(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)

Holding a Pretty Wheel: What’s It All About, Anyway?

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, NASCAR was just about racing, plain and simple. Or at least mostly. Sure, the France family was in it for the money (and at the end of the day, that’s why people start businesses — to make money), but it was, at least for the fans who bought tickets and sat in the stands wearing their often-homemade t-shirts pronouncing them a fan of such-and-such driver, about fast cars and dashing drivers and tricky tracks.

Even then, the results weren’t always what fans hoped for — can you imagine baking in the South Carolina sun to see Ned Jarrett win the Southern 500 by 14 laps (plus two car-lengths, if you want to be technical about it)? Races often were decided by more than a lap. By today’s standards, many of those races would instantly be declared boring and three-fourths of the fan base would be screaming at NASCAR for changes.

Now, for full disclosure, I wasn’t around for pre-modern-era NASCAR, but most people I know who were don’t complain of the lack of action back then. Maybe they’re looking back wearing rose-colored glasses. If we’re completely honest, we all do that with our fondest memories. But it’s also entirely plausible that they don’t complain because they understood the nature of the sport, that not every race was going to feature a door-banging finish.

Again, to be fair, the issues with the racing have changed. Unlike the days when drivers often won by a huge margin, drivers can catch each other; it’s passing that’s so difficult. And that is frustrating to watch. Track position should not trump speed and talent, period. On the other hand, you sometimes have to wonder what today’s race fans do want. If cars could pass easily and then run away, would fans then complain about it when a car was fast enough to win by half a lap or more?

And there’s the real question: can today’s race fans every really be satisfied with anything?

(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)
“Boring.” “Cheats.” “Boring AND cheats.” Can drivers do anything right in the eyes of some fans? (Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)

I’m not saying that the sport is perfect. It’s not. Everyone knows it’s not and what the problem points are. Besides the aero-dependence of the cars, there’s the giant Chase gimmick, drivers who are muzzled by sponsors, cookie-cutter tracks that don’t exactly promote great competition. You hear about them all the time, and yeah, there are issues.

But it’s hard to discern what fans really want sometimes. Races that have action throughout the field all day long (Bristol and Martinsville come to mind) are declared boring if there aren’t dozens of passes for the lead — apparently other positions have become irrelevant. Restrictor plate races, which often have dozens of passes for the lead, are often declared boring because some team employed the “hang out in back until after everyone wrecks a few times” strategy. Fuel mileage races – which can be nail-biters as they enter the final laps, are at times decalred boring and the wins are said to be somehow less than a win in a boring race where fuel strategy doesn’t come into play. If a driver pulls a bump and run for a win, it’s dirty, but if he doesn’t, he’s a pansy who couldn’t carry Dale Earnhardt’s driving gloves.

At some point, after running through all the “boring,” “terrible” racing scenarios, what’s left? What would make a great race for modern fans? Is there even such a thing? You have to believe that at one time, either the races were all great, or that fans took them for what they were, all with their moments of excitement and moments some wish might have turned out differently. Fans didn’t watch every race expecting a perfect race, but they watched and cheered for their favorite driver, no matter where he finished, and enjoyed a Sunday afternoon of dreaming and scheming from the sofa or the stands.

Now, it seems like some would find fault with anything, just for the pleasure of doing so. I know not all race fans are like that, but it does seem like racing has become, to some extent, a microcosm of a society full of entitlement and unrealistic expectations. On one breath, some would disparage one driver for winning too much (as if that was actually a thing), another for not winning enough, a third for driving dirty and a fourth for not using his bumper. If a driver is putting up hall of fame numbers, he much be cheating. If he’s not, he must not have any talent.

Motorsports media aren’t free of criticism, either (and sometimes, rightfully so, but nobody here is trying not to bring fans what they want). If they talk about a driver who’s dominating, they’re biased. If they talk about a backmarker, they’re wasting their time on someone instead of the leader, who is dominating. Talking about the private lives of drivers? That’s too much fluff. Ignore the private lives of drivers and you’re ignoring the hot topics.

Yes, it’s about balance — the key to all of this is balance.

