Home / Amy Henderson / The Frontstretch 5: Big Changes That Seemed Like a Great Idea … Until They Weren’t
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Frontstretch 5: Big Changes That Seemed Like a Great Idea … Until They Weren’t

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.

3. Parity

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.

5. Expansion

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.

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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14 comments

  1. Avatar

    Well written article. It’s a shame that NASCAR got so greedy that it forgot that it was supposed to be about the racing. As Bill B said, so many changes that it seemed were made just for the sake of making changes. Also having NASCAR’s PR people AND the NASCAR media telling fans that if they didn’t like the way things were, they didn’t have to stick around was a terrible idea. Funny thing when you do that, people may take you up on it.

    for me, he current racing/championship format what have you simply isn’t interesting enough to make me sit down & spend several hours watching or to spend my time and $ to go to the track where at least I don’t have to listen to the dreck the broadcasting teams are spewing. I agree with the comment that the Waltrips need to go. As you pointed out for the souvenirs, having cookie cutter items to go along with the cookie cutter tracks meant that I didn’t need to buy a new hat/shirt whatever. I collected a lot of the items that I have in my closet early on and so have some more unique items.

  2. Avatar

    It is interesting to read fans want cars that look like those in the showroom; one complaint is a fan has to read the logo of a Nascar vehicle to identify the manufacturer.
    I now have to read the logo on the showroom cars to distinguish the manufacturer, as most all showroom cars, regardless of manufacturer or cost of the car, essentially look like minor variations of the same jellybean template (I blame this on federal and state fuel mileage requirements, but I could be wrong); long gone are the days when I could distinguish the manufacturer of a showroom car just by looking at the overall configuration of the car (a Ford did not look like a Chevy, which did not look like a Mercedes).

    Regardless, I am reminded of the old joke:
    Why do banjo tunes have names?
    So you can tell them apart.

    To most people, banjo tunes sound the same, similar to how today’s cars look the same.

    • Avatar

      “I now have to read the logo on the showroom cars to distinguish the manufacturer”
      Great comment! NASCAR needs to reconcile with the fact that modern society just doesn’t care nearly as much about cars we used to. When people are forgoing getting a driver’s licence, why would they even care about other people racing cars that they can’t drive.

  3. Avatar

    I for one belive the racing is great!! It’s just you don’t get to see it. If you don’t have cable or dish, your at the mercy of the network’s, hopefully showing it on broadcast TV. They came up with the gyro cam it was killer…..never used it much….now they have the helmet cam….it’s awesome!…..but hardly use it…..(they give you a sense of the speed)…I think they should show entire races from these views…..
    I remember almost the whole field being lapped, and seems it’s always been only really a hand full of cars that were usually up front. I’ve been to the rock(fell inlove with mc.ss there), wilksboro(watched my man the bandit win there) Bristol(shoke Tim Richmond’s hand there after the race(old Milwaukee), charlotte(seen petty win #198 there)…..
    Just think if they’re get back to run what ya brung, they’re be alot better off…those mile and a halfs…..if they just show the race from inside the car, you’d see there not just riding around. Idk……

  4. Avatar

    The overbuilding of 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks reminds me of all of the cookie cutter stadiums built in the 1960s and 1970s such as Atlanta Fulton County stadium, Cincinnati’s Riverfront stadium, or the Oakland Coliseum, with the idea of NFL and MLB teams sharing the venue. Unfortunately they kinda sucked for both with all of them (except Oakland) being demolished and replaced by single use stadiums with more uniqueness and personality.

  5. Avatar

    Amy, very good points all the way around.
    Now if NASCAR can find a racer to run NASCAR instead of the idiot marketing guy that ruined the sport, they might get some people back. NASCAR however is long past a point of no return.
    The newest TV deal has to be about the biggest “fraud” or salesmanship job in the history of sports. Somehow the TV execs got bamboozled into a deal that made no sense from a current at the time ratings and attendance standpoint.

