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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Rediscovering NASCAR’s Missing Piece, Passion

For a sportswriter, even in this age of social media, I find myself a pretty private person. As I see it, you’re here for me to write about why Tony Stewart’s a little off this year, not about what I did on my off weekend. You want pictures of Kyle Larson’s Target car, not me buying groceries at Target or walking to my car right outside of it. For years, I’ve been fascinated by how people want to know these mundane details of what to me is a pretty normal life. I am a sportswriter the same way someone else is a secretary and another person thrives as a teacher. I feel lucky to have the career I do, covering people far more famous than I’ll ever be, and I’ve stumbled upon some pretty amazing experiences. On-air TV. On-air radio. Nine Daytona 500s attended in person. For well over a decade, my passion and my career have been largely the same.

And then, like a tornado, for the first time my personal life altered my usual routine. I got back from the Daytona 500 this year, pumped about a number of racing-related opportunities and instead, a tornado of tough times was sitting there waiting for me. There was a family situation I had to deal with, the end to a serious relationship I cherished, work chaos and a potential move. I was stuck juggling too many balls in the air, trying to keep it all in motion when I hadn’t even taken a juggling class. In the course of a few weeks, my private world had done what leaving NASCAR television, a few awkward claps, and even previous personal crises had never done.

My passion for the sport was gone. I could sense it in every word I wrote, every managerial email I sent. The albatross of indifference sat with me through Sundays where I had my hand on the Twitter button and just wouldn’t type a word. Branding myself, a necessity for any modern day journalist, had become a mixture of silence and staving off depression from circumstances that had nothing to do with cars going around in circles. It just wasn’t high on the priority list anymore, especially with NASCAR a smaller part of my overall career portfolio. Heck, it wasn’t even on the priority list.

Recognizing that, for the first time I stepped away from a website I have owned and put my blood, sweat, and tears into for the better part of a decade. The past few months away from the sport (aside from one small column for another client) had to happen; they were also incredibly difficult. A career where I had carved out tremendous satisfaction, one I once thought would be my life’s work was now sitting on a virtual shelf. On Sundays, my race weekends now came paired with next to no obligations for the first time since I was a senior in college. As a Type A personality, I was separated from my staff, left to sift through feelings and work on the most important part of life you’ll ever need be a fan of: yourself.

That’s what I’ve done, emerging back from a low point with a new sense of energy and resolve. It took time, and I have a brand new appreciation for those who have suffered through depression for major portions of their lives. Thankfully, I was able to emerge from my funk without the need of anti-depressants, but there are so many out there not so lucky. More than ever, especially in an age where technology breeds isolation, I urge you to take that extra step and ask a simple question to a co-worker, family member or friend that might be struggling: “How are you?” Life is precious, as we’ve seen with the passing of Steve Byrnes in the NASCAR community these past few months and no one should have to spend it in suffering. The more happy people can spread their happiness, helping those in need the better off we’ll all be.

But I digress, for like I claimed at the beginning you read me to read NASCAR, not my personal life. During this time period, especially with how the sport has changed over the last decade, I legitimately spent time wondering whether my passion for it would return. The NASCAR garage I entered in 2006, a wide-eyed 25-year-old ready to conquer the world, is now worlds apart from what we have in 2015. We’ve been through multiple tweaks of the Chase, ownership is consolidated and aero push remains a major hindrance to competition. Would watching races with nothing to manage give me the same sense of general excitement to be a part of the sport?

For me, as my personal recovery normalized the answer was a resounding yes. Watching Kansas, my last weekend off, provided the type of excitement we need more of on 1.5-mile ovals. You had the scintillating debut of Erik Jones, a rookie who looked at one point he could finish as high as third or fourth place. There was the saga of Martin Truex Jr., left for dead by the end of last year only to surge to second in the point standings in this one. The cars were capable of passing, not pretending and it was clear the rules package had produced some progress. I turned off the television ready to jump back into my management role, to put the effort back into covering this sport and helping my website grow.

The passion was back, and I mention that because in my time off, relegated to watching from the sidelines that appears to be what’s missing in NASCAR these days. When the Wells Report came out from the NFL, accusing Tom Brady of all these misdeeds, the heated debate on both sides has filled up sports radio. When LeBron James hit a buzzer-beater yesterday, people went crazy about a series of controversial calls at the end of that NBA playoff game which may have tilted things in the Cavaliers’ favor. The NHL playoffs have been a long list of overtime winners and heart-stopping moments that get fans amped up to watch.