One shift I’ve noticed is that in the late 1990s, you could find at least one fan at every race wearing something representing every driver in the field. I sat under the stands before a race at Loudon and took a tally, and it came out 43 for 43. That’s not the case anymore. The mid- and lower-tier drivers and teams seem to be invisible to race fans. Yes, it’s harder to find gear for some of those teams, but it’s not impossible to dig it up (or make it; homemade gear used to be more common). Many of the fans who complain about so-called boring or vanilla drivers haven’t seen enough of half the field to make that blanket statement. There are some great personalities to counteract those boring guys who win too much – but wait, they don’t win enough, so forget them. (Though if you want to look at a race from a fresh, interesting, humbling perspective, listen to the scanner of a small team for an entire race. It’s enlightening and it might convert a few naysayers.)

My point? It seems like there is a good-sized and very vocal group of fans who watch the sport not for the pleasure of watching drivers racecars, but for finding anything they can to pick apart. Instead of cheering for their favorite driver, this group seems to get more out of tearing the others down.

NASCAR is far from perfect. There are flaws, many of them glaring, in the racing. But it’s never going to be exactly what everybody wants to see every lap of every race. Every driver isn’t going to be the one for whom you cheer. Every race isn’t going to have the exact finish that will satisfy every person. But every race has something exciting. Every driver has a story.

The sport is still special. Yes, fans complain because they know what the sport was and could be, but it wasn’t perfect then, either. There has to be something positive, something worth watching.

Otherwise, why do people still watch?

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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13 comments

  1. Avatar

    Amy, I almost respect you for your heartfelt honesty, not this time. This article seems to be about defending your boy Jerry Jordon. There is always something that somebody will not be happy about, and the majority does not claim that the good old days were perfect, but to even try and wade thru and defend this mess (which seems to be what you are doing) it is not constructive or valid. I believe the “Driver Council” eliminates the need for this article. They are unhappy at the track as well as the fans. There were pockets of discontent spoken outright from the drivers regarding the aero package as well as the lameness of the newest “Chase” last year, Nascar missed those soundbites. Drivers surely would have been “fined”. I do believe with all my heart Jeff Gordon has a couple of years racing in him, I also believe he see’s the writing on the wall and has told himself..”the hell with it”. And I don’t say I blame him, not one bit.

  2. Avatar

    Your comment about the driver T-shirts makes me wonder if there are any fans with T-shirts or hats from short tracks showing up at Cup races. Back in the past if you went to Michigan there were fans from tracks in Michigan, Ohio, New York and Ontario. I don’t think they’re there now and that’s a problem not likely to be fixable.

  3. Avatar

    I’ve noticed the lack of visible fans of lesser teams for many years. Part of that rests on TV’s “storyline” approach, I think. If the pre-production meetings focus on Jimmie Johnson going for his 60th dull D win on his pool cleaner’s birthday, then that’s the story. It does not matter to TV if Invisible Motorsports has outqualified Kasey Kahne the last seven races on a budget that wouldn’t keep Kahne’s jet in the air. And that they don’t start-and-park. These days any mentions of the peons have to be followed up with a 2-minute feature on Keelan Harvick’s $18,000 swing set, just for equal time purposes. Run during green-flag conditions of course. And then you’d better ask Chad about it as well, just to be on the safe side.

    Another factor could be fewer long-tenured and unique teams. In the 1990s, lots of legendary/storied teams and team owners or at least their remnants or lineage were still around. Melling, Bud Moore, Yates, the Skoal team, Petty Enterprises, Cale Yarborough, and so on. Consolidation and homogenization means that these days, there are really only a handful of organizations to cheer for. Remember when Roush, Yates, Penske, and Petty were all separate teams who built their own engines? Seems like 30 years ago.

  4. Avatar

    While some races were won by huge margins in the past it is not accurate to say that races won by multiple laps were the norm. Also while not all races in the past had “Busch vs Craven” finish most races had some exciting moments.

    I don’t think races today have many exciting moments. Exciting moments are subjective. They can’t be defined by the number of cars on the lead lap or even number of passes (it is not exciting if a car pulls over & lets someone pass them) but people can recognize them when they see them.

    Watch races from the 1980s or the first half of the 1990s – there is a distinctive difference in those races vs today’s races. It is disingenuous to say that because not all races in the past were barnburners that the state of the racing today is on par with years past. True some races were boring in the past but the difference is that almost all of the races are boring now. A race where there are 30 cars on the lead lap with everyone riding in single file not trying to pass is just as boring as a car winning by 14 laps.

    I don’t know if good racing can be resurrected. The reason racing is boring is lack of aggressive racing between the drivers. I don’t know if the root cause is points racing, risk of physical danger because all of the races are run on superspeedways with high speeds, or the teams/alliances (are the drivers scared to risk wrecking another car that belongs to their boss?). Until drivers race each other & not just the track racing will continue to be boring.

