Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 2, 2017

What Ever Happened To NASCAR?

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Weird race: Eventual winner Ricky Stenhouse drives under a crash. (NBC)

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida

“I’d rather fill the seats we have, than look at empty ones,” Bill France Jr. explained to me in 1977. I had asked him why he turned down a proposal to add a mere 5,000 new seats at Daytona International Speedway. “Tell me we can sell those seats, and I might change my mind.”

That seemed such conservative thinking to me at the time – the Daytona 500 was always a sellout back then – but the perspective of history has brought France’s logic into clearer focus now.

“Yes, we sell out the seats we have for the 500,” he added, “but we don’t sell out the July race. Or any other race we have here – and we have more than a dozen each year.”

He and his father, Bill Sr. the NASCAR founder, had been through high times and lean times since the racing sanctioning body had been founded in 1949. They were so broke after the first Daytona 500 in 1959 – a very successful race – they couldn’t afford to clean the grandstands or haul away the infield trash afterward (they got the Boy Scouts to volunteer). The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 had thrown an existential scare into them.

“We’re always trying to look for ways to improve our product,” France continued, “but we’re pretty happy with what we have now. We don’t make changes, just to be making changes.”

Eventually, however, those seats at Daytona, and whole lot more, got built – at the behest of others who challenged France in his waning days of control of the sport. Ironically, 44,000 of those seats at Daytona got taken right back out in the past couple of years (in the $400 million Daytona Rising “expansion”) because NASCAR couldn’t fill them in a tanking economy. Many other NASCAR tracks that also ill-advisedly over-expanded have had to do the same thing.

Empty seats, to television viewers, look like failure. Empty seats have helped get the conversation started about what has gone wrong for NASCAR, which up until 10 years or so ago was so wildly popular. But so many other factors now play into NASCAR’s sagging fortunes. The conversation is definitely started.

Nowadays the once-sacred annual slate of races now changes yearly; sponsors come and go (mostly go). Teams, tracks and backers go out of business. Officials jigger constantly with rules, formats, points and strategies in a (so far) failing attempt to get their groove back. Race times and dates change. Night races were added to appeal to TV viewers, while stifling live gates. The big-bucks television packages include events on obscure cable channels like Fox Sports, NBCSN  and CNBC – boo-yah!

What would Bill Jr., who had a heart attack in 1999 and was in declining health until his death in 2007, have thought of NASCAR today? His successor, his son Brian, and the braintrust he has assembled to run the sport seem forever in search of an answer.

Those changes Bill Jr. was always so loath to make are now made freely – almost weekly – by a an ever-changing leadership team that seems to still be trying define what NASCAR is, or ought to be, or could be, in the 21st Century. Perhaps there is no better example of how much is changing, and how quickly, than the rather unsatisfying outcome of the wreck-plagued Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last night. The capriciousness of the pervasive violence in NASCAR these days has drivers vexed, if not downright fed up.

“Way different race tonight than usual,” Brad Keselowski, the outspoken former series champion, opined on Twitter afterward. “Combo of the short stages & softer Goodyear tire has made the track super easy to drive = wreckfest.” The list of top ten finishers looked like names drawn out of a hat; the preparation, attention to detail, skill and excellence of the top teams mattered less than blind luck.

Keselowski was among the 15 non-finishing victims, out of 40 starters. Another casualty was the overwhelming pre-race favorite and sentimental choice Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fastest qualifier who was taken out in yet another crash not of his making. Even the surprise winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., only got to the finish line safely by driving under a car that flipped in front of him. Even many finishers were battered, bruised and covered in duct tape.

Outcomes are almost impossible to predict in a new 2017 format that breaks races into thirds, or fourths, like soccer or basketball, with breaks between segments. Every lap is an inconclusive mad scramble of cars packed ever-more dangerously close together. Old, time-tested strategies are out the window.

NASCAR “Cup” races, as the major league events have long been known, were once epic affairs that lasted for hours – five hours was once considered about the norm. Plenty of time to consume a whole cooler of beer.

The series – year after year – visited the same eccentric, colorful venues scattered about the Southern States, from whence the sport evolved: Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, Nashville and Darlington. Two stops a year at each of those bullrings, plus visits to the big “superspeedways” at Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega and various venues in California (Riverside, Ontario, Fontana and Sonoma). Indianapolis was a popular addition in 1994 (its appeal has since faded embarrassingly).

