Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where did all the NASCAR fans go?

If you’ve followed NASCAR for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed a disturbing trend. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. Interest is down. Not ten years ago, NASCAR was the hottest sport in the world. Track promoters couldn’t build enough seats. What is happening here?

First of all, I realize that everyone has their opinion. Everyone is qualified to give it. I have nothing particularly unique to offer. I’m just an avid fan, who hasn’t missed but a handful of NASCAR Sprint Cup races on television over the past 25 years, I used to work professionally as a NASCAR track promoter, and most importantly, I have my own blog.

The stock answer that everyone seems to give on this subject is that tracks overbuilt seats in the late 1990s when NASCAR was riding a high wave, and now the depressed economy means people can’t afford to fill those seats. That’s probably true. Lots of people are out of work, and it is very expensive to travel to a race, stay in a hotel, and buy $100 tickets.

But why, then, are TV ratings also down? I have to believe that many of the people who can’t afford to attend as many races still have access to televisions and cable boxes, and could easily sit down and watch a race in their living room with no extra financial burden.

Well, I think there are several reasons. And we’ll start with one that I am somewhat qualified to address: local involvement. When racing was going gangbusters, local short tracks also benefitted. Televised races rarely competed with the local tracks, and usually they bolstered it. Then they started putting televised racing on Friday and Saturday nights, and these short tracks felt the pinch.

And you may be saying, “But if people were watching televised races, doesn’t that blow your theory?” And I’d say yes, for a very short time. Unfortunately, just watching races on TV isn’t enough. Real race fans stay more interested in the sport as a whole when they are completely submerged in it, and those weekend jaunts to the local short track were all part of keeping that racing addiction healthy. Get people away from the track, and all of the sudden racing isn’t a way of life anymore, it’s just a TV show that people can live without.

And along those same lines, NASCAR’s desire to grow the Camping World Truck Series into another Sprint Cup is also a factor in my opinion. When NASCAR was at its peak, truck races were held on short tracks in front of cram-packed grandstands. Last week I watched one of these races at Las Vegas motor Speedway, and those monstrous grandstands filled to what looked like about ten-percent capacity just looked pathetic. What a way to drain the excitement level from that series. Before, the trucks were like the local connection to the NASCAR big leagues; now, they just seem like an unpopular-looking step sister in the big leagues.

Now, let’s take a look at the cars they race in the Sprint Cup Series. First off, I’m not going to rip them because they aren’t a “stock” car under the body. There’s no way any off-the-shelf car is going to work in this series. They can’t run fast enough, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be safe enough. This isn’t some amateur group of weekend warriors that schleps around a tight road course every week. The drivers need to be able to survive a 200-mph hit at Talladega. And NASCAR needs to be able to regulate what shows up. I get it—these are custom-built race cars, and they’ll never just go back to being stock again. Besides, these cars are some of the last pure muscle cars still in existence. Big pushrod V8’s fed by a honkin’ carburetor and twisting the rear axles is something that should be irresistible to most car fanatics.

That being said, the cars are unappealing. In their effort to put safety above all else, NASCAR forgot that some people watch these events because they’re car people. These current cars are tall, narrow, and, for lack of a better term, stupid looking. The very thought that one make of car can fit in the same template as another make of car is just ridiculous. Why couldn’t they design these around OEM specifications? They could even use some stock sheet metal. But instead, they have cars that are custom fabricated by these teams that could just was well be fitted with molded plastic or pressed steel bodies from the same jig.

And the whole thing about no tolerance and huge penalties when something is a fraction of an inch off is another killer. When these guys put as much work into hand-building these cars as they do, they should be allowed to come up with an advantage here and there. That’s what the entire sport was built on. And to expand that further, manufacturers should be allowed to design features and advantages into their respective models. If someone else can’t keep up, it’s up to them to go back to the drawing board. The burden shouldn’t be completely on NASCAR, the people getting their butts kicked should have to step it up.  Otherwise, what is the point of having different teams and manufacturers?  Aren't people supposed to come up with competitive advantages in a competition?

Speaking of manufacturers, here’s a problem that most people would never bring up in public—Toyota. Now I know; hundreds of thousands of people in this country have no qualms about driving Toyotas, rooting for Toyotas, or wearing T-shirts with Toyotas on the back. But by-in-large, those aren’t the people that helped build NASCAR, and those aren’t the people that left the sport never to return again.

Sure, Toyota is a Japanese company that built some manufacturing plants in the U.S. because it was financially advantageous for them to do so. And yes, they do build some of their cars here, and they do employ some Americans. But that is of little consolation to people who are losing their jobs as American companies downsize, outsource, and reprioritize just to stay in business. The same companies that converted their factories to build Allied war materiel during World War II to fight the Japanese are now being reduced to hollowed-out shells of their former selves because the people that they worked to protect are not supporting them. To some people, rooting for a Toyota would be like rooting for a big Japanese flag. I’m sure some people will vehemently argue with me on this, but there is no denying that Toyota’s presence in NASCAR is offensive to some people. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.

The current crop of drivers leaves something to be desired when it comes to fan appeal. Kyle Busch is just poison to NASCAR. He wins all the time, and he is a complete dolt during his interviews. In all my years of watching races, I’ve never seen a guy show so little respect for the fans. He’s a good driver, but good grief he is a bad representative for the sport.

It seems like NASCAR is less of a destination for talent these days, and more of a plaything for the rich. There are guys on short tracks all over the country that could do very well in NASCAR who will never get a chance, while guys like Kevin Conway and Paul Menard buy their ways into top rides. We may never see an independent team break through to compete for a Nationwide Series championship again. And once a driver hits about 35, he’s likely to find his way into a back marker car or out of a ride altogether while a kid with little experience but a lot of marketing potential moves into the premiere seat. Even the big teams had to start at the bottom at one point, but you just don’t get that feeling of if you work harder, you can still slay the giant. It’s sort of the end of the American dream.

People don’t seem to appreciate the Chase. I don’t completely understand this problem, because I kind of like most of it. It does close the gap, and make things a little tighter and more competitive during the last ten races. I’m not crazy about the rule that showed up this year that said the guy who goes into the Chase as the leader can lose the lead when the Chase starts because someone behind him had more wins, which is what happened to Kevin Harvick. And I guess some people just think the whole thing is too contrived and artificial, and they should just run for a straight-up points championship. And while I’m not totally in agreement with everyone on this, I can still see that it’s an issue that has driven away many fans.

Will NASCAR ever realize its former glory? At the rate we’re going now, I’d be surprised. As fans decrease, sponsorship dollars decrease. As sponsorship dollars decrease, marketing budgets decrease. As marketing budgets decrease, more fans decrease. And so it goes.

But in the midst of all this, one thing still holds true—if you can get past the cars, past the personalities, past the mumbo-jumbo, there are still a bunch of very competitive people who are fighting tooth-and-nail for every advantage they can get, both on and off the track. And they put it all right out there in front of us to watch, analyze, and enjoy. NASCAR racing still provides a spellbinding combination of gritty action, fierce competition, and human drama. Sometimes, you just have to look a little closer to find it.

1 comment:

  1. Great read man. I am one of those fans that was into nascar before it was the cool thing to be a fan of. I have been to Talladega, Bristol, and here at our local track in Kasas. Nascar got to comercialized for me. I was a huge Rusty Wallace fan as a kid and he was in a Pontiac then when he left I was a diehard :) Earnhardt fan. A lot of the reasons you think lost peoples intrest are true.