  5. Avatar

    Good article, the issues with the sport are obvious, but pound for pound, NASCAR fans seem to complain more about the sport itself than any other fan base. Just spend a few hours on satellite flipping between the NASCAR channel and an all sports channel. In the other sports most fans complain about their team and what they are or aren’t doing right. In NASCAR we spend an awful lot of time complaining about things other than the competition on the racetrack, it’s rule packages, the Frances, Bruton Smith, closing North Wilkesboro/Rockingham over and over, it’s too expensive, etc. I just think some people will never be satisfied even if they got rid of the Chase and every finish was less than a car length.

  6. Avatar

    Sad to see we’re back to blame the fans. No business can be successful without giving the customers what they want. The customer is always right, even when he isn’t. It is that simple. The customer has no obligation to buy something he does not like. It is in NASCAR’s best interest to find something the fan likes and give it to them. It might help if the racing press did not write everything is great excuse columns. Tell your customers to take it or leave it long enough and you can be sure they’ll leave it. NASCAR is at a crossroads. Change the product or put some seats on eBay and try to acquire a tarp company.

  7. MPM

    Even then, the results weren’t always what fans hoped for — can you imagine baking in the South Carolina sun to see Ned Jarrett win the Southern 500 by 14 laps (plus two car-lengths, if you want to be technical about it)? Races often were decided by more than a lap. By today’s standards, many of those races would instantly be declared boring and three-fourths of the fan base would be screaming at NASCAR for changes.

    You need to tread very lightly when discussing races of this era or deciding they had to be boring because someone won on a lap of their own. Take the 1973 Daytona 500. Richard Petty won (duh) by two laps over Bobby Isaac who was a lap ahead of third place Dick Brooks. The sixth place finisher, Buddy Baker didn’t even complete the race after blowing up on lap 194. Boring, right? Not so much. A few notes. 40 cars started that race. 33 more tried to make the field that week but didn’t. (including a driver by the name of Richard Childress….who’s he?) What would NASCAR give to have 73 entries for next weekend’s race? While the margin of victory was huge the race was outstanding. Buddy Baker in the orange K and K Insurance Dodge had what appeared to be the dominant car. Baker had a Daytona Curse, much like Earnhardt Sr. and DW.. He always seemed to be running up front in the 500 only to have something go horribly amiss. As was expected in that era Richard Petty in the STP Dodge was a factor (what would NASCAR give to have Dodge back in the fold?) Baker seemed to have the race won, but on the final stop his team went with four tires. Petty dove into the pits wide open (no speed limits back then) and slid to a stop in his pits. the 43 team went with two tires and the King returned to the track with the lead. But on four fresh tires Baker was closing the gap. You didn’t need a stopwatch. You could see the gap diminishing lap after lap. There was not a soul sitting in the grandstands (attendance that day was 103,000. What would NASCAR give today to have 103,000 fans show up at a race?) But on lap 194 Baker’s engine blew and it blew big. Shrapnel was bouncing off the track. Probably wasn’t a mosquito left in Daytona for a month after that one. So yeah, the final 6 laps weren’t great but the race itself was incredibly exciting.
    The 73 500 wasn’t on TV so I can’t discuss ratings. But that afternoon a 13 year old kid (in a hand lettered Richard Petty T-shirt no less) was on hand for his first stock car race having arrived like royalty in a metalflake pink dune buggy with a flowered roof. It was the first of who knows how many races I’ve been to since. Trust me it wasn’t boring. If it were I’d probably have spent these years writing about horse shows or something.

    • Amy Henderson

      Matt, that’s kind of my point on a few levels. One, you don’t think those races are boring, and neither do I. I love watching them for what they were. But how many of TODAY’s fans, those of the ADD Generation, would have gone to some of those races and complained the whole time about how boring they were. I’d be willing to say a lot of them, because they don’t watch the races for the nuances. To me, a battle for position, whether it’s for first, fifteenth, or 25th is a great battle. Now, either TV doesn’t show it, or when they do, it’s dismissed as “no-talent so-and-so’s only racing for 25th, who cares, show the GOOD drivers,” but when they show the leaders, if there’s no battle, “OMG, it’s SO BORING, show the action!” I have never been to a race in person that I didn’t enjoy for something that happened. But I appreciate the whole picture, and many new fans don’t seem to.

