NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Items That Should Be on the Collective NASCAR Mind This Week

1. Fans need to know who the drivers are

The finish at Bristol featured something you don’t see very often: a pair of top-10 runs by a couple of the smallest teams in the sport.  Matt DiBenedetto and Clint Bowyer proved that at a track where the price of the equipment takes a back seat, the talent behind the wheel and in the pit box shines. And we’ve seen a good bit of that this season at Daytona and the short tracks.

And you know what? It’s important for the sport to have some drivers to promote who are outside the usual group of names. It’s human nature to want to root for the underdog. But for that to happen, the underdog needs to have at least a fighting chance. You used to see fans pulling for everyone in the field, but now… the FOX television booth – the network responsible for bringing NASCAR to the fans every week – doesn’t even know who some of the drivers are, as shown when they misidentified DiBenedetto during driver introductions earlier on Sunday. There’s simply no excuse for that. This media outlet is the biggest covering the biggest series NASCAR has to offer, and it can’t recognize the participants?  It’s their responsibility to cover the sport, and that includes everyone in it, not just a chosen few.

Not knowing the drivers contributes to fan apathy. There was a time when a fan following the sport could feel like he or she personally knew all the drivers in the race because of how they were presented by media and sponsors. Now, a driver’s time in a corporate suite is more important to sponsors than time meeting the fans who, presumably, support the sponsor if they pull for the driver. Television broadcasts won’t bother to report if a driver is unhurt after a crash if he’s not one of the top few, let alone grace his fans with an interview, even if the race is under caution or there’s little action up front. It’s a disservice to fans and probably keeps sponsors from wading into the sport. Yet most media continue to ignore a large portion of the field every week.

(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
Carl Edwards may have won the race, but Matt DiBenedetto captured everyone’s hearts after an emotional sixth-place finish. (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

2. Yes, attendance is lower, but…

It’s a little hard to take some of the talk seriously when it’s coming from fans who aren’t at the race. There were still more fans at Bristol Sunday than could fit at several tracks on the circuit. When the sport was at the height of trendiness in the early 2000s, track owners got greedy and added seats at many tracks at a ridiculous rate. Supply outstripped demand, and now that demand is down for a variety of reasons. Stands look empty when there’s often a bigger crowd than many major sports stadiums can handle.

Still, think about it for a minute: if you aren’t at the track, then you’re part of the problem you’re talking about. Sure, you probably have a good reason not to go – tickets and hotels are expensive these days and some tracks, like Bristol, aren’t exactly in areas that have other attractions for visitors. All the other people who didn’t go probably have similar reasons, and complaining about it isn’t going to help. The racing is better than it’s been in years, and that’s where the focus should be. Want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Go to the track or watch on TV, and invite a friend or two, preferably friends with kids. Talking about the issue won’t help, but attending races and bringing new fans into the fold will.

3. Bang for your buck

There’s been a lot of lip service given to shortening races in NASCAR’s premier divisions of late, and the 200-lap XFINITY Series feature at Bristol gave a compelling argument for that as there was a sense of urgency that led to hard racing throughout the event.  The heat races weren’t a hit, probably because there was too much on the line to risk wrecking before the main race even started.

Personally, I’d have liked to have seen the heats held in the morning, with Sprint Cup final practice between the heats and the main feature. That would give teams who did have damage time to fix it with the appropriate penalty of starting in the back, which sure beats not starting at all.

But a couple of things here. One, the heats were not much different than the first one hundred laps of a 300-lap race might have played out, so was there really a difference? And two, would fans pay the same price for tickets for a race that lasts only a couple of hours? Operating costs for the track are the same whether a race is 100 miles or 500, so ticket prices wouldn’t be likely to fall very far.  Plus, particularly in Sprint Cup, the length of races is part of what makes the series so challenging. Shortening them would take some of the physical demands out of the equation, and that’s not really a good thing. There is definitely no easy answer here.

