The hotel I’m staying at for NASCAR’s Daytona Speedweeks, site of the sport’s 2019 Daytona 500 next Sunday, is just like the rest of the development called “OneDaytona.” It’s the perfect architectural complement across the street from NASCAR’s “Daytona Rising” grandstand: clean, modern, and above all commercial (name another racetrack anywhere in America with a P.F. Chang’s across the street).
Finishing the workday at 5 p.m. Friday night, February 8th I hopped in the car and left OneDaytona. I took more than two hours to make an 80-minute drive through the Ocala National Forest, thanks to a line of traffic more than half-a-mile long. It was traffic I expect to see at Daytona next Sunday, rerouted in a different place: trying to park at tiny Volusia Raceway Park in De Leon Springs. I finally arrived at my own destination, Bubba Raceway Park, parking on an embankment on the side of County Road 25A. After all, I had been at Volusia the night before, cheering side-by-side racing along with a packed house squeezed in inches from each other in the grandstands.
There was nothing clean or modern about Bubba, even though as with any healthy racetrack there were enough sponsor banners to make it commercial. The track’s grandstands were caked in as much dirt as the racing surface. The PA system loudspeakers were only functional in turn 4. Chunks of dirt pelted those of us that braved the grandstands toward turn 1 every time a car took the corner. And just like at Volusia the night before, the field, headlined by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, put on a show worth watching.
It’s a tale of two Speedweeks, a perfect representation of the challenge facing NASCAR entering 2019.
One of the last articles I read slurping down coffee Thursday morning before making the 13-hour trek south from Virginia to Florida got the full-page treatment in the local Winchester Star. The AP’s Jenna Fryer spoke of the transition NASCAR’s top series finds itself entering, one where the “biggest stars have all moved on.” Without them, there’s “no clear superstar to fill empty seats and shape the next generation.” Perhaps no better example of this phenomenon came two weeks earlier: Jeff Gordon is now a Hall of Famer. Sure, he’s been retired and in the broadcast booth for awhile now, but Wonder Boy is now a museum exhibit. So is the era his time ushered in.
After all, it was Gordon who was the face of arguably NASCAR’s most successful period in professional sports, a stretch of over a decade that saw the sport of the South elevate from regional curiosity to global brand, at one time the fastest-growing sport in America. It was Gordon who perfected this rise unlike any driver before him, paired with a squeaky-clean corporate persona off the track. His driver development was on the job; it was Gordon and Hendrick that changed the paradigm by putting talent behind the wheel at the top of the ladder, tearing up equipment to learn the ropes. It was Gordon who led the charge of stock car racing and its brash fans onto the hallowed asphalt of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 long before the venue was tarnished by stock car racing’s own Tiregate (eat your heart out, Formula One).
Yet, it was also Gordon who was impacted as much as any other by NASCAR’s transition into the Chase era, losing out on what likely would have been multiple Cup championships under the traditional points system while teammate Jimmie Johnson ran into the history books. Now, as Gordon’s tremendous accomplishments are now exhibits on display for posterity, the era that he ushered in may as well be another hall in the Hall of Fame.
Fryer’s article went further to cite Kyle Larson as the potential suitor to lead NASCAR into an uncertain future. She claims Larson is a talented prospect “considered by many to be the best hope between grassroots racing and NASCAR… and perhaps attract new fans to motorsports in a time of need.” This passage is why Fryer’s article stuck with me as much as it did. For if there’s one thing NASCAR needs right now, it’s just that… a bridge back to the rest of stock car racing.
The “Jeff Gordon era,” as previously described, achieved astronomic growth by bringing in droves of new fans that had never been around stock car racing. Much like Wayne Gretzky was said to have inspired droves of Californians who had never watched a hockey game to buy Kings tickets upon his signing, NASCAR looped millions of Americans into attending races from New Hampshire to, well, Los Angeles.
In frenzied pursuit, NASCAR moved races at will away from its traditional fanbase, shuttering legendary speedways in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro while moving the Southern 500 from Dixie to the west coast. NASCAR left their base behind to pursue swing votes, and they paid for it when the swing voters started staying home. Why? The jury’s still out. Whether it was because of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the Car of Tomorrow or because the attention span of the average American is now as long as Tanner Berryhill’s quest for Cup Rookie of the Year, theories run the gambit.
But everyone knows the heart of this story… NASCAR lost its roots, perspective, whatever you want to call it. I wrote last year how when visiting Gray’s Harbor Speedway in Washington a few years ago, the dozen or so fans I talked to that night unanimously couldn’t tell me who had won the Southern 500 the day before. The disconnect between NASCAR and the rest of the racing world is very real, and it must disappear.
NASCAR has to build bridges back to the rest of stock car racing… because there are no other fans out there to court. The reality is motorsport is perhaps more dependent on sponsor dollars than any other athletic competition in the world. And, as evidenced by dwindling car counts across the country, that financial support is drying up. NASCAR’s survival hinges on getting its base, race fans, to rally around the [checkered] flag.
