NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Critical Mass: Is It Too Late To Save NASCAR?

Over the years many have accused me of wanting NASCAR to fail or even being a part of a media-based conspiracy plotting to undermine and compromise the organization. That’s actually the farthest thing from the truth. After all, watching stock car races is how I’ve spent most Sunday afternoons of my life and I’ve derived a lot of pleasure from the sport. Yes, truthfully, I haven’t gotten a whole lot of joy from the sport over the last several seasons but there’s still that occasional magical afternoon when it all works right. You might have been delighted or devastated or even infuriated by the finish at Martinsville a few weeks back, but you surely weren’t sitting down and surely you recall what I’m talking about.

How many of you remember who won at California’s Auto Club Speedway this year?

In my most pointed tirades against NASCAR I’ve been working as a (minor) agent trying to promote change. I’d like to have today’s fan base, what’s left of it, get the same thrills and fun out of the sport I did particularly during the 80s and early 90s when the sport of stock car racing was enjoying explosive growth. No, I’m not going to tell you every race back in the “good old days” was perfect and there were occasional events in that era that were downright awful. But the ratio of classics to clinkers was a lot greater then than now and NASCAR is paying the price for it.

The sport is now enduring a prolonged contraction and I’m not immune to it. Over the last few years I’ve lost many long term readers who followed me from site to site. Yeah, I lost some of them because they thought I’d gotten too nasty or repetitive, but I lost most of them – some of whom I considered friends – simply because they’ve given up on the sport. I hear from still others who tell me their interest in a sport that once dominated their weekends had dwindled dramatically.

Some say they don’t even watch the races, they just come here to read my recaps to find out what happened.

Everyone in the industry, fans included, keep waiting for things to get better. The championship battle late in 2011 was one for the ages and reignited interest in some of the lost fans and even added new ones to the fold. I was anxious to see if NASCAR could carry that momentum forward into 2011, but even this early in the season that momentum has been squandered.

And truthfully, I’m beginning to think the sport can’t be saved any longer.

It was interesting to me that the overnight television ratings this weekend were off by about twenty percent. Of course they were comparing apples to oranges here. Traditionally this slot in the schedule has belonged to Talladega. Talladega and Kansas swapped dates around this year to give Kansas more time between race dates for their repaving project. Long term readers know I loathe plate racing but my opinion is in the minority, as a lot of fans find the racing at Talladega intense and exciting as well as dangerous.

Kansas is still considered one of “new tracks” on the circuit but it’s been around for awhile now and its one of the tracks many fans call “cookie cutters” (not an affectionate nickname) where they expect the racing will be substandard, there will be few dramatic moments, and the outcome will likely hinge on fuel mileage. Obviously mileage wasn’t a key factor in last Sunday’s race but it very well could have been. With several cars limping around with damaged engines had one them oiled down the track late in the going leading to a green-white-checkered finish the outcome likely would have been entirely different. Even if the new track surface with its variable banking is outstanding and provides markedly better racing it may be too late.

Kansas has already been labeled “boring” and a lot of fans won’t watch the tracks’ races on TV much less consider attending one. My guess is when NASCAR races at Talladega in a couple weeks TV ratings will be up notably for that weekend over whatever race was held on that date last year. Again fans have a perception that the racing is better than average at Talladega.

Speaking of new track surfaces they certainly are all the rage right now, huh?

Speeds at some of the newly repaved tracks, Michigan and Pocono in particular are way up in some early tests. It seems counter-intuitive but the higher the speeds get in auto racing, the worse the actual racing tends to become. That was certainly the case at Atlanta when it was reconfigured into a Charlotte clone and again when it was repaved. So many fans stopped attending Atlanta that Bruton Smith went ahead and cut the historical track back to one date, and there weren’t many fans left crying over the loss of that second date.

When a track is repaved it usually takes a few years for the new surface to weather-in and develop what the drivers tend to call character. Even the track owners admit their newly repaved tracks will only get better with age. So basically those fellows are saying “the racing won’t be very good here for a few years” and they expect fans to show up or watch anyway. By the time these newly repaved track develop “character” are there going to be any fans left in the grandstands around them?

It seems to me that if the track owner decides to repave one of the so called cookie-cutters they ought to go the whole nine yards. Dig up the whole damned thing and start over with a replica of Richmond or Darlington or maybe even some new configuration that hasn’t been tried yet.

