1. The elephant in the room
The fact that looms over NASCAR these days is the decline in both ratings and race attendance; it simply can’t be ignored, explained away, or overlooked. There are pieces that can’t be fixed, like the steady erosion of American car culture. That’s outside any realm of control for any motorsport. It just is. And all the tea in China can’t bring it back.
It isn’t really just NASCAR; it’s all sports. A race or a game lasts for three-plus hours, which is the perfect stretch for the purists. But to a generation who communicates in 10-second text messages and 300-character social media posts, anything that lasts longer than maybe half an hour is too much.
So NASCAR (and other sports as well) are in the middle of a catch-22. The longtime fans hate the gimmicks and the micromanaging. But without them, can they attract new, young fans who will stick around? It’s a problem Major League Baseball in particular is also struggling with. How do you keep your most loyal fans happy and at the same time bring in new ones who think the current offering isn’t instant gratification enough?
So the question becomes, if NASCAR dropped the stages and the playoffs and everything else tomorrow and returned to the rules from 20 years ago, would it bring fans back in any significant number? Would it even stop the bleeding? Maybe, because the best way to bring new fans to any sport is for an older person they look up to to introduce them and show them how it works. That person will teach them to love the sport and its intricacies. But the sport would have to count on older fans coming back in droves and bringing in the next generation. Is it simply too late for that to happen? Hopefully not.
But the point of no return is awfully close.
2. The buy-a-ride trend
I’m sure it’s always been a thing, but it seems like more and more drivers are getting seats — sometimes good ones — because they bring sponsorship dollars. It works out sometimes. Paul Menard is never going to set the world on fire, but he’s solid enough to keep his ride.
Other times, though, the choice just seems wrong.
There are a couple of levels of this problem: (1) a good driver has the right connections and lands a ride, sometimes out from under another, and (2) drivers who have no real business in a given series but bring enough dollars for the team to overlook it. Neither really sits right.
It’s one thing for Menard or Brendan Gaughan to land rides that either had an empty seat or created an extra team in an organization. The other end of that are those who have a ride bought for them as a seat to fill. Clint Bowyer, when he ran at HScott Motorsports for a year waiting for his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing to open up is one such example. Perhaps Ty Dillon is a second if he moves to the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing next year. Those moves just don’t feel right. Each car had capable drivers under contract already. Tossing them to the side for a year or two of cash? Teams need the money, sure, but that doesn’t make their choice go down smoothly.
Finally, there’s a handful of drivers who will not, or do not, have rides because someone else brought the money and landed the seat. In some cases, that driver doesn’t have the same amount of talent or experience but will have a ride over a better driver who sits on the sidelines. It seems rampant across multiple series, and it’s probably not doing the quality of the racing any favors.
3. And the lack of solid sponsors…
Part of the above trend is a shift in what sponsors are willing to do. It’s not as much about winning as it used to be. Many companies don’t use the drivers to directly sell their products anymore, so their credentials as drivers aren’t as important as they once were.
Sponsor searches used to consist largely of team owners pitching a driver they believed in to a sponsor. They struck a deal to fund that driver based on the performance the team believed the driver could produce. Rick Hendrick could bring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson to a company, promise results (which bring TV time for the car) and base the deal on that.
Now, the team has only had a couple of companies go deep enough in the process to offer hope for a deal. Johnson is the winningest driver in the Cup series right now, with 84 to his name. If he can’t find backing, what about the rest of the field?
4. …which is largely because of the ridiculous cost
In the late 1990s, when the sport was booming, the price tag to sponsor a top team quickly became massive. But sponsors still kept coming, because there was enough return on investment to make the outlay worth it.
Now, that’s not the case, but the big teams still don’t really feel a need to bring costs into line. NASCAR isn’t doing much to encourage that, either. The sanctioning body makes small cuts but nothing to bring spending down significantly. The sport switched to automated inspection and officiating to save money in recent years. However, the move inadvertently drove costs up for teams as they scrambled to build optical scanners of their own. The big teams have them, but all that keeping up with the Joneses just drives the need for even more sponsor dollars.
It wasn’t that long ago when a team could be competitive for $10 million a year, a figure sponsors could afford. Now, it’s more than doubled, and that makes companies who might be in at $10 million walk away. A smaller team that might be able to operate on that and be happy to do so doesn’t provide the exposure the company needs (which is partly the fault of the TV broadcast). And so it goes. Teams priced themselves out of the sponsor market, but nobody can afford to take a step back.
5. No place for new teams and underdogs
The result of all that is the sport is more competitive than ever in terms of big, competitive teams. But there’s also no room for new or underfunded programs. Instead of rooting for the underdogs as many once did, many fans simply look at teams struggling to gain a foothold with disdain and contempt.
That’s a shame as new teams being able to enter and grow were once a hallmark of the sport. Hendrick Motorsports was one race away from shutting the doors in 1984 when a win kept it afloat a while longer. Because of that, the team built an empire of more than 200 wins and 12 Cup titles. That kind of transition doesn’t happen anymore, and it isn’t good for the sport.
Oh, it almost happened. Furniture Row Racing went from missing races with regularity, sometimes due to mistakes experienced crews would not have made, to winning a Cup title in a little over a decade. That’s the sport’s version of the American Dream right there… except we all woke up. FRR is shuttering their race shop after this year, despite the fact that Martin Truex Jr. is still very much in the hunt for a second consecutive title.
Why? A jump in the cost of staying in the alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing that makes the team competitive and the loss of a sponsor. The math just didn’t add up.
Startup teams? Forget it. Most don’t have a chance to gain the foothold they need to get bigger sponsors and more money to move to the next level, and then the next. Underfunded teams in today’s NASCAR appear destined to stay underfunded. They either do the best they can in what they have or they fade away quietly.
Car counts are down. Having fewer teams that are capable of racing for top finishes and wins is not worse than having a lot of teams but only a couple who can reasonably contend. However, is it really that much better? Again, the point of no return is at hand.
In many ways, the sport is at a now-or-never kind of crossroads, and the options are limited. It’s easy to blame the racing, but that’s far from the whole story. There’s a lot at play here, and NASCAR can’t afford to lose.
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