When we compare that to NASCAR right now, where the ratings have sagged much of the season ,the storylines just haven’t carried that same sense of punch. The ones that have, like Kyle Busch’s Daytona injury and what we’re going to do about SAFER barriers come with the type of one-sided argument that doesn’t incite conversation. What, you’re going to argue that NASCAR racing is safe enough? We can never be too safe and the sport can never spend enough money to try and prevent those type of injuries. Other concerns, like Kurt Busch’s domestic violence case have challenged the image of stock car racing as a family sport. Those opinions don’t pump up the sport as much as fight against a negative perception to tear it down.

Passion, in the form of making the Chase, is muted these days with so many drivers guaranteed an invite. At the moment, none of the drivers in contention raises an eyebrow with the exception of Danica Patrick. The Jimmie JohnsonKevin Harvick battle, played out this season on intermediates should be compelling in the fall but doesn’t have the same type of ring to it during the regular season. Without many photo finishes this season, fans have less to get up in arms about, less reason to spend Monday morning coffee breaks hyping up the sport to friends and colleagues they don’t know about.

How do we get that passion back in the sport? I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but I can make an observation. Taking a step back allowed me to appreciate the sport in a different way, taking it in as if it was brand new. Right now, so much of what we have in the sport is so… old news. Johnson? Six titles. Harvick? First or second every week. Other than Truex, the entire top 10 in points is littered with drivers you’d expect to be championship contenders. The manufacturers have been the same for years; the owners are simply getting older, not more diverse. That’s why the debut of Jones combined with Larson reemerging were important variables for the sport Saturday night. They were new storylines, exciting drives to the front that got fans to stand on their feet and start conversations as to who these young people are.

For NASCAR to capture a new generation of fans, that’s what they have to do: find some way to drive new conversation. Passion drives emotion, which is what connects someone to a sport for months, years, decades. Add in the “buzz” factor that is needed to capture a generation with too many choices and you’ll see the road ahead is not easy. But with the right plan, the right athletes and the right competition, it can be done.

In the meantime, I’m happy to return with a fresh outlook and a fresh take on covering the sport. Thanks to my staff for keeping the fire burning here; now, it’s time to pour some logs on myself all over again. And my wish for you, readers? You discover the same type of passion in your own life. Live each moment being the best you can be, pursuing the hobbies and personal connections you want because tomorrow is never promised to anyone.

Onward and upward.

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12 thoughts on “Bowles-Eye View: Rediscovering NASCAR’s Missing Piece, Passion”

  1. I guess I’ll never understand NASCAR seeking to find the next generation of fans when they’ve done everything to get rid of their older and current generations of fans.

    • Well said. I don’t know about many of you, but I became a fan at least in part due to the influence of family and friends. They’re the ones who showed me stock car racing when I was very young. The best “brand activation” in the world doesn’t bring in as many committed newcomers as the word of another fan. And with so many longtime fans just walking away, there’s no one to bring along the next wave. They can focus on the next generation all they want, but if the next generation isn’t interested, what’s the use? And as someone who hasn’t completely walked away yet, I don’t feel compelled to introduce anyone else to what the sport is now, because my own connections to it are so few.

      • Tim, I feel the same way. I was introduced to the sport by family and once the bug had bit me, well, I talked about it to everyone – probably to the bemusement of many but that didn’t stop me. We took other friends to races to share the excitement with them. Many of those friends have years ago stopped paying attention to the sport and I seldom talk about it to anyone unless they happen to ask about something they’ve seen on ESPN or to other race fans on blogs like this or twitter so I have also ceased to “spread the word” because IMO if I’m not excited about NASCAR racing, I certainly can’t share that with others. People I work with used to know that I was going to be gone in May for the races in Richmond & Charlotte and again in October – I planned my vacation around those races and my out of office message used to say “gone to chase racin”. Do I miss being excited about racing? Sure. Fixing that problem for me and for the new generation of fans is NASCAR’s issue. They have a lot of work to do.

    • Simple. The older fans will gradually die off and if there aren’t new fans to replace them they are out of business.

  2. Sorry for your rough spot. I can sympathize as I am no stranger to such rough spots.

    Still, I can’t help but point out, that your view with regards to NASCAR is just to accept whatever they serve you and find a way to like it. I’m sorry but I can’t buy into that philosophy. NASCAR has mutated the sport in the name of trying to create fans. It should be the other way around. Make the sport the best it can be and if it’s worthy the fans will find you.

  3. Glad to have you back. I don’t know what it would take to bring young fans into the sport. Don’t know if Sponge Bob can be an entry point for some of them or not. It was kinda cool to see the Sponge Bob cars and the grass painted up.

