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.
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.
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.