    One neglected piece of one of the points regarding TV is there has been no perceived changed on how the race is presented even though ratings have declined for years which in most business models indicate a change is needed and somehow figure out what that change should be. One FOX get rid of both Waltrips, neither is needed and if a true and unbiased poll would be done guessing only a 40% approval rating, at best, for them would occur. Here again why is DW still around.
    Two, I believe this was partially mentioned stop pushing a certain agenda. While the TV partners previously likely had “favorites” it was more apt to be subtle and more reasonable as they followed the popular guys or the ones doing well but did not outright ignore others. As stated lack of professionalism in the presentation of the race.
    Three show more action and keep the side stuff for the stage breaks and cautions. Most caution periods now are fairly mundane so there is no need to beat the dead horse over things. Show some of the side stuff at this time.
    Four this is totally on NASCAR and was also broached in the article. Get back to a closer run what you brung model. The cars should fit showroom templates for the bodies.

    NASCAR has way overthought what they are doing and in doing so has failed to truly evolve.

  6. Avatar

    Excellent article and most of it is spot on. The only item I will disagree with is the short tracks versus big tracks. The track variety worked in the past. Just take a look at how the racing was at Pocono and Michigan back in the day; it was great.
    What changed is the cars. The cars can’t be raced in a pack. They can only be driven. Change the cars where we see racing again and I bet a lot of today’s troubles in the sport would suddenly be gone. Or at least heading towards a positive direction.
    I do hope it works but I am afraid the 2019 Nascar body rules won’t change anything. Slowing the cars down to 1995 speeds without having the cars race under similar rules will do nothing.

  7. Avatar

    The number and degree of the changes themselves didn’t help either. For whatever reason a person falls in love with something, there is a point at which it changes so much that the person has to question if they still love it. In the last 20 years the sport has changed so much that it no longer resembles the sport we first fell in love with. At some point a divorce is in order or, at least, increased hostility at the subconscious level.

    • Avatar

      totally agree. NASCAR had the Lataford points system for how many decades with very minor tweaks and it worked fairly well.
      The changing and major changes at that have run people off in doves. Look at what has happened in the NFL. They make changes every single year but the game itself, while now skewed to the offense, is still pretty much the same as the 80’s and 90’s.

  8. Avatar

    Excellent article, and you really hit the high points. So much of what made Nascar appealing has been lost in the ‘Big Business’ aspect…much of which we can thank BZF for. When the big money, big teams, and big meddling by Nascar happened, it took the soul away from the sport. certainly the world in general has changed, and the love affair with cars ain’t what it used to be, but the innovation and personalities that used to make life interesting just aren’t there. And, when Nascar decided that they could ditch the ‘old guard’ fans, they neglected to think that those older fans were the ones bringing their kids and grandkids to the races, giving them the love of the sport that they had, something to be shared. Lost that too.

  9. Avatar

    I must be one of the few people who liked the Fanatics Tent. I found it a much easier shopping experience. You could wonder around, easily check out merchandise and sizes and gather up your purchases without waiting for the person behind the counter. The “new” souvenir haulers are just mini-Fanatics stores without the personality of the old haulers. Though this isn’t a NASCAR only issue. Fanatics has seemingly monopolized sports merchandising over the last few years.

  10. Avatar

    When it comes to television coverage the networks have lost their mind. First off they have to somehow limit the commercial interruptions. Hard to get into a race when its constantly interrupted for commercials and the damn “race recaps” But even more troubling is the “Lets break away from live action to bring you commercials so we can show you green flag pit stops” mentality. Really? I think most viewers want to watch cars racing….not stopping for tires and gas and driving 55 mph. Imagine if Fox last night during the World Series said “Well there’s 2 outs in the 5th and the bases are loaded. It looks the Dodgers will be bringing in a relief pitcher. We’ll step away for a moment so that you can watch the new pitcher toss his warm up pitches” Yet the networks do that time and time again.

    • Avatar

      Steve, I agree with the common sense of your comment but I have to point out that because of all the aero issues and parity initiatives (resulting in all the cars running the same speed) paired with larger tracks that result in parades, the pit stops are often the only place passing takes place. No wonder we don’t want to miss them, which is a shame.

  11. Avatar

    So now I believe they are in damage control trying to bring in a younger audience to replace those who have moved on, not always voluntarily. Whether they can stop the bleeding is at this point questionable.
    If they can’t what is the plan then? I certainly don’t expect them to tell us, but I’m still curious.