      My point isn’t that the racing doesn’t need to be improved or that the racing wasn’t better back in the day, but rather that many of today’s fans would still find fault with a race, run at North Wilkesboro for 500 laps, which featured a new leader every lap and three on the last lap with Dale Jr. taking the win.

      And to be fair, because someone mentioned Rockingham, fans lost some credibility with NASCAR on that one. Everyone clamored to bring back the racing, how we had to do it, etc…but when they listened to the outcry and scheduled races, those fans didn’t come. There weren’t enough butts in the seats to pay the bills when push came to shove. It’s hard to be sympathetic on that one.

      • MPM

        It’s tough to blame the fans if that’s the case. A majority of them see the race on TV and as such they see what the networks choose to show them. They can’t scan the track to watch a battle brewing back in the pack and they don’t get the info they need to see the various scenarios playing out. It’s unintendedly ironic when old DW starts hollering “where did he come from?” as a driver advances. If you’d shut up awhile and watch you would know you old SOB.

        Either way my point is some folks (not putting you on the list) are trying to tell fans who don’t like today’s “racing” that the racing was never any good anyway. That’s a curious way to market a product. “Try new BBB….it doesn’t taste any worse than AAA”

      • Avatar

        When they put Rockingham on the Truck schedule, the suits in charge all but said “we’ll deign to give you this, but you’d better turn it into another Woodstock.” They acted as if they had reanimated Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond for a match race with free admission and stocked coolers for everybody. Even rabid fans can see through that condescension. They’re ripping out seats at these tracks they just had to go to because Wilkesboro wasn’t big enough and Darlington wasn’t cool enough. Funny how many of the tracks that aren’t en vogue had better sell out or else, but it’s fine for the shiny clones to have a sea of empty seats for the Tarp 400 presented by Sominex.

  8. Avatar

    Maybe part of the difference is that ‘back in the day’, most of the drivers/owners were literally racing to put food on the table. The wins and good finishes meant more than a bigger jet. You had to race your way back on the lead lap by actually passing the leader…no gimmes. How many ‘shade tree mechanics’ proved they had what it took to build a better race engine? That innovation was not immediately fined? A bunch of guys sitting in front of computers doing ‘simulation runs’ is not the stuff legends come from. The rugged individuals used to be celebrated, not told to sit down and shut up. What started out as an ‘everymans’ sport has become the playground of the elite. Hard to relate to that.

  9. Avatar

    Amy, I nearly always enjoy your articles but IMO you’ve missed the mark on this one. It is tiring to hear the media whine about the fans and blame them for being unhappy with NASCAR as it exists. If this article is to defend the opinions in the columns written by Jerry Jordan, well, you are entitled to your opinion, as is he, but I’ve watched a lot of racing and the crapola that is currently on the track and has been since the inception of the COT & the “chase” is not interesting to watch. For some time, I thought it was because of the way the tv broadcast the races that I found myself less than interested but the same thing happened when we went to the track. And before someone jumps in and says “oh she’s just disappointed because of Gordon’s performance”. My brother and niece, who are my usual companions at the races, are both Johnson fans. Guess what? They feel the same way and since they do, we have pretty much stopped going to the races. Of course I would be a lot happier if Gordon liked this iteration of the car, certainly he liked the 2014 version, but he doesn’t and I don’t blame him one whit for getting out.

    Personally I like short track racing, like Martinsville and Bristol. Richmond used to be a fun place to watch a race but has also lapsed into the unable to pass problem. Racing is about being able to catch and pass another car, not watch them run in place between pit stops. NASCAR has created the problem with the current “product”. BZF wanted it to be about “entertainment” rather than racing. If the racing is good then it is also entertaining. I have been lucky enough to be at any number of races and been highly entertained by the action. Over the past 5 years however, I have been bored out of my mind sitting at the track far more often than the value of the ticket I bought. I’m not willing to do that any more and I am certainly not willing to say that NASCAR is “right” about everything and just accept the crap as good stuff.

    The media/writers, etc. who want to insist that if the fans would just be “positive” about NASCAR then things would improve are really missing the point. This is not like reviving Tinkerbell where if we all clap, the sport will suddenly be fun and wonderful again. It is NASCAR’s bat, ball and field, they make all the rules and even the drivers/owners have no input. I’d like to believe that something good will come of the driver’s council, but I doubt it.