NASCAR celebrated an historic event on Sunday, but was anyone paying attention?
Sunday’s race at Homestead marked the end of the 2016 season, but also marked an incredible moment as Jimmie Johnson won not only the race, but also his 7th Cup championship. He becomes only the 3rd driver to ever win 7 championships, along with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It was truly a momentous event, but according to the TV ratings, not that many people watched it.
NBC’s ratings for the race show a 25% drop from the same race last year. As a NASCAR fan, I find this to be a bit disappointing. It’s OK, though. As a NASCAR fan, I’ve become used to some disappointment.
The Homestead race had lots to offer even a casual fan of the sport. There was actually some good hard racing. There was drama. There were crashes and even a flaming race car. History was made with the crowning of a champion, made even more historical since it was the Champion’s 7th Championship. Unless you’ve been a fan of NASCAR for a very long time, you’ve not seen that happen.
Sunday also marked the last race for Tony Stewart, a 3-time Champion, and one of the few drivers who could be said to have what I call ‘personality.’ Most fans either hated or loved Tony. He had the brass to say what he thought, and let his temper show when he was angry. Most drivers simply spout the usual list of sponsors, thank their crews, owners, fans, and of course sponsors, and let out their emotions in the privacy of their haulers. Not Tony. I for one will miss Tony Stewart.
Sunday’s decrease in TV ratings over last year’s race is unfortunately nothing new. In some ways, the decline in ratings as well as fan attendance started roughly around the time that NASCAR implemented its infamous Chase for the Cup. Am I a fan of said Chase? No, I’m not, but in NASCAR’s defense, the current incarnation is probably the best one they’ve come up with yet. The Chase creates some excitement during the last part of the season, not just for the last race, as did previous versions.
In February, 2001, NASCAR was reaching its zenith in popularity. FOX and NBC had just signed on to broadcast all the races live, which is the first time this had happened on mainstream broadcast networks. The first race of the season was the Daytona 500. Darrell Waltrip was in the booth for the first time for a point’s race. All was good in NASCAR’s world.
Then, tragedy struck. Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the race, and the entire racing world was thrown into turmoil. A lot of fans said that was the end of NASCAR. Strangely enough, something else happened.
After Dale’s death, the nation, and large parts of the world in general started tuning in to see what this NASCAR stuff was all about. NASCAR itself started making plans to build more tracks in parts of the country where stock car racing had never been particularly popular. Markets like New York City were going to finally have a major track with big time racing practically inside the city limits. NASCAR began to be talked about as the number 2 sport in viewership, right behind the National Football League. Then, strangely enough, something else happened.
Brian France, taking his place as CEO of NASCAR after his father and grandfather before him, hit the ground running and began instituting changes in the sport. You see, folks, NASCAR was drawing record crowds at events, garnering it’s best TV ratings ever, selling more hats and shirts than ever, and then along came Matt Kenseth and only won 1 race in the 2003 season, but still won the championship. NASCAR and Brian France basically said “This will not stand.” Enter the Chase for the Cup.
Around the same time, for good reason, NASCAR was trying its best to make the sport safer for its drivers, crews, and fans. Safer is always better. Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 woke up everyone involved in the sport. Sadly, the deaths in 2000 of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty didn’t galvanize the public to the extent that Dale’s death did. Head and neck restraint devices became mandated. NASCAR began trying out “soft walls” in case of collisions, to reduce impact forces. Another new idea was the COT (Car of Tomorrow), which was intended to make the entire car safer in case of an accident.
All of these were good ideas on paper, but there were drawbacks as well. In the pre-Chase days, drivers consistently running at the back of the pack had little or no chance of winning a championship, but they might influence the outcome of said championships at times. If a fan’s sponsor were eliminated from the Chase, they could still race for a win, but unless they were in the first few spots on the race track, the only time they were on camera was if they were involved in a crash or some other calamity. Hard core fans of certain drivers want to see their drivers on TV whether they are in the top 10 or so in points or 28th in points. Sponsors, strangely enough, like to see their name on the TV screen as well. NASCAR and all the teams are funded by sponsors’ money. Who funds the sponsors? Why, guess what? We fans fund the sponsors. NASCAR fans are notoriously famous for supporting their drivers’ sponsors, from the brand of automobile they drive, the type of cell phone they use, right down to what kind of soap they use. Less TV exposure means unhappy fans and unhappy sponsors.
Stock car racing has not really meant ‘stock’ for a long time. The days of race on Sunday, sell on Monday have been gone for a very long time. The Car of Tomorrow made the resemblance between the race cars we see on the track and the cars we drive to work even less than ever. I was watching some of the caution laps during the Phoenix race last week and couldn’t help but notice that the pace car, a Toyota Camry, looked very little like the Toyota Camry that Matt Kenseth, who at that point was the race leader, was driving. Brand identity suffers much during this latest era of NASCAR, which stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Not much stock or even what looks like stock is going on here, folks.
Safety is good, and I’m glad that very few drivers have suffered fatal injuries in the last several years. Some of NASCAR’s rule changes have benefitted everyone. Some, though, have put the sport on a slippery slope that seems to be turning off fans and sponsors at an alarming rate. It’s hard to get excited about race cars that don’t look like anything you can buy at your local dealership. It’s hard to watch races when your favorite driver never gets mentioned by anyone in the broadcast booth, much less camera time on TV. Such is the sport as it exists today, for better or for worse.
Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick, and all the other people behind the 48 Lowes Chevy program deserve a lot of praise and respect. Their accomplishment makes me realize that NASCAR is an ever changing entity, and though some of the changes have not been beneficial, there is always hope for the sport I love. A few years ago, I never would have dreamed that anyone would ever win 7 Cup championships again. I think that the secret behind the 48’s success is the ability to adapt to ever changing conditions and excel, and that, basically, is what it takes for any race driver and race team to be successful.
If you read to this point, I appreciate your attentiveness. I tend to ramble, but my style has always been “let’s have a conversation, one on one.” In real life I ramble too, often.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope the holiday is all you wish it to be, and even more.