Fans used to come for the spectacle, and they seldom went home disappointed. It was a tried-and-true format that produced ever greater returns. Up until newcomers – old hardliners might call them “carpetbaggers” – started fiddling with the formula.

The growing profit potential of owning a NASCAR racing track, with its attendant slate of annual race dates – the “Cup” races being almost sure-fire money-makers – inspired a number of would-be promoters to build new racetracks. Opulent venues, with almost gladiatorial grandeur, were built – unlike anything the sport had seen. When NASCAR balked at expanding its schedule to accommodate all the potential new races they were offered, the race track owners started buying the “weak sister” tracks like Wilkesboro and Rockingham – just to close them down, and expropriate their race dates. So the series began a process of re-defining itself in new non-traditional markets like central Texas, suburban Chicago, Kansas City, greater Miami and Las Vegas. Brian France even bought a large tract of land on Staten Island for a suburban New York speedway (it has yet to be built).

With the growing popularity of the sport, and its offbeat cast of Old School, tough-as-nails drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt Sr., came the interest of television. But there was a catch: Television wanted to re-program NASCAR into a “Reader’s Digest” version of itself – with races jammed into tight three-hour formats of action-packed racing that maintained couch-potato interest from beginning to end. Oh, and the networks also wanted to shoehorn at least an hour’s worth of distracting advertisements into that format. Sometimes it worked; most often, it didn’t.

A three-hour race wasn’t as alluring a prospect for fans to drive to, and spend the weekend tailgating at, especially if it was going to be on live national television anyway. Their old favorite tracks were gone – even the legendary Darlington track and its beloved Southern 500 were unceremoniously yanked from the schedule – and so the nostalgic appeal of attending in person was blown away. A sort of modern-day Gone with the Wind, courtesy of NASCAR’s new management team and consultants.

Tickets became unattainably expensive – especially for so many Americans who lost their jobs and homes in the recession that started in 2007 (and, for many, has yet to end.) So, seats sat empty.

Traditional sponsorships like those of Winston cigarettes – the sport’s mainstay for decades – went away, followed by a revolving door cast of cellphone companies, unrelated consumer product and retail companies, vanity projects, and tenuous charitable connections. Traditional events have lost their traditional names and now are bizarre conglomerates of “presented by” married to mouths-full of advertising slogans.

The whole sport has an identity crisis, and at many different levels. Racing used to be about finding who was the fastest driver, in the fastest car. NASCAR races aren’t about that anymore. Most of these races feature a gaggle of cars riding around in an aerodynamic bubble they’ve created, waiting to see what happens when they get too close together. The results are unpredictable, at best.

Drivers used to have productive careers into their 50s. But top still relatively young stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards walked away suddenly last year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving after this season. Others, like Danica Patrick – the sport’s only female regular, are sure to follow, especially as many of the older drivers, who cut their teeth on a more traditional form of NASCAR racing, become frustrated at the increasingly random nature of race outcomes. The explanations, if given at all, are usually polite creampuffs like, “It was just time.”

But all too often these days racers complain, “I was just cruising along, minding my own business, when – wham! – out of nowhere, I’m in a 20-car pileup.” Dale Jr. missed half of last season with his fifth or sixth concussion; Patrick estimates she might have had a dozen or more by now. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola have all had to endure broken bones.

Yet, every race the announcers breathlessly speculate when the next “big one” pileup will occur.

To entertain these ghoulish fantasies week after week is expensive; last night’s Daytona race probably cost more in wrecked race cars than it paid in purse money.

Though drivers accept that what they do is dangerous, there must be a margin for error, a feeling that to some extent they can control their own destinies, that they must have to continue to be willing to put their lives on the line. In today’s NASCAR that assurance is harder and harder for some to find.

Perhaps, as NASCAR is hoping, a new generation of promising talents such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty and Austin Dillon will help re-define the sport in a way that appeals to a new generation of race fans.

If that happens, you’ll know it when NASCAR tracks start adding seats again.

Jerry Garrett

July 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. Of course, when you had a marketing legend sponsor pumping $1 billion into you, you tend to look like a genius. When that’s gone — especially as attendance in every spectator sport is declining — you look like you’ve screwed up.

    • Who knows where this is all headed? It will be interesting to see what kind of mess they will create for themselves at the season finale in Homestead.


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