Another ‘How-to-fix-NASCAR’ Article ~
We Keep Trying Because We Care
It’s probably obvious from my historical articles that there’s a special place in my heart for the 1960s – the decade I discovered auto racing – as well as the 10-15 years before and after, and admittedly, that makes me prone to suggest changes for “saving” NASCAR that to some extent turn the clock back to that era.
Yeah, I’d like to see this kind of racing again.
When I do that, though, I’m aware that I’m calling for some pretty drastic changes, many of which might even shrink the sport rather than grow it. I don’t mind that, although I feel guilty for suggesting things that would cost lots of people their jobs; I never thought of myself as quite that heartless. Still, I don’t mind saying that I’d be happy as a clam watching NASCAR’s finest bouncing around for 200 laps on a rutty dirt track with 10,000 or so fans joining me on the splinter-filled bleachers.
Wouldn’t hurt to have a Jumbotron, though.
But if the goal is to grow NASCAR (or at least restore some of its lost growth) rather than achieve Frank’s fantasy racing world, maybe we should look at a different time. After all, NASCAR achieved very little growth in my favorite era, so let’s see what we can learn from the period when the growth actually came.
This is the kind of crowd everybody wants to see again.
Here’s a quick review, courtesy of Martinsville Speedway, which has the distinction of being the only track to hold a race in every one of the 70 seasons NASCAR has run its premier Strictly Stock/Grand National/Winston-Nextel-Sprint-Monster Cup Series.
Martinsville’s race in NASCAR’s inaugural Strictly Stock season, 1949, is said to have drawn 10,000 fans, although with the novelty factor gone, the turnout was typically a couple of thousand lower for the next few seasons.
Most of those were 200-lap events, but in 1956, Martinsville upped its game and began to run 500-lappers, and with the change to “major” races, the crowds began turning out in larger numbers, typically between 12,000 and 20,000. By the 1960s some races were drawing a bit more than 20,000 (23,500 in 1964), but the next real bump came with the Winston Cup era.
In 1972, Martinsville’s races in the first “Cup” season drew 29,500 and 31,000, and attendance continued to climb steadily, reaching 40,000 in 1986. (Here we bow in the direction of Winston-Salem and wherever T. Wayne Robertson is buried.)
In the 1990s, announced attendance figures began to disappear, but we know Martinsville’s numbers continued to grow, and by 2007, seating capacity was said to be 66,000, and races generally were selling out. Then the shrinkage began with the Great Recession, and even though Martinsville has held its own pretty well, capacity is down to 55,000 today, maybe even less. That’s probably about where it was 20 years ago.
Once upon a time, a crowd this size was what a promoter dreamed of drawing.
So what was the “Golden Age,” and what can we go back to that might bring about its return?
We know there was growth in “Cup” racing throughout the 1990s and early to mid-2000s (despite the “dot-com” economic bust of 2000), and when you look back, things remained pretty much the same throughout that period. There were lots of cars and car owners, with a small but significant number of part-timers. The point system was unchanged, and there were few really major rule changes. The cost of competition was such that many corporations could take part by being principal sponsor of a team. The big change was that the crowds grew and grew.
the changes began:
2003 – Brian France becomes CEO of NASCAR.
2004 – Chase for the Championship begins.
2005 – Top 35 drivers in points guaranteed starting positions (changed again in 2013).
2008 – Car of Tomorrow introduced.
The Car of Tomorrow (2008). Some of us still have nightmares when we see these.
– Point system changed.
2016 – Charter system introduced.
2017 – “Stage” racing introduced.
Throughout the first half of this period of changes, attendance remained strong and grew at some tracks. Then, the Great Recession hit, and some tracks were affected immediately, while others maintained strong numbers for two, three or even four years before beginning to drop, but when the economy began to recover, attendance continued to fall. None of the more recent changes seems to have had a positive effect.
Intangibles may factor in as well. Many fans felt NASCAR became arrogant and greedy at the height of the boom, and others – especially older ones – felt left behind, in part because of Brian France’s admitted pursuit of younger fans, the next generation.
