Washington, D.C., may seem one of the most unlikely points of inspiration for anything related to stock car racing. But just as Lisa Simpson’s “stagnant swamp” was the birthplace of NASCAR founder Brian France Sr., the nation’s capital spurred my first article in returning to Frontstretch.
While meeting up with an old college friend in a restaurant as far removed from motorsports as anyone could be, I was fortunate to meet her stepbrother, a young, successful, tech-savvy architect. The exact type of fan NASCAR would rightly drool over converting. And much to my surprise, he had been to a NASCAR race. His reaction to that experience, however, was less surprising:
“I just didn’t get it.”
It wasn’t a stellar review. His failure to grasp the intricacies of the sport were not surprising, as any new fan without a radio headset likely wouldn’t get a whole lot out of a 500-mile race not run on a plate track. But his perception that the race lasted over five hours was concerning (especially since Texas Motor Speedway hasn’t a had race go over even four hours since 1997). And perhaps most concerning of all, even the old failsafe of asking how he enjoyed the people watching was lost in the shuffle of his recollection of the race. Shame really, given that the Texas infield can hold its own with any fanbase outside of Talladega, Ala.
Of course, I told him that the next time he went, he needed to get himself a credential and enjoy the media center nacho bar (a big thanks to the TMS team for that perk). But it was hard to know what to say to this. Here was someone in my peer group who had felt no connection to stock car racing despite being on its biggest stage, and it was almost hard to blame him. After all, it’s hard to take stock of what NASCAR racing means these days. Because the old adages just don’t cut it anymore.
“If you’re not nervous on race day, you just don’t get it.” Well, that’s obvious. He admitted as such.
Looking at the marathon length of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, asserting that 500-mile races are the ultimate test of man and machine is a very foreign concept that rings hollow. After all, stage racing essentially builds intermissions into these marathons. But more telling is the automotive era that we live in; the Toyota Sedan that I drove to this dinner comes with a factory maintenance schedule anticipating 250,000 miles of use out of the vehicle (and through 202,000 miles, that sedan has not had even a minor breakdown). Given the durability all have come to expect and observe from their personal vehicles, such lengthy races may well seem unnecessary and even burdensome to those with shorter attention spans.
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” doesn’t work anymore either. For proof of that, just take a hard look at the models that competed for the Cup title just a year ago. The Chevrolet SS is now dead, and though its production point in Australia was likely a major driver of its doom, the reality is having it as Chevrolet’s NASCAR flagship did not drive sales. The Ford Fusion may well be on its way out, with Ford having canceled a scheduled 2020 redesign for the nameplate. And that leaves the Toyota Camry, which despite having won the Cup title two of the last three years has seen sales slide by 9.84 percent during the same time period.
If this alone doesn’t speak to the growing insignificance of NASCAR’s top series, leave it to Washington to, two weeks later, offer up even more evidence. Strolling through the Washington Auto Show, Martin Truex Jr.’s title-winning Camry was present and available for photographs, but the same couldn’t be said for the Ford Fusion. Even more telling, MIA was Chevrolet’s vaunted new Camaro ZL1 racecar.
The DC auto show may be small potatoes, but the same sad story played itself out at the North American International Auto Show in the Motor City itself the week prior. Honda had Takuma Sato’s Indianapolis 500-winning car on display, wreath included. Lewis Hamilton’s world title-winning Formula 1 car was suspended above Mercedes-Benz’s mammoth display. IndyCar itself had a full display with its new 2018 car front and center, and the promoters of the dual races at Belle Island were also out in force.
But while Truex’s car could be found in the back corner of Toyota’s display, the Fusion was nowhere to be found. The Camaro ZL1 was nowhere to be found. And Michigan International Speedway was nowhere to be found.
NASCAR allegedly may be for sale, but one has to wonder what’s left to sell, outside of tracks and a race schedule. Culturally, the OEMs involved in the sport seem to have figured it out; it’s hard to know what to make, if anything, of the supposed pinnacle of American motorsports. Though stage racing and bonus points proved to be concepts that improved the on-track product in 2017, the playoff environment really rang hollow, especially when one considers it was the fifth different way NASCAR has awarded a Cup title in the last 12 years.
