Pretty much everyone who follows NASCAR knows the sport has suffered a decline in popularity over the past few years. TV ratings have dipped, races no longer sell out and sponsorship dollars have shrunk.
Everybody and their brother has offered analysis and cures, and some are on target. The prolonged recession we’re experiencing is certainly a factor, for instance. NASCAR has managed to perk up the racing some with changes such as double-file restarts and shorter races, and by pulling races from less-than-exciting tracks.
The decline continues, however, and I think most of the analysis and remedies offered by fans, pundits, drivers, NASCAR, etc., miss the big picture. In NASCAR’s decline, I think we’re seeing the long-term results of four deep-seated, structural problems that have saddled the sport for a long time.
1) It’s Not Stock Car Racing
I began following the sport in earnest back in the mid-1990s. I still remember when I first realized the headlights and grills on the cars were just stickers. I was embarassed I hadn’t noticed before, but I also felt mildly turned off.
I quickly realized those cars had very little in common with the cars us citizens can purchase for ourselves. And it’s clear that with its current car, the COT, NASCAR has ended any attempt to maintain a connection between stock cars and its race cars. Forget the stickers. The frames, drivetrains, the bodies—none of it remotely relates to the Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas available to us common folk.
Also, NASCAR runs its Sprint Cup Series races only on bone-dry asphalt or concrete tracks. In contrast, most of the rest of us Americans frequently must drive on wet roads, not to mention snowy and icy roads.
Finally, of the 36 races comprising each Sprint Cup season, only two races occur on tracks that require drivers to turn both left and right. It runs four events at Daytona and Talladega with a restrictor-plate package that produces a strange, mutated type of racing. It runs no events on city streets, highways, gravel or dirt roads, etc.
Why does any of this matter? Because if NASCAR doesn’t actually offer stock car racing any longer, it loses its primary appeal to fans. Open-wheel racing’s main draw is the cars, which are technological marvels at the pinnacle of automotive engineering. Fans of Top Fuel drag racing are drawn to the absolutely violent, raw power produced by the dragsters.
In contrast, true stock car racing allows fans to relate to the cars and the driving experience. And unfortunately, NASCAR’s current offering does not.
Imagine how fun it would be if Sprint Cup racing featured real Camaros, Mustangs and Challengers bumping and banging on the streets of Long Beach. How cool would it be to see real F150s, Silverados, Rams and Tundras running in the Truck Series?
2) The Advertisers Are Running Amok
We Americans are bombarded by advertising and marketing in pretty much every aspect of our lives. TV, radio, online, print media–all of it’s full of highly sophisticated material designed to make you want to buy something. Corporate logos are everywhere; on our cars, our computers, even our clothes.
The NASCAR world takes it to an obscene level. Of course, the cars and driver firesuits have long been covered with ads. For some time now, drivers have made a point to insert advertiser plugs into their comments whenever possible, and in recent years they’ve gotten adept at on-camera product placements, too (no, Jeff Gordon doesn’t really like Pepsi that much).
The TV networks covering NASCAR events have clearly decided their immediate profit margins are much more important than even just pretending to maintain journalistic integrity. Thus, Larry McReynolds makes sure he says “Sunoco race fuel” every single time when a simple “fuel” or “gas” would suffice (how much does he get paid for that?). And the broadcasters refrain from discussing certain negative topics too much. After all, talking too much about all the empty seats in the stands during the 2011 Chase races might cause some viewers to think, “Huh, if all those people decided this race wasn’t worth their time, maybe it’s not worth mine.” Fewer viewers means fewer advertising dollars for the networks.
Oh, and NASCAR’s race-team sponsors obviously purchase much more than ad space, product placements and driver souls with their money these days. When Kyle Busch got into all that hot water for wrecking Ron Hornaday, the discussion quickly turned to whether Mars Inc., the main sponsor for Busch’s car, would decide if Busch would be allowed to continue driving the 18 car. Not the man who owns the car, Joe Gibbs.
So what’s the big deal, you say? In the short term, it’s not a big deal. Hearing McReynolds say “Sunoco race fuel” only once incurs a tiny blip on your annoyance meter, and then it’s gone.
But it’s not really gone. All those little annoyances sink in, and over time they add up. Over the long term, it’s hard not to feel a growing irritation with the driver-puppets, a loss of respect for the journalists, concern over the control purchased by advertising dollars and a general revulsion toward all the greed on display.
3) Dictatorships Are Un-American
NASCAR’s overall structure is unique among the major sports. In the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the team owners also own a stadium, arena, etc. In NASCAR, no owner owns a track. Some of the tracks are owned by NASCAR, but others are owned by other individuals and companies.
NASCAR is essentially an organizing body that coordinates—and controls—the running of races on a network of tracks. It brings car owners and drivers together with track owners to put on race events.
And it runs this system with an iron, not-always-benevolent fist. It’s clear, for example, that NASCAR views drivers, at best, as employees, and over the years it has therefore ruthlessly and repeatedly squashed any attempt by these employees to form a union. Thanks largely to the player unions in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the players and owners split revenue almost evenly. Not happening in NASCAR.
We Americans are a proud bunch, and particularly proud of our democracy and our history. We value our freedom, our rights and our independence; we don’t like dictators. At some level, then, I think the NASCAR dictatorship irks NASCAR fans whenever they’re reminded of its existence.
I know it irks me when I hear of NASCAR levying secret fines against drivers who dare to say something negative about NASCAR. And I certainly don’t like thinking of guys such as Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt as NASCAR employees, completely at the mercy of the ruler. I doubt I’m the only one.
4) Hype Is Dishonest, & Dishonest Is Bad
The first time I went to Charlotte Motor Speedway, I noticed how the seats on the front stretch were all painted different colors in no discernable order. I didn’t get it until the next time I saw those same seats on TV during a race: When viewed on TV in the background, that paint scheme makes the seats appear to be full of people. The viewer is tricked into thinking the event is sold out, in other words.
Such hype—i.e., phoniness—pervades NASCAR. Another example: Any regular race fan knows NASCAR will sometimes throw an “entertainment” caution flag—that is, a caution thrown not for a valid safety reason, but to bunch the field back up and make a race more exciting for the viewers. Many drivers have noted this tendency; recently Denny Hamlin received a secret fine from NASCAR for making such comments.
Those headlight, grill and exhaust stickers on the cars? Another deception.
Phony is dishonest, and of course dishonesty erodes trust. If a fan decides they no longer believe what they’re watching is real, they lose motivation to watch.
Taken alone, none of the beefs noted above detract much from the NASCAR experience in the short run. But when you add them all up and repeat them over time, I think they seriously crimp the sport’s popularity.
That’s partly what we’re seeing now. In the short term, NASCAR is terrific. It’s fast, loud, dangerous, fun, full of interesting characters. A party.
Over the long run, though, the sport appears to have trouble holding onto its fans. So unless it’s content running in the second tier of American sports, it must address its core flaws.