As NASCAR emerges at long last from its winter slumber, it’s clear that the winds of change blew strong in the sport. Little is as it was even a year ago. Old favorites closed doors while fresh-faced youngsters opened their own. Sponsors have come and gone. NASCAR made some areas more transparent only to make others murky. The season will open with a sense of optimism, but also of trepidation.
Three areas of the sport underwent major overhauls for 2014. Two facets — creating a list of specific penalties for various rules violations and changing qualifying to a Formula 1-esque knockout session — are positive steps in moving the sport forward by adding transparency in one area and more excitement in another. Steps like these move a sport forward by creating positive changes that fans can get behind.
But the third — the new elimination-driven Chase — isn’t that same kind of change. Somehow, it doesn’t feel authentic; instead, it seems like the sport is trying to be everything it’s not and was never meant to be. There’s so much to say about the new Chase, so much that stings. But when it comes down to it, the thing I want to say the most about NASCAR’s brave new world is… I’m sorry.
I’m sorry it came to this. Maybe it was inevitable; the sport’s popularity boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s is long over, and NASCAR is scrambling to bring in the horde of fans it saw join the ranks, however briefly, back then.
The problem here? It’s an unrealistic expectation. Other sports have gone through similar growth spurts; they’re popular around the water cooler for a while, but then the trendy luster wears off, the numbers balance out where they will. If NASCAR were to accept that and try to make those who stuck around from the old days and those who stayed on the bandwagon after the fad was over bring a new generation of fans into the fold through natural progression, it could have been different. But someone got impatient, and now something feels irretrievably lost.
I’m sorry for the longtime fans — the ones who stuck with the sport through thick and thin, through the dark days following a rash of deaths in the early 2000s that culminated with the loss of Dale Earnhardt. It’s not your daddy’s NASCAR anymore, and it’s not their NASCAR, either. Many of these fans were brought in by older family members and perhaps brought their own youngsters in as well, so for them, it’s a much deeper connection than simply being a fan who once enjoyed a sport. It’s something more personal that’s been taken from these fans, something that leaves a hollow, empty spot somewhere in their souls.
I feel sorry, too, for the casual fan who will never see what the sport once was. There was a time when every race was exciting — not because of an impossibly close finish or a jaw-dropping pass, but because of the possibilities. New teams could come into the sport and be competitive. Sponsors were clamoring to be a part of it all. There were wily veterans and brash rookies, and it was possible to both love and despise them at once, because you felt as if you knew them on a different level.
Instead, this new breed of fan, for whom instant gratification is king and Richard Petty is some old guy they see on TV sometimes, is left to believe that the sport needs smoke and mirrors to be exciting — and they may never understand otherwise, because nobody gives them a real reason to see.
It’s this generation raised on video games and believing everyone deserves a trophy just for showing up that the sport is depending on — and must depend on — that will never be given the insight into how the sport began and grew and evolved. They are both largely responsible for and unknowingly victims of the changes the sport has seen the last decade. The sport caters to this ADD generation, feeding its hunger for more and more, right now.
By doing so, NASCAR doesn’t nurture the deep understanding of the sport and its rich history that makes a fan feel satiated. This breed of fan doesn’t want to share this thing they’ve discovered; they simply watch it and discard it each week. They want it all and they want it now, because nobody has shown them that it can be any other way, that this isn’t a game that’s over in a few minutes, and it’s all the more beautiful because it plays out over hours, over days and weeks and years and decades.
I’m sorry for what might have been the next generation of fans, brought into the fold by fathers and grandfathers, by mothers and grandmothers. Those predecessors feel as though they were driven away by the changing of the guard, like they weren’t wanted anymore. They spend their Sundays doing something else now, and their sons and grandsons and daughters and granddaughters are doing that something else with them instead. The bond continues, but its common thread is no longer the whine of engines or the cheering of the crowd. The miles of untamed pavement stretch into the distance behind them, no longer into their future.
I’m sorry for the old guard of drivers, who will fade into time as they grow older, many forgotten by the masses, many never known to begin with. They deserve to be known, and fans would be richer for knowing of them and their feats.
I’m sorry for Jimmie Johnson, because no matter how many championships he is able to win under any system that’s thrown at him, he can never measure up to Petty or Earnhardt in the minds of many fans. Truly, it’s not his skill and prowess on the track they doubt, but the system itself. A 10-race title seems a little more cheaply made than one that was won over a grueling 10-month season, and a one-race title seems cheaper still. When all is said and done, Johnson will have his place among the sport’s immortals, but in the eyes of many, he will never quite measure up because of a system meant to mimic other sports by leadership that does not understand why it’s so very different.
Change has come to NASCAR, and it’s slowly stripped the sport of its innocence, of its past. Maybe the changes will revitalize the sport and make fans believe again, for many of them so badly want to believe despite everything. But maybe the sport will continue down a path where most will not follow — and for that, I am sorry.
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