And while Washington has proven an unlikely source for NASCAR’s founder and for this article, Daytona International Speedway has proven a prime example of the hollow shell that NASCAR racing has become.
If one needs any more proof as to the exhaustion and diminished value continually changing a race format will create, one need look no further than this year’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, competed under three formats and seven sets of eligibility criteria since 2008. I watched my first Budweiser Shootout in 2004 and attended my first Clash two weeks ago. And while that Shootout in 2004 nearly filled the old frontstretch grandstands of DIS, I had nearly an entire 300-level section to myself watching this year’s event, despite the 86-degrees -and-sunny Florida weather (Frontstretch opted not to include side-by-side crowd photos for obvious reasons; we try to learn from Washington’s mistakes).
After flying home from the Clash, I couldn’t go more than an hour or two without seeing an ad for Daytona Day or having a co-worker ask me what my plans for Daytona Day were. Let me be as clear as I was to my co-workers: Daytona Day is NOT a real thing. My dad and I watch the Daytona 500 every year, we don’t observe Daytona Day. And while I have no doubt that Denny Hamlin and his family made a habit of watching the 500 before he made it to NASCAR stardom, I don’t for a second believe that they referred to it as Daytona Day.
To watch FOX have to create a faux holiday to support a truly seminal event that still draws big(ish) TV numbers and a crowd that legitimately does number over 100,000 begs a question: Has the pinnacle of stock car racing truly lost its cultural significance?
Sadly, there was likely no more vivid proof of that then at the conclusion of Daytona Day, a calamitous affair that saw Austin Dillon wreck Aric Almirola to win the 500 after being a complete non-factor for more than 490 miles of racing. And while the commentators wasted no time cutting to shots of an emotional grandfather in Richard Childress and a No. 3 car spinning donuts in the same grass that Dale Earnhardt tore up 20 years ago in winning his only 500 trophy, this rang hollow as well.
Yes, Dillon took the No. 3 car to victory, doing what he had to do to win (and to his credit, owning up to the fact that he wrecked the No. 10 to do so). But while Dillon struck all the right chords in recognizing how he won and that he took the No. 3 and the Earnhardt name back to Daytona’s winner’s circle, did it really mean all that much? After all, it was hardly an Earnhardt-esque performance that got him to Victory Lane; Dillon survived the draft rather than commanding it, running over his opponents as opposed to rattling cages and intimidating.
Unlike Earnhardt, Dillon will likely be insulated from the consequences of running roughshod the way he did purely because he’s not a factor every week. Winning the Daytona 500 by leading the last lap is not a springboard to championship form; just ask Kurt Busch. And a driver whose biggest credential prior to this 500 win was being the only driver in NASCAR history to win a series title without winning a race seems hardly fit to don the black hat and join the evil side, as his most recent commercials would suggest.
Winning the 500 in the No. 3 meant a lot to Richard Childress Racing and the extended Childress family tree, but it meant nothing to the sport as a whole. Any driver out there could have dumped the No. 10 car the way Dillon did, with or without a black (cowboy) hat.
In my five years spent off the NASCAR writing circuit, I visited more than 60 racetracks in 47 U.S. states, watching all levels of racing, from the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 to a mere 38 cars contesting six classes in a working cow pasture outside Jonesboro, Ark. What was often striking to me in attending all these races was just how disconnected from NASCAR’s premier series so many aspiring racers and race fans alike happened to be. At a sprint car race in Tulare, Calif., I spent a good 10 minutes talking to a fan about the talents of the late Bryan Clauson, only to have him exclaim, “Clauson drives NASCAR?” when mentioning his time with Chip Ganassi Racing. When exploring the Pacific Northwest and taking in a World of Outlaws race at Gray’s Harbor Raceway, I spoke to at least a dozen fans at the Labor Day event, and what all 12 had in common was having no idea who had won the Southern 500 the day before.
And perhaps most striking was what occurred when I took a weekend off last month to go back to my old college stomping grounds in North Carolina. After spending the morning in Winston-Salem, I took a drive out to the Lake Occoneechee Speedway historical trail (a must-see for race fans who haven’t been there). While out there hiking the banks of the old-time oval, there were three other hikers out there. They all passed me hiking the track, going from Turn 4 to Turn 3. From left to right.
They didn’t get it either.