Building this bridge is easier said than done, and it’s not clear that NASCAR has it in them to pursue it. Consider the dichotomy I cited earlier, comparing the experience of Speedweeks dirt tracking to the renovated big track on Daytona’s Speedway Boulevard. Daytona Rising is a truly beautiful stadium and a fantastic place to watch a race. There’s little room for criticism; it’s a home run accomplishment. But that doesn’t change the fact there will likely be as many fans in the stands for today’s ARCA race as there were in line for over an hour in traffic on State Highway 40 trying to get into Volusia Speedway Park for the Winternationals.
The bells and whistles are nice, but they alone don’t sell seats. There’s a difference between being jam-packed like sardines into a grandstand inches from the track (Volusia) to having entire grandstand sections to yourself (Daytona). Bigger isn’t always better.
Speaking of dichotomies, my Thursday night at Volusia allowed me to see Kasey Kahne, Stewart, Christopher Bell and Larson all race the sprint car feature. Let’s take stock of these four drivers. Stewart and Kahne, proven race winners at the Cup level, were back in a sprint car within months of retiring from NASCAR. Bell and Larson, two of the brightest stars NASCAR has to offer, seem to race the big leagues to pay for their dirt hobby. The two tear up dirt ovals across the U.S. with a freedom that was all but unheard of for power NASCAR team drivers a decade ago. It says something that the stars of NASCAR are using the big leagues as a paycheck to have fun….
Then, there’s the most overlooked part of the gaping chasm between NASCAR and the rest of the stock car world: the schedule. Relief on this front may be coming as soon as 2020, with sources telling Frontstretch the schedule is on the verge of a major overhaul. No idea is off the cutting room floor.
Unfortunately, 2019 scheduling is a fact, not a rumor, and it doesn’t bode well. For one, 2019 marks the second consecutive season of the Clash being run on Sunday, leaving the ARCA race as a standalone Saturday event. Judging from the grandstands last year, that move didn’t do either one any favors while depriving ARCA of a larger audience for its biggest race.
Looking at NASCAR’s K&N East schedule for this year is more telling; it’s a consolidation of more events into an ever-shrinking portfolio of venues. Look at the racetracks: two visits to Bristol, two visits to Loudon, races at Iowa and Gateway. Out of a 13-race slate, eight of those races are on big league tracks that host the Trucks, Xfinity and/or Cup Series.
This consolidation could be a byproduct of smaller tracks not wanting to host the series. It’s hard to sanction events that barely averaged 20 cars a race (that average goes under 20 if the two joint races with the West Series are subtracted).
But it’s also endemic of the biggest problem NASCAR has with its current driver crop. NASCAR driver development has become its own defined career path, a self-contained curriculum rather than a pinnacle to be reached by the best stock car racing as a whole has to offer. Races hosted in conjunction with the NASCAR big leagues draw more cars because, inevitably, drivers working up the [NASCAR] ladder only have to be good at those tracks.
NASCAR’s newest property, the ARCA Racing Series, bears this out. Looking at last year’s crop of full-time drivers, 2018 ARCA champion Sheldon Creed earned a well-deserved promotion to the Truck Series. Winning a series title on the back of four wins and 18 top 10s in 20 starts will do that. But look at the spate of additional promotions coming out of ARCA’s 2018 roster. Gus Dean will run trucks full-time, Riley Herbst will be spending as much time in the Xfinity Series as the ARCA ranks, and Natalie Decker will split her time between Trucks and ARCA competition.
Gus Dean, Riley Herbst, Natalie Decker. Between the three of them, there’s nearly five full seasons of ARCA experience that total to two wins, four poles, and not even a whiff of a series championship. Yet they’re all moving up the ladder the same as the guy that won the ARCA Racing Series as a rookie. Sure, sponsor dollars play a role in that, but look at results!
These three drivers did their best work on the same limited tracks NASCAR’s big leagues contest. Gus Dean has shown strength as a superspeedway racer, winning at Talladega and putting on the performance of the race at Daytona last year, wheeling a wounded car as high as fourth in the closing laps before falling victim to ARCA’s 2018 overtime massacre. Herbst is a Pocono race winner that scored eight top-five finishes in 2018… and seven of them came on the same tracks NASCAR’s big leagues run. Not to mention that Herbst scored top-10 finishes in both his Xfinity and Truck debuts last year. And as for Decker, she might as well have 2018 Daytona Polesitter tattooed on her forehead, because it was mentioned at every single ARCA race that followed in 2018. Daytona poles matter!
NASCAR’s top ranks remain the most recognizable form of stock car racing and among the top forms of motorsports, period, in the world. But the swaths of empty grandstands (that aren’t being demolished) speak to their diminished stature in the sporting world at large. And while the crowds at a Cup race will still put those at pretty much any dirt track to shame in terms of numbers? In terms of density, intensity and experience, there’s a gaping chasm NASCAR must bridge. Finding a means to get back to basics, to generate excitement and to draw the best talent for more than a paycheck to have fun somewhere else is paramount for NASCAR 2020.
As I returned to my hotel from Bubba Raceway Park early Saturday morning, I saw a banner advertising the OneDaytona development hanging on a fence. At the bottom, it read “One Destination.”
Easier said than found for NASCAR.