Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Part 1 in a five-day series that chronicles the issues facing NASCAR
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
1. What’s to blame for NASCAR’s sagging television ratings and attendance?
A confluence of events. No one action could account for such a dramatic dip in interest, both at the track and on television.
The continued economic downswing certainly has hurt attendance figures, despite track operators slashing ticket prices and promoters pulling out all the stops. Three- and four-night minimums at hotels where rates are already jacked up 100 percent or more continue to keep fans away. Factor in gas or airfare as well as food and drinks and a souvenir for little Timmy, and suddenly the ticket to get in the gate is the least of the expense — particularly for the largely blue-collar diehard who can blow an entire mortgage payment on a three-day getaway to the track.
A continued refusal on the sanctioning body’s part to acknowledge the NFL’s Sunday superiority doesn’t help, either. As ol’ DW stated on the matter, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it. Since NASCAR has shown it has no qualms with shucking tradition, maybe moving away from Sunday afternoons should be considered — particularly during the Chase.
Outside factors aren’t the only issue, though. During NASCAR’s ascension in the public consciousness in the early part of the decade, speedway magnates International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. built monstrous temples for the racing pilgrims, the idea being that 1.5- and 2-mile tracks would not only seat more, but also facilitate both stock cars and open wheel machines. Aerodynamics, and its effects on the fendered set, weren’t considered. What resulted was a shift from beating and banging (a major stock car draw) to aero-sensitive parades. And with the economy (and SMI’s and ISC’s portfolios) a mess, there will be no capital projects to rein in the speedways in favor of popular half- or three-quarter-mile bullrings.
At the same time, a cancerous greed grew from within the sport. The more attention NASCAR garnered, the more it wanted. With that attention came sponsorship and television dollars. Billions of them.
A new generation of driver was molded to attract the funding teams needed to outspend, and thus outperform, the competition. The sanctioning body was no different. It neutered the rough and tumble aspect of the sport — an aspect that drew so many fans initially — to bring in more corporate suits to the garage, the boardroom, and the suites.
Left was a sport that answered to corporate America. Clean. P.C. Friendly. Safe. As is so often the case, NASCAR realized only when it was too late that it had strayed down the wrong path, that it had alienated and disenfranchised its true base.
It’s trying to bring back those unique traits through a series of fundamental on-track changes, but as the wise racing scribe Ed Hinton noted last season, “Greed is never retrogressive.”
2. What became of Brian France’s promised “impactful changes” to the schedule?
When Brian France suggested last July that the 2011 schedule would “have some pretty impactful changes ... that I think will be good for NASCAR fans,” the prayers of many were thought to be answered. The lumbering 36-race slate of dates was a logistical nightmare that needed some streamlining and common sense injected to re-energize and captivate a fan base that had seemed to tire of the oversaturation of cookie cutter tracks and stale Chase venues.
Instead, NASCAR gave the fans more of the same. The “impactful changes” France spoke of ultimately manifested themselves in an additional race date for Kansas Speedway at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway getting a date to the detriment of Atlanta, while Chicagoland Speedway was awarded the Chase’s first date. No radical realignment to freshen things up and, specifically, to give the Chase its much-needed facelift, was implemented.
Auto Club Speedway was mercifully put out of its two-date misery so ISC could bring more people to its new casino just outside of the Kansas Speedway track, essentially trading one cookie cutter for another. And make no mistake; Kansas does not present thrilling enough racing to earn a second date without the casino. SMI CEO Bruton Smith bought Kentucky for one reason: to host a Cup date. As a result, a struggling Atlanta lost one stop.
Perhaps the most disappointing decision was to award Chicago the first Chase date. This move was made, again, not on the merits of the racing, but to maximize a slumping track’s earnings potential. Imagine kicking off the Chase with the Bristol Night Race. Imagine the hype, the attention, the crossover appeal. Instead, a track with no unique characteristics whatsoever, one that is basically a clone of the aforementioned Kansas Speedway, will host what should be one of the sport’s most important and visible dates.
The common theme this answer shares with most others throught this preseason series of articles is that NASCAR’s final verdict wasn’t made in the best interest of the fans or in the spirit of competitiveness. It was made with the France family’s bank account in mind. Fair enough, you may say — after all, they own the sport. True, but at what point do the short-term objectives cancel out any potential long-term gains?
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro