NASCAR Race Weekend Central

If The NFL Loses Its Pro Bowl, Can NASCAR Lose Its All-Star Event?

When it comes to putting athletes on a pedestal, Americans have that psychological obsession down pat. Extraordinary talent like Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, and Tony Stewart get rich by having their careers supported by people willing to watch them at any price, building normal lives around acknowledging their on-the-field accomplishments. But what we’re learning about the current generation of sports fans is that loyalty comes with expectations. Time is precious, in this age of 1,000 different entertainment options, and it’s easy to spot a superstar giving less than 100 percent. It’s like a reminder of that Monday morning conference call, with your boss speaking in a monotone voice you’re probably trying to ignore by reading this column. Why bother paying attention when even the athletes themselves are just going through the motions?

I bring this up in light of another NASCAR All-Star fiasco that turned a “can’t miss” night into “can’t we find anything else to do?” What was once one of the sport’s marquee events, guaranteed to turn into a shower of sparks, has become a four-hour gluttony of hype. Are budding rivalries, restrained by regular season “points racing” towards a championship what you’re looking for? It’s not there; the race had limited “close quarters” contact, payback for past transgressions replaced by the politeness of waving a competitor on by. In fact, the All-Star Race itself had no accidents, a blemish on the once-a-year time where beating and banging is not just expected but has defined what made this race a “must see.” Looking for parity? You won’t find it up front, at least not with this year’s ending. The race was decided seconds after Jimmie Johnson edged ahead, turning a double-file restart into a single-file final segment where aerodynamics played a bigger role than raw talent. Do you want consistency? How about rules that allowed the winners of the first three segments to “sandbag,” keeping themselves out of troubles and conserving for the final sprint because that victory guaranteed them a spot within the first two rows when a $1 million dollar top prize was on the line. Heck, even the pre-race festivities, in some ways longer than the races themselves were full of letdowns and amateur moments, driver introductions instead looking like a really bad pyrotechnic display of your uncle’s iMovie project.

How little does the All-Star Race mean to teams? Most bring a junky car, one they can discard in case of a wreck instead of building something special to win the event. After all, with technical inspection after the race, you can still get docked points and fined for cheating. Meanwhile, the backmarkers know they won’t make the starting field, turning the preliminary showdown race into an easy way to bank some extra cash. Of the 22 starters, seven parked early in a “collect-a-check” mode that _perhaps_ buys them an opportunity to run a full race down the line. And for most of the participants in Saturday’s “big race,” those who sit beyond striking distance of the leader turn the night into a glorified test session for the one that really counts the following week: Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

That attitude puts NASCAR in a difficult position, one that in its defense is shared by its stick ‘n’ ball brethren. Major League Baseball, after the American and National League All-Stars ended in a tie several years ago, had to change its rules to up the effort and attendance rate on the field. Still, top-notch selections skip out or find excuses despite a contest that now decides homefield advantage for the sport’s World Series. Over in the NFL, after its best players confused the Pro Bowl with two-hand touch football, the sport endured heavy criticism this January. Despite the allure of a week in Hawaii, both players and owners are strongly considering dropping the contest altogether after getting showered with boos.

Should NASCAR be next on the chopping block? Television ratings in 2011 were the lowest of any race run its regularly scheduled timeslot. While the at-track audience remains strong (supposedly 132,000-plus), it’s far from a sellout; cutting back to Memorial Day weekend only (the 600) would likely guarantee a full house a week later. And with this year’s condensed schedule, only two off weekends from February to November mean switching from Charlotte to another track is out of the question. The city serves as home base for 95% of all Sprint Cup operations; already hurting for money and time, sending them to Bristol in the name of a 90-lap exhibition proves an unnecessary stretch. It’s much better for everyone to have a week off, resting and recouping for the long summer ahead, where basketball and hockey playoffs don’t serve up major ratings competition.

You’ve also got the concept of the All-Star Race itself. With 23 cars running, 22 of which with drivers that run the circuit every week, “special” loses its meaning. Nearly 70 percent of drivers who run for the series title this year were included: as a comparison, that means an average of 15 players from your favorite baseball team would make the All-Star cut in NASCAR. And although the race is broken up into segments, there’s nothing “special” about the way the cars or drivers themselves are supposed to race it. At least in the NBA, for example, you’ve got rivals like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant suddenly forced to play on the same team. NASCAR has it structured like any other race weekend; it limits the special quirks that can get fans watching a race they already know “doesn’t count.”

I’ve always viewed All-Star events as a way to highlight the best people in your sport. But that’s where NASCAR runs into a problem, in a good way; its athletes are already the most accessible in _any_ sport. With at-track autograph sessions, fans’ ability to buy a ticket that lets you directly in the garage area and multiple pre and post-race interviews drivers are in your face virtually everywhere you turn. Twitter has enabled them to make a direct connection, wishing fans “happy birthday” while putting their personal feelings into 140 characters that somehow make them feel like old friends. Yes, the digital revolution has made us a small world and now anyone can be accessed at any time, regardless of whether we want to hear about it. All-Stars don’t need a special day for us to remember how good they are; instead, they need a day of no media coverage so we can all enjoy a day off from their glory.

If NASCAR came up with a unique twist, one that brought back “experiment” paired with “exhibition” than I think we’re getting somewhere. But right now, it’s just a chance for a couple souvenir trailers to make more money, along with a track that invites 132,000 fans to watch watered-down competition with “special” drivers who are actually the majority of the starting field each week, performing at less than 100 percent for extra money that really doesn’t impact their seven-figure salaries all that much. I know it’s a pessimistic view, but stop and think… when is the last time the All-Star Race was one of your favorites? Can you even name the winners of the last five All-Star Races? A memorable moment etched in NASCAR history from any of them?

The answer, I suspect, to those questions is no for the vast majority of our fan base. And if that’s the case, then the question of “thanks, but no thanks” should be entertained in this era of NASCAR oversaturation. A quality product attracts a following in the long run, and right now, it’s hard to find the “awesome” in “All-Star.”

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