4. Where did the emotion go?

You know what else was great about DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish at Bristol? The display of pure emotion from the driver. If you want to see passion on display, watch his interview afterward.  You don’t often see tears of gratitude for something that, to many drivers, is an average day at best.

Emotion was also on display on Saturday, of an entirely different reason, as Erik Jones spoke with his father, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, on the phone after his win in the XFINITY Series race.

Much of the time, drivers are labeled as “vanilla” and “boring” because they’re so often toeing the company line. Their sponsors, who are, after all, forking out tens of millions of dollars for the drivers’ attention, don’t want anything controversial said, so not much of substance is said at all. And sometimes fans don’t like displays of emotion either, at least not when it’s negative, and there is a line of poor sportsmanship that is easy to cross in the heat of the moment. So it’s tough. But it would be better for the sport as a whole if fans feel like they know the drivers intimately like they once did, because that’s when fans cross the line from casual to avid.

  • (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
    Kyle Busch bumped into a fan in the garage area in Bristol, raising some concerns about the safety of spectators in such a dangerous environment. (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

    5. Look where you’re going

Finally, there was the fan who got hit by Kyle Busch’s car in the garage on Sunday.  The wife of a local short-track driver, the fan was paying little to no attention to her surroundings when Busch pulled in after hitting the wall, and with the engine more than likely cut off, he clipped her in the leg.

The fan lashed out at Busch, claiming she was in a “safe area.” Um, no.  In a hot garage under race conditions, there is no “safe area.” Race cars have the right of way and it’s the responsibility of people in the area to get out of the way of a rolling car, whether it’s under power or being pushed.

There’s also a delicate line here: NASCAR offers more access to fans that most other sports can’t match, but there are often so many people in the garage before and during races, practices and qualifying who are not doing a job that it’s difficult for the working crews and media to do theirs.

There’s no easy answer, because limiting fans’ access isn’t exactly great PR for the sport, but neither is having fans get hurt because they can’t be bothered to pay attention to their surroundings. Do those with hot passes read and pay attention to the rules? Media photographers get a mandatory rules refresher every week, but fans and guests, who don’t know the ropes, get no such thing. It’s not a fun subject, but perhaps it’s time to consider more carefully who’s in the garage during on-track activity that results in cars moving through the area, or for NASCAR to crack down on those who are not paying attention or getting in the way.

It’s sad to think that one fan’s actions could bring an end to an aspect of the sport that has set it apart, and it shouldn’t. Fans need to be better educated on the rules before they enter the garage, and if they’re not following them, they should be removed for the safety of all.

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toomuchcountry

Standing O! Well said.

“It’s a little hard to take some of the talk seriously when it’s coming from fans who aren’t at the race.
…if you aren’t at the track, then you’re part of the problem you’re talking about…
Want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Go to the track or watch on TV, and invite a friend or two, preferably friends with kids.”

Folks who followed racing were once known as blue collar, work hard/play hard, passionate, committed fans. Many of them are still out there even if the fan base has become much more a blend of blue collar and white collar folks. But the obsession with social media has seemingly turned so many folks into a much of sniveling whiners who find a reason to complain about minute aspect of racing.

GinaV24

Amy, you are ignoring one thing about the attendance and that applies to the ratings as well. Fans who have chosen to no longer follow the sport on a regular basis. There certainly appear to be a lot of them and the fault for that is squarely on NASCAR. NASCAR consistently disregarded the complaints about the poor racing, poor TV broadcasts, moved races from long time tracks, put up more 1.5 mile tracks that produced boring races, put a kit car or brick on wheels AND insisted that the drivers be silent on all issues. Well, NASCAR could fine the drivers and shut them up but the fans are a different story. Other companies LISTEN to their customers, NASCAR chose to ignore the complaints, many of which were legitimate and should have been addressed. On top of that, NASCAR paid staff (Robin Pemberton and his tirades at fans come to mind) and other paid media who jumped into the fray and beat on and abused the fans for their opinions. And then we have the chase, the crapshoot that many fans didn’t like, but NASCAR likes so much they’ve added it to the other series.