    As a fan since the 70’s I’ve seen many changes that I’d like to roll back. The aero push is a big deal to me. I want to see the faster car drive to the front. NASCAR really needs to get on this by, IMO, getting rid of as much down force as they can. Running the mile-a-half tracks doesn’t help in that regard either.

    It used to be fun to see the cars bounce and drift. See the 1979 Daytona 500 famous crash to see the bouncing. The bias ply tires would let the cars slide a lot more without going out of control. The radials hang on longer but then suddenly break loose.

    I used to be able to tell who was racing who at a glance. Drivers’ cars had the same sponsors all year and so the cars were easily identified.

    It was also great to see the cars resemble what you could see on the street. A Monte Carlo looked like a Monte Carlo. A fan could relate to those cars. Now, what do we have? A very feeble attempt at putting some brand recognition into a debacle that was the COT.

    Now, there is plenty to still like. The guys really give it their all. Restarts are insane because of how hard it is to pass when the cars get strung out. We still have cars that slide in and out of control. We still have guys getting mad at each other. We still have unpredictability. Engines, tires may blow. Transmissions may quit working or at least their shifters break off. Guys report vibrations. Is a wheel loose? We have silly season, a goofy Championship that anyone could potentially win. We have comeback stories like Allmendinger and Truex. New drivers coming into the sport like Larson, Elliott and Jones. We also see guys switch teams and get rejuvenated like Kennseth and Harvick.

    The point is, there is still plenty going on. Millions still watch every week. I will continue to be one of them.

  4. good to see you back. i enjoy your writing as it genuinely provides food for thought. i miss seeing that here on this site. i also miss the non “manufactured” excitement that i used to find so easily in nascar racing. simple things like how the race is covered to the trustworthy and friendly face of benny parsons. how the stories of tim richmond or alan kulwicki unfolded and how they raced. the emergence of jeff gordon against the background of sr. the pass in the grass and other great moments. i see great storylines here in the modern times as well. things like logano’s, the elder busch’s story, brad k and now erik jones seem to get lost in the general feel of the sport which I would say barely reaches the level of mundane. I’ve lost much of my passion for the sport and I don’t see that recovering any time soon. what i haven’t lost is hope and neither should any of us.

  5. Wow, that was extremely well written with a lot of feeling Tom. That all came through.

    Glad that you have emerged from the darker places. Those dark places are no fun as I remember well.

  6. Glad to see you back, Tom and sorry to hear that you had to go thru a difficult time. I agree with your premise that passion is something that the current NASCAR lacks and a few young drivers isn’t going to fix it. Also, I’m not willing to accept whatever NASCAR dishes out and call it wonderful when IMO it is not. The sport I enjoyed and had a passion about is gone. Years ago, I would have sat thru the rain delay on tv, watched whatever interviews and then stayed up until the race was over. I didn’t do that this weekend. They restarted the race, I was still awake when they did but honestly a good night’s sleep was worth more to me than watching it.

    It is nice that there are new young drivers on the scene. I wish them well and maybe there will be fans who will find the passion for them in the same way as I did many years ago, but I am no longer willing to spend my $ and time on a new driver. NASCAR has spent a lot of years trying to rid itself of the old fans while searching for a way to bring in new ones. NASCAR should have concerned itself with keeping their fans, while attracting more but that hasn’t been their goal. As far as I’m concerned at the end of this year, they will have been successful in one of those goals. This fan will be gone.

    I wish you the best, Tom, and if you are willing to be rejuvenated and passionate about the sport as it is, well, that’s fine for you. Personally I think that more voices in the media calling for improvement, rather than just accepting the mediocre might be a better goal.

  7. A great many of us used to really enjoy NASCAR. We really want to enjoy NASCAR, but NASCAR makes that more difficult with each passing year. Almost reluctantly we admit to ourselves that it is not really all that enjoyable anymore and we drift away. Whatever the answer may be to producing a rewarding fan experience, take this sh-t and pretend it’s great is not it.

  8. Guess everyone who comments on these articles feels somewhat as you describe.
    So what is passion? What makes people support their favorite team, regardless of the sport, in good times and bad? What makes the NFL draft one of the most followed events in sport? Hard to define isn’t it? Its probably not some jerk mouthing off, nor is it a sanctioning body bragging about the amount of money involved.
    I’m sure the France organization has invested a lot of money in trying to solve the question. Yet so far they don’t seem to have the answer. Will they find it? I doubt that we will see that the answer in my lifetime.

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