1. The money
When NASCAR’s popularity hit its high point around 2000, business was booming. And like any boom time, the sport had the luxury of making a lot of changes very fast. It wasn’t unlike the California gold rush. Everyone wanted a piece of the sport and the sport was more than happy to make room for all comers. Car counts were healthy, grandstands were full and everyone was a fan.
And companies took notice. The amount a top sponsor spent to back a good team for a year nearly doubled overnight. That meant teams could add more technology, more people, more everything.
The problem is, a fad is one “e” away from a slow fade. As ratings and attendance dwindled, the price tag teams have commanded in recent years is no longer attainable.
Even the best teams and drivers are struggling to fill races. Right now, the defending championship team will shutter its doors four races from now because it couldn’t find funding. The best driver of his era, a seven-time champion, has not announced who will pay the bills next season and this year is nearly out. Teams have priced themselves out of the market.
New sponsors are priced out of the game. Even if advertising in NASCAR was still a sure thing, the price tag is simply too steep for new sponsors to take the plunge.
In turn, that means multiple sponsors for most teams. With that, fans are unlikely to spend money on merchandise for each sponsor. They may choose the product or the paint scheme they like best, and if that leaves a sponsor out of the sales, it’s just one more reason not to stay in the game. Add in that very few cars in a race get meaningful TV time, and what reason does a business have to use NASCAR as a platform anymore? Sure, the big money was nice, but it was never going to be a sustainable model.
2. The TV deal
As NASCAR’s popularity grew, there was increasing demand for a television deal that would put the sport on a major network instead of the mish-mash of channels that rotated through the season. Remember TNN and TBS carrying races? Fans had to search a little to find the races, and as the sport grew, the bigger networks were more than happy to fork out a lot of money to rectify that situation.
The downside? With all that money, the networks felt like they had to do things differently. They demanded a level of exclusivity that angered fans who suddenly couldn’t get highlights on their favorite racing news programs during the week.
They also added a lot of high-tech graphics and cameras and instead of the stationary and wide-angle shots fans had been given, there were tight shots that could follow a single car lap after lap after lap after lap.
Once upon a time, even teams running at the back would get a little TV time during a race. The broadcasts made a point of covering the entire field to some degree in a race, varying with how they were running, as was responsible journalism. Now, a whole race can go by with no mention of multiple drivers.
When TV brought them all to fans, the fans embraced them all. It wasn’t unusual to go to the track and see a t-shirt, hat or at least a sticker on a car for every driver in the race. From Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace to Rich Bickle, all of them had fans who proudly displayed their loyalty. You don’t see that anymore, and that’s too bad. It was a lot of fun to strike up a conversation with fans and have so many names come up. Now you wonder if the average fan could even name half the field because they never see them.
The car wars of the late 1990s caused some harm to the sport. Until then, all models had to fit the same body templates as the stock versions. That changed in 1996 or ’97, and the result was rules changes on what seemed like a near-weekly basis as manufacturers protested any perceived advantage the competition might have. Cars not having to fit stock templates resulted in grotesquely skewed bodies in the name of speed and an overall lack of brand identity, which resulted in manufacturers bowing out, though to be fair, the economy didn’t help.
But NASCAR’s ever-increasing tightening of the rules wasn’t the right way to address the situation either. Teams no longer have any options as NASCAR mandated gear ratios and suspensions in addition to going to a more common body template.
What should have happened? NASCAR should have simply told manufacturers that what they brought to the table for approval at the beginning of the year was what they would run that year, putting the onus back on them to bring the best car to the table and then letting the teams take it from there and find speed by choosing gear and suspension combinations.
Yes, that meant that sometimes a team would dominate. It also meant the others had a chance to catch up. Small teams now have little chance of growing into big ones because they aren’t allowed mechanical innovation and they can’t afford the equipment it takes to make a car faster than they’ll ever be before it even leaves the shop floor.
The way NASCAR has sought parity for a generation now only increases the advantage of the big teams and throttles any innovation from the small ones. It has also had the side effect of the top cars all running nearly the same speeds and that, coupled with modern aerodynamics (these cars are not shaped like they were 30 years ago), make passing at a premium.
There was more parity in the sport, or at least the illusion thereof, in the late 1990s because the difference between a top team’s sponsor income and a mid-pack team’s sponsor income was less pronounced. Watching a race, fans could at least watch their favorite driver and think, hey, if the stars align, it could happen. There is no such illusion today. Parity comes from how much money teams have and how they choose to spend it, not from them all having the same pieces and parts but not the same ways to prepare them.
4. The merchandise deals
Before NASCAR wheeled and dealt its way into lucrative merchandising deals with apparel and souvenir companies, fans could peruse the team haulers and not only decide which drivers they wanted to support but also which t-shirts they wanted to wear and who had what items on display. Then the deals came down and suddenly, other than the driver’s name and the colors, most of the merchandise was all alike.
If a fan liked a couple of drivers but didn’t like Matt Kenseth’s t-shirt offerings? They weren’t going to like Jeff Gordon’s or Tony Stewart’s either, because they were all the same.
Ditto on everything else. Nothing stood out. Couple that with increasing sponsor demands for drivers (time that used to be devoted to fans) and the result of few drivers available at the merchandise haulers on race weekends anymore, now prowling the seemingly endless rows of trailers wasn’t the experience it used to be. It became impossible to find any souvenirs at all for the smaller teams and then you stopped seeing all those different t-shirts and stickers for every driver. It for sure all ties in.
The switch to the tent brought back more merchandise for the smaller teams but it was painfully apparent that little attention had been given to designing it, and it was all exactly the same. We’re back to haulers again now, but the overall experience will never be the same.
When something gets popular, everyone wants to be part of it. That’s how things grow, of course. But when NASCAR grew exponentially in a relatively short timespan, a lot of people forgot that supply and demand change over time, and along with that, what goes up inevitably comes down. When the fans jumped off the bandwagon (and everyone who expected differently was in denial from the start), the sport was left with some things it’s still trying to reconcile.
The tracks that came into the sport since about 1990 were designed to do two things: host multiple types of racing and hold a boatload of people. That meant bigger tracks in bigger markets. For the track owners, it made sense. If they could host open-wheel series in addition to stock cars, it opened up more opportunity to make money. Fair enough.
The problem was that when the newness of both the tracks and the NASCAR fad wore off, it was painfully obvious that these tracks don’t offer the type of racing that would keep fans wanting more.
The short tracks that built NASCAR were scrapped for the mile-and-a-half cookie cutters where aerodynamics will always trump driving style. Laying a bumper at Texas or Las Vegas does not have the same effect as laying a bumper at North Wilkesboro. Rubbing was no longer racing in the way fans had expected it for decades.
Small markets gave way to major ones, and again, that was all well and good when the stands were full with a waiting list no matter where the circuit went. The bigger tracks just built more seats to accommodate fans. Charlotte Motor Speedway ballooned to about 180,000 seats. Supply kept up with demand until demand couldn’t touch the supply.
A decent crowd of 75,000 fans doesn’t look like a lot when the track seats more than twice that. To advertisers and potential fans, that doesn’t look good. People are motivated by what’s popular, whether we like it or not. If NASCAR doesn’t look popular, it’s hard to get new fans to buy in. Perhaps that’s why complaining about it seems to be the new way to brag about how much you know about the sport while not seeming uncool for still liking NASCAR.
Bottom line: NASCAR and the track owners should have left fans wanting more and never satiated. Instead, they gave them an all-you-can-eat buffet on all counts and left them overindulged and feeling a bit ill.