance, their very perception of the sport as a whole, were based solely on the written words of the media corps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wouldn’t have nearly the number of fans he continues to have show up on race weekend… because he’s never going to win a race again. The grandstands from Loudon to Homestead would have had nary an empty seat… because it was the closest and best Chase ever! (I don’t care how much venom print and Internet journalists expound on hating the Chase, there’s no way it topped the volume of hype that ESPN doled out for this past season’s 10-race “playoff.” Then again, was anyone watching?)

Trying to attribute the decline of interest and viewership that NASCAR has been and continues to endure, one that has seldom if ever been seen in professional sport, to condemn the tone and content of media coverage is about as sound as blaming the Drudge Report for the stubbornly high unemployment rate. Clearly, we as a nation would see better job creation if Matt Drudge would stop posting links to news stories describing how the unemployment rate is only going down thanks to changes in statistical reporting. Clearly, NASCAR’s grandstands would be nowhere near as barren if the Frontstretch.com’s of the world would stop lamenting the loss of a 36-week schedule and instead would harp on how the annual points reset makes things ‘oh so close’ and exciting.

Going back to Brad K’s quote about print media bringing the sport down to save themselves… that makes sense, how? The media are going to preserve their jobs as NASCAR reporters by deliberately saying whatever they have to to drive paying viewers away from NASCAR? Anyone out there that buys that logic, here’s a suggestion. Go find a bookie and put your savings on Robby Gordon to win the 2011 Cup title.

The fact of the matter is simple, a point that can’t be emphasized enough as the 2011 season approaches. Those of us that are fortunate enough to cover stock car racing as accredited media have a tremendous responsibility. When dealing with stories that have millions of dollars and dozens of jobs potentially riding on them, it’s important to do the utmost to be accurate… and be fully willing to take responsibility and face the consequences when not. When articulating an opinion, it’s important not only to make that clear, but to back it up.

And that responsibility carries over further: When presented with a pig, one must refrain from putting lipstick on it and calling it something else.

The on-track portion of NASCAR is not in dire straits right now. Unfortunately, a number of elements within the industry that put the cars on said tracks are. And it’s not the responsibility of the media to gloss over those facts to give Brian France’s pie-in-the-sky rhetoric credence. NASCAR has a PR department for that. They’re paid well, and they’re awful good at playing dress-up with swine.

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In the same NASCAR Illustrated interview quoted earlier, Brad Keselowski asked a six-year-old race fan why he was a Joey Logano supporter. The six-year-old responded, “because TV says he’s good.”

The fact that Logano actually is a good race car driver is beside the point. The vast majority of NASCAR’s fanbase is not six years old, and not susceptible to the same power of suggestion that leads a small child to climb into a black van looking for a puppy. The majority of them may not be rocket scientists (don’t get bent out of shape; honestly, how many people out there actually know a rocket scientist?), but they’re certainly more than capable of making their own informed decisions about the state of racing today.

Then again, maybe that’s the issue that so many drivers can’t come to terms with. This problem isn’t going to be solved amongst the incestuous inner circle that the racing industry has become. It’s going to take winning over those who have become the outsiders for real change to take hold – and that isn’t going to be done from the comfort of million-dollar motorhomes and 30 second soundbites.

The horror!

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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