Is NASCAR the Key to the Future?
Can It Keep All of Racing Alive?
This spring and summer, I was fortunate enough to see racing at new (for me) tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Washington (rain cost me a track in North Carolina). I love seeing racing at new tracks, but there’s been a problem this year: the number of cars participating seems to be declining just about everywhere.
This is where many “newbies” become race fans, but you need enough cars to create this kind of competition if you’re going to make the conversion.
Not a single one of the tracks surprised me by having more cars than expected, and while some fields were adequate, the number of features run with fewer than 10 cars was higher than I can remember. One West Virginia track had 37 cars on hand for five divisions - that’s barely seven cars per division. Recently, a track nearer home ran a five-division show with a total count of 34.
This is a five-car heat race. You’d better hope these racers stay close together, or this ain’t gonna be exciting.
On smaller tracks, a smaller field, say nine cars, doesn’t look too bad, but on a full half-mile speedway, it’s hard to find the excitement… and don’t even get me started on tracks that split a seven-car field into two heat races and start one heat for three cars. I can’t imagine a first-time fan seeing that and having any desire to return.
This is where the sport’s future starts, but how are we going to recruit the next generation of fans if the races they are made to watch are crappy?
You want them out here on Saturday night, but the racing has to be good, or they won’t be coming back.
A little part of the problem is that race tracks are pretty much unregulated (other than by zoning, noise ordinances and complaining neighbors), and there probably are more tracks than race teams to support them. The answer isn’t just close half the tracks, though, because many teams then find themselves too far away from the nearest speedway and move on to another hobby.
There are two primary challenges. The first is the escalating cost of competition versus the middle class working American’s financial situation: few if any pay raises but plenty of cost increases for health care, transportation, insurance, taxes, retirement planning (if that’s possible at all) and leisure activities. When you could buy a $50 junkyard special, spend $100 or so to spiff it up, and go racing, it was doable for more people than today when those costs are probably 10-20 times higher for even the lowest-budget racing division. Beyond the low-buck classes, think about this: a new super late model dirt track car and engine can easily set you back $75,000.
Then there’s the fading car culture, which I’ve discussed before. Today’s cars aren’t meant for us to work on them, so we become detached, and your car becomes more like an air conditioner or microwave than an extension of your personality. Why tear down the family Kia Soul for the track?
If you stripped down a Soul to make it a local track 4-cylinder pure stock, it probably wouldn’t end up looking quite this good.
This situation, to me, poses more of a threat to the sport than all the nuttiness coming from Daytona these days, but oddly, the sanctioning body we increasingly love to hate maybe has the best chance to do something.
Two weeks ago, I went to a major league baseball game. Part of the pre-game ceremonies included recognition of two local championship youth baseball teams (one boys and one girls), and the honors were done right. You’ve seen NFL telecasts (part of the Super Bowl at one time, if not still) for Punt, Pass & Kick competitions. Other sports do the same thing.
Here’s a picture of one of the Little League teams I saw honored before a Seattle Mariners baseball game. The 12-year-olds had a chance to collect some autographs before the game and were recognized in a pre-game ceremony. One player from the boys’ team and one from the girls’ team threw out first pitches.
When was the last time, on the other hand, that a NASCAR track honored a 15- or 16-year old champion from a local track? When were the kids brought out for a first-hand look at the garage area or even the starter’s stand? Forgive me, but I don’t see a lot of this, and yet the link between these activities and ticket sales seems pretty obvious.
Here’s a group of young racers being recognized, but this program is held in conjunction with the Race of Champions asphalt modified race at Lake Erie Speedway in Pennsylvania, not at a NASCAR event. Who’s thinking ahead, and who’s too busy enforcing its ridiculous rulebook to notice?
To its credit, NASCAR has a public relations effort to support local tracks, but how about the kids keeping those tracks alive by providing the next generation of competitors and fans?
BAPS Motor Speedway (formerly known as Susquehanna Speedway), a weekly dirt track near me, came up with a cooperative program this year with Dover Int’l Speedway, and while some of the details of the effort are a little confusing to me (click on the icon on the track website today and you just get forwarded to a Dover website page), it’s a start, showing that fans of one type of racing can and should be fans of the other. Other tracks could reach out with efforts like this, but the real potential lies in the hands of NASCAR.
I wish I could say that was a comforting thought.
We can throw all the playoffs, stages, Monster Girls, Fan-Zones and other gimmicks we want out there, but we’ll still only reach and connect with a certain number of new fans. If we support other avenues for attracting those fans - like getting them into the weekly short track scene first - we create a second way to find our replacements when we’re gone.
It doesn’t matter which driver the caps are promoting. We just need more kids wearing racing caps and sitting in the stands, or this sport will die.
C’mon, NASCAR, start some regular honors for “weekly warriors” and maybe their fans, making that a part of pre-race ceremonies at major series events. It might just keep your jobs and our recreational preferences alive a while longer.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
This article was written with a heavy heart, because as I was writing it, I learned of the death of one of my area’s most popular racers, sprint car driver Greg Hodnett, who lost his life at age 49 in a single-car crash at BAPS Motor Speedway on September 20.
Of the many drivers who quickly took to social media to express sorrow and condolences, Tony Stewart – not surprisingly – cut to the heart of the matter:
“We all know the risks and rewards this sport presents, but the shocking, sudden loss that racing can bring is always a harsh reminder that neither today nor tomorrow is promised.”
Having been able to watch Greg race, I consider that experience a gift to which I wasn’t entitled but for which I’m grateful. My mistake was taking for granted that I’d be able to see those skills again.
Thoughts and prayers go to Greg Hodnett’s wife, family and many friends.