Again, once a track develops a bad reputation with the fans you can’t fix things by adding a casino or fancy restaurants to the property. If I wanted to go to a casino I can be in Atlantic City in under two hours with a tailwind. On race weekends I tend to be a burger and beer kind of guy. While many fans still have a deep affection for Bristol as a track that offers up action most of the fans I know who’ve been there have never gone back. The hospitality industry in the area (and rooms are few and far between) have gotten a reputation for gouging the hell out of fans, and the cost of a race weekend has soared beyond the means of NASCAR’s bread and butter fans. Lower ticket prices are nice and much appreciated but they represent only a fraction of what it costs to attend a race with your family or friends.

Then take the track in Sparta, Kentucky. The place sold out last year which resulted in an epic traffic jam and some fans unable to attend the race even after enduring the slow crawl to the track because there was nowhere left to park. The track’s owner, Bruton Smith, bought adjoining property to provide more parking and even got the state of Kentucky to throw in some money to improve nearby highway interchanges in hopes of fixing last year’s disaster. Don’t be surprised if some of those folks who endured the nightmare last year decide to wait a few years before trying again if in fact they ever do.

Again, it’s all about reputation – and bad reputations die hard.

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Scenes such as these were once reserved for morning practice on a Friday, not race day. NASCAR’s challenge is two-fold: get people to the track as well as tuning back in.

In Monday’s race recap I listed a few reasons I felt interest in NASCAR was declining. I’d given my four reasons and asked readers to submit any I’d forgotten in the comments section or to me directly. The one factor most people who responded told me, in sometimes profane terms, that I’d overlooked was the horrific quality or lack thereof of the NASCAR race broadcasts.

That makes sense to me and I’ve noticed and bemoaned the same. Tight camera angles that show only one car keep fans from seeing all the action actually going on on track making the races seem all that much boring. Gimmicks intrude on the coverage and annoy the fans who tuned in to watch a race. Pre-scripted story lines that the announcers adhere to even once those story-lines fall apart interrupt the continuity of the coverage of what’s actually going on. The incessant commercial interruptions keep even knowledgeable fans from understanding the ebb and flow of the race. Cutting to commercial even as the cameras document a strong challenge for the lead – in a race with damn few lead changes as it is – frustrates fans.

I don’t want to see that pass in replay with Darrell Waltrip speculating on what both drivers are thinking aloud. I want to see the pass live and I want him to shut up a moment and let me watch what’s going on. Frankly ,the whole Waltrip Brothers comedy tandem stunk like month old sardines about a minute after it started. FOX finally got rid of that damned gopher, but DW apparently never got the memo. The blatant favoritism Michael shows towards his own race teams (which should have precluded his being hired as a commentator) and the steady string of love sonnets Darrell sings to the Hendrick teams is in and of itself enough to get both Waltrips on a leash. At very least dump that whole “Boogity…..” chant at the start of every race. DW seems to find it necessary to remind everyone that tuned in to see “the show” that he is in fact the show.

The last time Darrell Waltrip did something of note on a race track, I was still smoking grass – not watering it.

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The milk’s gone bad. Might it be time for some new blood in the booth after 11 seasons of Boogity’s, and Co-opetition?

Why is TV and the quality of race broadcasts so important to NASCAR and its future? Even at tracks that still put a large number of butts in the seats, the fact remains that most people who partake of a race will do so electronically either on the TV or through one of those other new-fangled electronic methods I don’t indulge in. Some will argue that TV simply can’t broadcast our sport, and that every race will always be more exciting at the track than on TV. I don’t disagree with that, but I know of no-one who could afford much less would attend all 36 points races. TV coverage of the races is also critically important to the track’s future health. Newer fans watching races on TV that present the excitement and drama of our sport might someday decide its time they attend their first race live to get in on the action. If FOX makes stock car racing look boring with little passing, who’s going to be tempted to lay down all that coin to go to the races?

So what’s the solution to bad NASCAR TV coverage? Unfortunately, there appears to not to be one.

The ratings are down, yet NASCAR wants more money from their broadcast “partners” to continue presenting these races. Less eyeballs on the TV screens at a higher cost means FOX and the other broadcast networks need to run even more commercials to make the finances work. I’ve been told by people close to the situation that FOX in particular loses money on every race broadcast they run. The feeling is that upside is that they get to promote their Sunday night and weekday prime-time programming to such an extent during races that it even outs.

Wow, talk about a shaky business model.

Or maybe the FOX executives are just like everyone else waiting for things to get better. Sadly, I’m becoming more convinced every day that turn around is never going to happen. Disco had its era. Blockbuster had its era. Bowling was once a big draw back in the days of black and white TV, with just three networks to choose from. The powers that be in NASCAR got so drunk on the limelight during those years of explosive growth they can’t even admit the good ship we’ve been sailing on is listing decidedly to port.

Ready the lifeboats folks, this ship is going down.

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