A Sign of the (Bad) Times
The Hollywood Casino 400 was held Sunday at Kansas Speedway. It was the sixth race in the NASCAR playoffs, an elimination race. Four drivers were going to be eliminated from title contention. While that might've held some drama going into the race, the reality is, a lot of folks didn't expect drama. After all, at this point it seems a given that Toyotas are going to win races on mile-and-a-half tracks. Further, although the thought of drivers fighting side by side for positions and points sounds exciting, the reality is, these types of tracks have given fans some of the most lackluster racing over the past few seasons. Typically, the only real battles for the lead happen in the race off pit road and on restarts.
I knew I wouldn't be forced to decide whether to watch or not because my family and I had made plans to attend a birthday party for a family friend who was turning 50. On the drive over, my wife mentioned that I might get to see the race at the party since we knew some of the guys who would be there are race fans. I also knew NFL games were probably not going to be watched there because all of the people in attendance were conservative, the man of honor is in the military and some of the others are in law enforcement. I was correct, no football games were on.
Once the greetings were made and plates were piled with food, I found six guys my age watching a race on TV, only it wasn't the NASCAR race; they were watching the United States Grand Prix on NBC. I was at least casually acquainted with all six of these men and knew three of them extremely well. Regardless of how well we knew each other, I'd known each of these men for almost 20 years. I also knew each one of them was a NASCAR fan. Once I found a place to settle in with my food and drink, I casually asked why they were watching the Grand Prix race as opposed to the NASCAR race. That's when the fun started. As we began talking about the woes of NASCAR, I periodically checked my Twitter account. Out of 539 accounts I follow, none of them are Formula One related accounts. Yet 40 to 50 percent of the tweets I saw were about the F1 race and not the race in Kansas.
As our conversation progressed, I learned or was reminded that each one of the men in that room had not only attended NASCAR races over the years, five of the six had for several years attended multiple races each season. The most commonly visited tracks had been Bristol, Charlotte, Atlanta and Daytona. Four of the six had been season ticket holders at Bristol back when that was a source of pride. Only one of the six had attended a race since 2015 and that one went to the Bristol spring race this year only because he'd been able to get a free ticket through his work because the race had been postponed due to rain. In other words, I was talking to six individuals who as recently as seven years ago, would typically go to at least one and sometimes as many as four races a year. Yet in the past two seasons, only one went to a NASCAR race and only did that because it didn't cost him anything to get in.
Naturally, I asked what happened; why weren't they fans? I was told by Dave, one of the guys I only casually knew, that, "I still love racing. That's why I'm sitting here watching this but I gave up on NASCAR after I got tired of trying to keep up with all the rule changes." Another stated he has, "No desire to watch guys drive single file for three hours when the only real racing is going to come with a (expletive) caution at the end to make it look good." The ages of these men ranged from 45 to 51. Four of the six had been introduced to racing by their fathers when they were kids. One had been turned onto it at an early age by his uncle and the other had gotten into it thanks to some college friends over 25 years ago. Between these six men, they have 11 children and 2 grandchildren. Although some of these have and still do visit area short tracks, only two ever went to a NASCAR race (Bristol) and it only happened once over a decade ago. The most positive comments made in the course of the afternoon were three of the group hoping Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott can help re-energize the sport.
As the conversation and the afternoon continued, I was reminded of something I'd already known. What I was seeing and hearing was the end result of NASCAR's decision making during the past several years. In the quest for some mythological new fan who apparently was going to turn on the TV one day, see a race and instantly become hooked, the sanctioning body turned off the fans who grew up on the sport, loved the sport and spent thousands of dollars each year in following the sport. Yes, that's an older segment of fans but it's also something else. It's the segment of fans who have/had loyalty, have money and now with kids getting older and moving away from home, have the time to travel to races. It's also the part of the fan base who could've been NASCAR's biggest allies in growing the sport. Instead NASCAR tried to capture the attention of an age group whose attention span stops when the fidget spinner stops moving, NASCAR could've had help. Imagine if the kids and grandkids of people like these six men had someone of influence getting them interested in the national series. Instead of worrying about those fans with the time, money and desire to watch, the suits in Daytona basically said, "We're changing and you need to change with us." These six and thousands like them said no and decided to pack up the family in the RV and head to the mountains or beach instead of the racetrack.
Instead of emailing the same cut and dried survey to NASCAR approved Fan Council members, who may or may not tell the truth in filling them out, I realized Sunday that I was doing what NASCAR decision makers should be doing. They're the ones who ought to be sitting in front of longtime fans and former fans. They should be asking people like these six what happened, what the tipping point was and what, if anything, it would take to bring them back to the fold. Maybe that ship has sailed, I don't know. What I do know is that in east Tennessee on a Sunday afternoon, in a room full of men who can talk stock car racing for hours, no one was at all interested in watching not only a Cup Series race, but a Cup race with "major playoff implications." Whose fault is that?