Times have changed dramatically in NASCAR over the last decade, and the sport for too long seemed to ignore signs of trouble on the horizon.
That can no longer be the case. Not if NASCAR wants to thrive in the future. While its many defenders continue to insist that the overall health of stock car racing is not as bad as some portray it to be — and there are legitimate points to be made on that side as well — the time is gone for pretending everything is just fine and dandy. Because it’s not.
First, a little history lesson about how NASCAR got here. Then, five surefire ways to get the sport back on track over the short term so it can possibly return to its former glory in the long term.
The History Lesson
To understand why NASCAR has been fooling itself for several years, first one must go back to the last television contract it forged with FOX and NBC Sports. To put it bluntly, NASCAR got extremely lucky. Despite attendance that already was growing softer year after year and TV ratings that already were beginning to bottom out, NASCAR in 2013 landed a 10-year, $8.2 billion deal with FOX and NBC that seemingly signaled that all was going to be well for the next decade and beyond (the deal was an extension of one that did not run out until 2014 and therefore will be in place through the 2024 season).
NASCAR was able to land such a staggering deal at that time because FOX was in the process of starting up FS1, and it needed sports programming to fill its airtime. Same with NBC, which was starting up NBC Sports Network at roughly the same time. Both wanted to compete with ESPN and its multiple channels and figured NASCAR was a window to accomplishing it quickly.
While the deal has brought in a windfall of money to NASCAR, its tracks and the race teams (to a much lesser extent), it also has come with an unexpected price. It has locked the tracks and schedule into a season that obviously is too long and can no longer be expected to compete head to head with the NFL for television viewers and butts in the seats down the home stretch of its 36-week grind when it should be generating the most excitement.
Because of the television deal, NASCAR must continue to put on 36 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races per year for at least the life of the contract. The only way that changes is if NASCAR and the television networks can look each other in the eyes and have a sobering conversation about what really needs to happen.
It’s not like NASCAR hasn’t tried to improve its sagging fortunes in recent years. But its critics would say NASCAR’s hierarchy has been mostly shooting itself in the proverbial foot as it has attempted one band-aid approach after another to address rapidly declining fan and sponsorship interest (facts borne out in sagging attendance, declining TV ratings and the recent departure of long-time huge investors in the sport such as Lowe’s home improvement). The playoff formats and constant tweaking of rules have left heads dizzy, the hearts of too many old-school fans heavy and too few new-age fans interested.
Here are five ways NASCAR can get its mojo back, although none of these will be an easy fix.
1. Shorten the Season
There is no logical reason for NASCAR to continue running races past Labor Day, other than the contractual obligations to provide content for television. Whether shortening the season would require renegotiating that contract and also renegotiating current deals with tracks that currently have two races per season and need to be dropped to one (are you listening Michigan, Pocono, Kansas and maybe even Texas or — gasp — one of the short tracks like Martinsville?), the powers that be need to put their heads together and figure out a way to get this done.
The season is too long and has been for years. Casual fans lose interest by Labor Day, and the number of those who ask in November, “Are they still racing?” has been on the upswing.
Wrap up the season by Labor Day and there would be no head-to-head banging against the brick wall that is the NFL. Start the season earlier if you must, take fewer weekends off or whatever it takes, but eliminate at least six races and end the season before the NFL kicks off its regular season.
This move would cut costs for cash-starved teams, increase fans’ interest again by altering the supply-and-demand equation at tracks that subsequently would hold only one event per year, and in all likelihood improve television ratings and fan attendance during the most critical playoff portion of the season.
Last spring, writer Dave Caldwell proposed shortening the season by six races in an article for Forbes magazine, explaining: “Although NASCAR has tried hard recently to trim costs without cutting back on the product, it is still very expensive to operate a race team — and to pick up sponsors, who propel the sport.” By going to a 30-race schedule, he added that “NASCAR could steer clear of tough-luck TV numbers and sweeping shots of empty seats every fall, when football reigns.”
2. Declare a Race Winner — and Stick To It
Perhaps no other rule in recent years has been more confusing to fans than when NASCAR suddenly started taking away wins — sort of — first by calling them “encumbered” when rules violations were discovered up to three days post-race at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. It has long been standard practice for NASCAR to take winning cars back to the R&D Center to tear them down, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it began declaring some victories “encumbered” as a result of violations discovered there.
The much-ridiculed “encumbered” term was officially jettisoned by NASCAR prior to last season — but the confusing post-race process remains essentially the same. Memo to NASCAR: Most fans still don’t understand it. It means, in the simplest way it can be explained, that if violations are discovered even 48-72 hours after the race, drivers and teams keep the win for the record book — but for purposes of bonus points for playoff positioning or advancing in the playoffs, it doesn’t count. Former driver Kenny Wallace, now a NASCAR analyst for FOX, is frankly infuriated by it.
“The number one hot-button issue that they’ve got to fix is this craziness where they think everybody is cheating and everything is illegal,” Wallace says. “This is the number one thing, and I’m serious: Two hours after the Victory Lane celebration, the winner has to be officially declared and no penalties. When the Victory Lane celebration is over, NASCAR gets two hours to inspect that car at the racetrack.”
Wallace contends that by the time post-race inspections are completed at the track, the cars already have been inspected enough.
“Listen, they’ve already inspected it five times — once when they unload, once before they qualified, once after qualifying … that’s three … then before the race and after the race,” Wallace says. “Then they take some of the sons-of-bitches back to Concord to the freaking R&D Center and do it again. That’s freaking ridiculous. It’s anal.