Additionally, this period saw the consolidation of owners. In total numbers, a race results sheet doesn’t show that big a difference, but 10 or 20 years ago, a higher percentage of owners in the field had a legitimate shot at winning. Today, cars from a handful of giant organizations battle for the lead while much, much smaller teams fight for a spot in the Top 25.
Once upon a time there was room for car owners like Travis Carter, Andy Petree, Bill Davis, Larry McClure and others. (There was room for Kmart, too.)
Finally, without question, while some declare an economic recovery, the working/middle class public has never recovered from 2008, and few people in that economic tier have the disposable income they once had.
Which ingredient is it? Would the 2008 economy have popped NASCAR’s balloon regardless of the car, point system, ownership structure or leadership? I suspect that’s not the case, but there are too many variables to draw a straight line from cause to effect. Nevertheless, there are some steps backwards that would seem to have a chance for success, since they would go farthest toward returning us to how things were in NASCAR’s glory days:
- Cut costs, allowing more sponsors, more owners and more drivers in the door.
- End the Charter system, since lower costs would allow more owners to try their hand, without needing to buy/lease/shoplift a charter.
- Bring back cars that are closer to stock (see #1 above) and simplify the rules. (In other words, “NASCAR, stop micromanaging the sport.”)
With each of these changes, we turn the clock back to something closer to where it was in 1995-2005. My suspicion is that this would bring more “old” fans back into the fold; whether it would accomplish the very necessary task of attracting new ones is a question I can’t answer.
Nobody wants to see this continue – or get worse – but the confidence level in the NASCAR brain trust’s ability to fix it doesn’t seem awfully high.
Finally, as I’ve said before, the problem with most “I can fix NASCAR” experts is that we’re not ready to take responsibility, should our great ideas fail. Nobody that I know of has ever made a proposal and offered to pay for all losses it might incur if it doesn’t work. I’m no different there, but my alternative stands: Brian, if you try it my way and it bombs, I’ll buy lunch (but I get to pick the restaurant).
That’s a guarantee.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Broadcast commentator Dave “Godfather” Moody sounded off on some of the same issues I’ve just mentioned in an Area Auto Racing News article this week (he’s the paper’s NASCAR correspondent). Moody was particularly angered by NASCAR backing off further use of the All-Star Race rules package for other events this season, a decision made after criticism from top drivers and owners. We’re on the same page there, being critical of NASCAR listening to those with a vested interest in the sport and not to the fans, who are fast walking away. He also was critical of younger drivers being promoted to Cup “stardom” too early and of the obsession with high-tech and impossibly complex rules. Finally, he called for a return to more short-track racing at highly regarded weekly venues like Hickory and Oxford Plains.
Dave Moody would like to see Cup racing return to Hickory. Frank would, too.
Good ideas, every one, although I’ll stick with my plan to run mid-week races on those short tracks just prior to regular appearances at current venues (with simpler cars and lower costs, that could happen).
Finally (on this subject), while I still count Brad Keselowski among my favorite drivers, his comments about moving to another, more technologically advanced series if NASCAR adopted All-Star Race-type rules were as stupid as I’ve ever heard from a literate driver. Which other series would you move to, Brad? How much of your salary are you willing to give up? There is NO PLACE where you’d find that panacea – other than Formula One, where you might not be in great demand – and there’s no place where you’d bring home the bucks you do now. I can remember playground swagger that made more sense.
Central PA Sprint Speedweek – Over the last week-and-a-half, Pennsylvania race fans were treated to 10 straight days of intense competition in this annual series, and once again some of NASCAR’s finest took part. For the second straight year, Kyle Larson was a winner, and this year he was joined – at least for some of the races – by Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Christopher Bell and Rico Abreu.
I have a feeling a lot of fans cheered when “Smoke” earned a Top-5 finish during Central PA Sprint Speedweek.
It was about as un-NASCAR as racing gets. Stewart failed to make the field for one race, and no provisional spots were available. The feature can last less than 10 minutes, yet fans go home happy. Rules are simple and seldom change, and if you break them, you’re disqualified, plain and simple. The crowds were great, from all I’ve heard.
Of course, nobody from Daytona likely noticed.