1. Are drivers passionate enough?
It’s not that any driver, at any level, doesn’t want to win. Any competitor who makes it to the top level of any sport is hungry to win, to be among the best. So it’s not that any driver lacks desire. But it’s hard to deny that there’s something missing among the drivers at the sport’s highest levels. What happened between the time they first entered the sport, full of ambition and hunger?
Perhaps they reach a point where risk outweighs reward. They get older, have families. They’re not racing from paycheck to paycheck any more. Sponsors want them to act a certain way, and if you’re getting paid to act a certain way, that’s how you act.
It’s not about wrecking other drivers to win, or about racing hard when the race is on the line; they all do that.
But something is missing. Even drivers that come up as blue-collar seem to lose that when they hit the top. That wasn’t always the case. Perhaps the last of the blue-collar drivers, Dale Earnhardt, was hardly blue-collar by the time of his death, yet he was still recognized as such.
Today’s drivers too often lack that quality, and that makes them seem unapproachable. It’s hard to put a finger on, and maybe passion is the wrong word for what’s missing. But there are times when it seems like “something” is no longer there.
2. Is NASCAR passionate enough?
As much as passion might be the wrong word for what’s missing among drivers, it might be exactly the right word here. NASCAR has always been a dictatorship, and it’s always made changes accordingly. But it’s really hard to look at the sport’s history and say Big Bill France and Bill Jr. didn’t genuinely love the sport they ruled with an iron fist.
While Brian France may be proud of his family’s legacy, it feels different now. NASCAR has made so many changes, and it doesn’t seem as though they were ever made for fans but rather for corporate sponsors and their whims.
At the end of the day, it feels like the sanctioning body doesn’t deeply love the sport it’s charged with keeping. Somewhere in the shuffle, the joy of watching cars go around in circles seems to have been lost, and because of that, the understanding of the fans’ love for it has been forgotten as well, abandoned for… well, for what?
3. Do people watch for the wrecks? Seriously, do they?
I know people vehemently deny it. And maybe they don’t watch for the crashes, specifically. But with fans calling for more exciting racing, at some points, it seems like crashes are all that’s left. A race can have side-by-side racing throughout the field all day, be authentic in terms of not having questionable debris cautions and have two or more drivers in contention in the closing laps. Yet it’s still labeled “boring” if the two don’t bounce off each other half a dozen times coming to the checkers. They’re accused of not trying hard enough if they are unwilling to turn the other for the trophy.
On one hand, fans want authentic, unmanipulated races, but when one happens, with long green-flag runs, they don’t want that any more. I don’t care what era of the sport you’re talking about, there have been plenty of races in the last 70 years where nobody could catch or pass the leader. That’s not a new thing. There have been races where the leader finished on his own lap. But if those long green runs are too boring and nobody wants NASCAR to manipulate races with stage cautions or debris cautions, what’s left?
Do fans root for an engine failure to bring out the yellow? For a fuel mileage race to spice up the drama? No, of course not. Except…there’s nothing left except wrecks to break up those green-flag runs. And at some tracks, the wrecks are all but inevitable, and they’re some of the most popular races. So while nobody wants to see anyone get hurt, do most fans watch a race and really hope it goes green all the way?
4. How much of a good thing is too much?
There’s an old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Another one claims that less is more.
And maybe they’re right. It’s not the races that are too long. Any real fan in the stands will tell you the events are never long enough, as that old familiar pang hits while the laps wind down and you realize it’s almost over. But the season is getting there. Before the boom when NASCAR and the tracks got greedy, the season was in the 30-race range, and slowly expanded to 32, 34, 36. We lapped it up at the time. It was racing, and racing was good.
But even for fans, 36 races is a grind. Cut five races and the season would end in early October, long before the NFL playoffs are on the radar and even before the World Series. Teams, drivers and fans need time to recharge and prepare for the season.
And there’s another way in which a good thing has perhaps become too much. While social media gives fans a way to interact with people in the sport, including the drivers, it becomes a 24/7 thing. There are no surprises and fans know every announcement before it’s made these days.
There was a time when fans eagerly awaited the annual media tour because it was as if the sport was awakening from its winter’s rest. There was news, real news of driver changes and sponsors. There were racecars, some with new looks. Racing was back and all was once again well. When the cars took to the track for January Daytona testing it was like rain after a long drought. It’s a little like finding out what you’re getting for Christmas while the other kids get to be surprised. When you have instant gratification, you no longer have surprises and lose a lot of excitement.
5. What made the “old days” better? No, really?
Sometimes there were better races. Sometimes there were not. There were unmanipulated races and full-season championship battles, sometimes close, sometimes not. What there was, though, was days not one among us can ever get back. Those halcyon summers when everything, not just the racing, was ripe for the picking, mark everyone’s life at some point. In our innocence, we believed, or wanted to, that everything would always be as it once was. Change hurt, especially change that wasn’t really for any reason other than change. Progress. Nobody can stop that change. Cars are different now than they were decades ago, and so is the way they’re seen in our culture.
In a day and time when getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage, people loved cars on a different level. Now they’re largely seen as utilitarian, sometimes as a status symbol, but not as the object of dreams and fantasies. Teens don’t save up from the time they’re 13 or 14 for a clunker they can fix up, but there was a time when doing so was a source of pride. Cars in general are no longer beautiful, no longer special. They just… are.
Add that to the lost youth we’re all secretly searching for, the friends we once spent race days with, at home or at the track, drinking a cold one and voicing dreams of road trips and garage passes and other wonderful things.
It’s not just the racing that’s changed. It’s us, too. And that’s why there’s no quick fix.
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