“The fans are growing very weary of three days later, the winner not being the winner of the race. … They are destroying the sport with these announcements three days after the race. We’ve got fans and sponsors and CEOs and executives of big companies who go to Victory Lane, thinking they won the race. They’re all excited — only to be embarrassed three days later. So that’s why I say it’s an embarrassment and a black eye. … Saying nothing is official until the Wednesday after a [Saturday or Sunday] race, that’s stupid.”
3. Simplify the Rule Book
While on the subject of inspections, it’s past time for NASCAR to scale back on its bloated rule book. Not only are there too many inspections before, after and then often again at the R&D Center, but the inspections themselves are also far too confusing. And not just for the fans, but for drivers, crew chiefs and car owners alike.
For one thing, as of the beginning of last season, cars don’t actually “fail” pre-race inspection until they go through NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station three times without being deemed up to snuff. Hard to figure, right? Throw in a lack of communication, and it all came to a head last November when Jimmie Johnson’s car supposedly failed the OSS three times (but really, only twice) and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was sent to the back of the field for the start of the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Johnson was upset and confused, as was his crew chief at the time, Chad Knaus. By the end of the race, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell admitted that they had every right to be upset, saying the penalty was erroneous and “unacceptable.”
After the race, car owner and former championship driver Tony Stewart was among those left flabbergasted by the bizarre chain of events. A simpler rule book might help. “I still don’t understand why we have to worry about failing three times,” Stewart says. “Bring your car, roll it through tech, and you either pass or you don’t. I don’t know why we screw around, jack around with one, two, three times. It’s ridiculous to me.
“We’re the only series in the world where you get to go through tech three times and fail twice, and they still let you go through a third time. We’ve got to figure it out. Got to make it simpler than this. It shouldn’t be this difficult.”
Stewart, who is now co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, says he also takes issue with the penalties that are sometimes imposed on his race teams for various reasons he says he frequently doesn’t understand.
“Half the time you don’t know what the penalty is supposed to be,” Stewart says. “I’m a car owner and I don’t know what the penalty is supposed to be. I don’t know how the fans can keep up with it, either.”
4. Keep It Fresh
NASCAR’s experiment with the “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway in last year’s playoffs was a huge success. The race, in which CMS incorporated part of its usual oval layout with a road course consisting of 17 turns, was won by Ryan Blaney when Jimmie Johnson inadvertently wrecked himself and Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap while going for the win. Wallace and others insist it is what NASCAR needs more of — experimentation with a purpose.
“What Charlotte did with the Roval was a huge success. It was different, it was exciting. I think in the future, NASCAR needs to keep the excitement level up,” Kenny Wallace says. “Take the Bud Shootout [the exhibition race at Daytona that traditionally marks the beginning of the season]. I hate to say this, but it’s become very boring. Nobody really goes any more. The races are horrible. We need a new twist.
“Years ago, we used to say, ‘Do not try to reinvent the wheel.’ Well, now we have to — because life is so different. So they need to keep the excitement level up — and if that means a dirt race, a Roval, whatever it is, it needs to be done. Every year they need to announce something new and exciting like the Roval. We cannot be lame and boring.
“It’s sad to say, but cars going in circles is old. It’s stagnant. And nobody really cares about it anymore.”
While some traditionalists have lamented the introduction of stage racing, Wallace says he enjoys it — and actually would like to see NASCAR spin off of it and try some heat racing at the Cup level (it has been experimented with previously in Xfinity). “Let’s see if it works,” Wallace says. “There are 40 cars. Let’s go to Bristol and run four heat races, or six heat races, until we get to a finality. It would be awesome. Let’s keep pushing the envelope.”
5. Celebrate Star Power
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gone from behind the wheel. So are Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Danica Patrick and others who not only excelled as drivers, but at least at certain times also moved the needle of fan interest. Other long-time stalwarts of the sport such as Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin clearly have their best years behind them.
Guys like reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are younger veterans who are still around and are likely to contend for championships for years to come.
But what about the next generation? Who is going to provide the star power? Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson arguably are the best of this bunch talent-wise, but neither is all that exciting or engaging outside the car. Ryan Blaney is a fine candidate, as is Erik Jones, but the bottom line is this: To keep fans interested, one of them must start winning more races and challenging the older crowd in a much more definable way. That would go a long way toward developing rivalries that are the lifeblood of any sport.
All of this will require a group effort, as well as some patience, according to the reigning Cup champion.
“I have another 15, 20 years in this thing,” says Logano, 28. “I’m not done any time soon. I really want to be involved with this stuff, make sure we do the right things. I’ve learned a lot that it’s not just what the drivers think, not just about what I think, the owners think, what the TV thinks, the media think, or the racetracks think. All of us have to collaborate together. We need to listen to what the fans think, most importantly, on all this stuff. … The facts are we’re in a pretty good spot. We get decent [TV[ ratings. We still have a lot of people following us on social media. We’re still a big sport. When it comes to any other form of motorsports in America, we win. Pretty big. Even across other sports, when we compete against them, we’re no little guy. We might not be the biggest sport in America, but we’re not too far back from that.
“We can definitely find a good spot. … If you never change, never evolve, you will go down in a burning pile of flames. You better be willing to adapt and change things to keep up with the times. That’s what we’re attempting and will attempt into the future for years.”
—by Joe Menzer