Once Gordon announced his retirement, I saw no reason to become emotionally invested in another driver. I have watched some racing but I have other things to do and if the weather is nice, I’m not going to waste my day inside – not even for what appears to be “better” racing. The days when I planned my weekend around watching and going to races is done. NASCAR treated the fans badly and as if they didn’t need the fans and now the media seems to be really surprised that a lot of fans are gone. Better racing? Maybe, but the changes are too little, too late – at least from my perspective.

Bill B

You pretty much covered everything I was going to say Gina. Good job.

Amy, you have to realize that there are a large number of disgruntled fans that want to see Brian pay for his arrogance and unwillingness to listen to the fan base. If that means NASCAR flounders in the process then that is the price that has to be paid. The important part is that Brian looks foolish for the decisions he’s made and the best measure of that are ratings and attendance. Call it punitive but that’s what happens when you don’t listen to your customers.

Mike

I’d add deliberately sacrificing long time core fans at the altar of diversity (read white, Southern, Christian, Rebel Flag flyin’ types). Otherwise, Gina & Bill hit the nail on the head.

Greg

I agree that the commentators should know the name of every driver in the race and what car he/she is in. There was an incident during Sunday’s Cup race where two cars tangled and Darrell Waltrip said something to the effect, “the driver of that black car”. (it was Regan Smith in the 7 car). Come on Darrell, the same 40 drivers have been at the track every race this season, you spend 2 days before the race watching practice, you have to know who is in what car. I realize that in today’s NASCAR world, sponsors and paint schemes can and do change from week to week but come on, you watch them practice for two days before the race. If nothing else, its called respect.

DoninAjax

Does Regan Smith drive a Toyota?

Charles Jenkins

Amy, I do tune in for nearly all races. I rarely watch a complete race now for many reasons. I have been watching since 1979. I was thrilled when I got my first satellite dish and could watch the “direct feed” that stayed on when the network broadcast went to a commercial break. The announcers could often be heard talking about what was happening and how they wanted to feature it upon return to air. The camera shot was left at a wide shot so I could still see what was happening. It was great. That went away in time but I watched the networks, ESPN- TNN- CBS, whoever had the race. There were personalities, different “real” car makes, innovations (cheating ?), the Winston million, and many more things that just made NASCAR fun to be invested in ( as GinaV24 says ). IMO it was always about money but at one time was never “only” about money. Not the case now. It is all money now and BZF has been a spectacular success with the increase in revenues. The cost of that is that the “racing” has suffered and for us “not the target demographic fan”, i.e. old fans, that is why we don’t think much of what NA$CAR has become….. I will always follow NA$CAR to some extent but it is not nor will it ever be what it once was to me.

salb

I used to have season tickets for Bristol…something I never thought I’d be lucky enough to do! When it got to costly and too hard to get the time off work to attend both races, I sold my spring tickets (for face value) with no trouble. Soon it got harder to sell the spring tickets. Once the ‘chase’ was introduced, the racing at Bristol got extremely polite. When I found myself nodding off with about 100 laps to go, I realized that the races there were no longer compelling. There used to be so much electricity in the air the minute you saw the track at Bristol, but that faded away, as did many other season ticket holders that used to sit around me in the stands. Between cost of hotels, meals, gas to get there (I drove from Michigan), and the general letdown of the racing, I decided not to renew my tickets.

Another reason you might consider for the sparse crowd, is the playoff system. Now only the last 10 race REALLY count for anything, so why spend the money for basically a preliminary event? I know a lot of people do the same with baseball, basketball and hockey…wait until the playoffs to watch. You reap what you sow.

KyCupFan

Amy it is the arrogance of people like yourself that aggravate me the most and make me want to give up NASCAR completely. Let me quote you.

“It’s a little hard to take some of the talk seriously when it’s coming from fans who aren’t at the race.”

Those fans aren’t at the race for some pretty damn good reasons!

“Still, think about it for a minute: if you aren’t at the track, then you’re part of the problem you’re talking about.”

You and Pete Pistone should get a room!

I was at the race, but I am not sure how many more years I will go. When my Dad quits going, I will probably quit going as well. Its more about spending the weekend with him and my son these days more so than actually enjoying the race.

I get so sick of you people in the media trying to cram everything wrong with NASCAR down our throats and tell it is awesome! If NASCAR was so damn awesome you wouldn’t be writing articles about low attendance and low tv ratings. Calling people the problem because they are not at the track is over the top! You are in essence saying we should shell out hundreds of dollars to attend an event we no longer enjoy, and that is OUR fault. Seriously shaking my head at your warped logic.

And for the record, our collective ages are 71, 50 and 23.

As a matter of fact my Dad recently asked me if I was interested in keeping the Bristol tickets if he ever got to where he couldn’t go. I told him I wasn’t really interested in going if he quit going. I just enjoy our weekend away every year. I used to absolutely LOVE going to Bristol every year. It was magical, the electricity in the air, the anticipation of never knowing what you might see at any given Bristol Race, its gone and it will never return. When they reconfigured Bristol they killed it. Sure its good racing, but it’s not BRISTOL RACING!

I could go on for hours….

p.s. Attended my first race in 1980 so yes I have been around a while. I have probably been watching NASCAR longer than you have been alive!

Charles Jenkins

KyCup Fan, I hear you !!!! You are not alone in your way of thinking…

Russ

Went to my first race at Bristol in ’72. Remember watching how fast a track worker could drop the hot piece of metal he picked up from Wendell Scott’s blown engine in qualifying. The following year my family and I stood on the hill with the rest of the overflow crowd because of Jr. Johnson’s #3 Monte Carlo.
Point is I havent been back in a few years, and nobody is going to lay a guilt trip on me because I am not enriching Bruton Smith’s bank balance.
When the day comes that I think its worth the trip I will go back. In the meantime no thank you.

kb

Amy, I live in a part of the world that me going is cost prohibitive, but when I was living near tracks, I went..because it was something I wanted to see. The costs and other things did not deter us. I call BS on your illogical numbers at Bristol. The hottest ticket for so long, it WAS A GHOST TOWN. And I will not go and support in the future, the regime and their insanity IE The Chase and all the other crap they promote. You seem to be blaming to fans for the PTB not understanding their fan base and going for the quick and easy money that ultimately if some the idiots in the broadcast world actual look at the contract and look at who isn’t watching, lights out …go home. Seems like a blame the victim mentality. WT F?????

kb

Amy and Ryan Mcgee must have gotten the same memo from Castle Daytona, their crap logic is the same, the only diff is a few days apart. Way to go! Blame the fans! Read Ryan’s BS, that will make your blood pressure boil.

Tim S.

That’s it. Take fans who already feel alienated, then browbeat them on one of the places they go to avoid that kind of snot. That will make them want to tune in or spend a ton of cash.

Glen H

“Want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Go to the track or watch on TV, and invite a friend or two, preferably friends with kids.”

Really???

If you’re not happy with the product, keep buying it and they’ll improve it? That may be the most idiotic line of reasoning I’ve ever heard. If you keep buying a product you don’t like, they won’t change it because they think the product is fine.

If you stop buying a product, somewhere down the road, the people making that product will hopefully figure out something’s wrong and might try fix it (it’ll be a really long road for NA$CAR to get the message though).

Fans don’t like the Chase, don’t like that the first 26 races don’t count for much, don’t like the “win and your in” way to get into the Chase; the list goes on.

Fans are voting with their wallets by staying home and tuning out. They’re smart enough to have figured out that that may be the only way to change things.

capt spaulding

Won’t be long till Amy joins the ranks of auto racing writers, longing for the days when she was paid writing about a sport only she enjoyed.

kb

I promise Amy I will keep buying that same piece junk appliance from Lowe’s or whoeva until the the manufacturer gets it right…lol. How will the idiots know I am not happy with a product if I keep buying it? Good grief. What schools did you and your boy Ryan Mcgee go too. I wanna steer clear and warn my very smart relatives..

kb

Sorry “to”.

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