Remember When NASCAR Was All About the Fans?
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and our always cordial greeting to our assigned NASCAR reader this week. Today is just more of the same old, same old, so if you’re not a race fan, just move along; there is nothing to see here. However, if you are a race fan, then chances are this will hit you where it hurts at some point.
The following are the opening lines of "A Tribute to Richard Petty", written by Randy Owen, lead singer of the group "Alabama", and performed by that group for the first time at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Georgia at a farewell concert for the King in 1992, his final year of racing. It was reprised nationwide at the closing of the 1992 finale at Atlanta, arguably the best race ever run in NASCAR.
"Before he ever made the headlines
Or won the Winston cup,
He survived his share of crashes
But he never did give up.
On the tracks in Carolina
Where all the Pettys ran,
What kept the motors running
Way back then were you, the fans"
Those words rang very true back then. You, the fans, were indeed what kept the motors running. You were what kept the racing venues open and what kept NASCAR in business. You were what made stock car racing grow in popularity. You were the ones who steadfastly patronized the sponsors involved in the sport with a fierce loyalty unknown in other sports. You were the ones who all cheered or cussed or cried, depending upon the circumstance, but remained faithful to your favorite driver and to the sport in general, as it underwent severe growing pains.
NASCAR racing hit television for its first "flag to flag" coverage in 1979 when CBS took a gamble and broadcast an entire race for the first time. That was the Daytona 500, still famous today, which ended in a fistfight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie. Sadly, that view of NASCAR racing as the brawling faction of motorsports seems to be what set the wheels in motion for what became a phenomenal growth spurt over the ensuing years.
Still, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the major Cable TV channels that carried most of the races, ESPN and TNN, ran spots every week, in conjunction with NASCAR, thanking the fans for being there and for making stock car racing the rapidly growing sport that it was then. It was still about you, the fans!
Back in 1992, Randy Owen and Alabama could not have known how hollow their words would ring some 25-years years later. One has to shake his head and wonder today, "Whatever happened to You, the Fans?"
Today's fans are treated to many new racing venues, it's true. Grand palaces compared to the old short tracks of the Southeast, many of which no longer operate, in the name of progress. “Well”, you say," That happens." Yes, sadly, it does. However, along with it, other things have happened that were definitely not fan friendly.
For the fans at the track, the traffic jams trying to get in and out of the 100,000 plus seating arenas were frustrating, maddening, and caused many fans to miss part or most of the race while sitting in traffic. (Think Kentucky) Never mind how long it takes them to exit unsupervised parking lots with the same number of vehicles. In fairness, a few tracks have established some sort of new infrastructure to ease some of the traffic nightmares… at their own expense, of course.
Oh, did I mention that ticket prices rose to at least double and sometimes triple or more what they were 25-years ago at most tracks? It became the fashion at many tracks to offer tickets only in a "package deal", whereby fans were forced to buy tickets to not only the NASCAR Cup race they wanted to see, but also the companion race, be it the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series, Whelen Modified, or what have you. “Okay, maybe I'll just go a day early and watch both races.” Oh no, it's not as easy as that. That "package deal" may also include tickets to other races at the same track throughout the year. These might include IndyCar events, perhaps ARCA events or any other sanctioned race held at your track of choice. Is your wallet starting to strain? And relieving yourself of any unwanted or unusable tickets in that little package became entirely up to you.
Then you arrive at the gate, overpriced ticket in hand, and ready to go racing. Not so fast! What's all that stuff you have with you? Sorry, your cooler is larger than 12 inches. You can't take it in with you. (But there are food and beverages for sale within the confines of the track. Your wallet is starting to groan.) That bag on your arm, holding your seat cushions, binoculars, stopwatch, rain ponchos, sweaters, sunscreen, earplugs, scanners and any other creature comforts you deem necessary, is too large to be admitted to the track. (Most of these items are available for sale or rent within the confines of the track.) Please return these items to your car, which is parked approximately 3/4 of a mile from the gate and lock them securely out of sight or they won't be there upon your return.
Having finally gained admittance to the track, you are now a victim of the "vendors." Years back, things at the track were overpriced. Today, they are priced clear out of sight! There are no longer drinking fountains to be found, so that you may enjoy the privilege of paying $4.00 for a bottle of water, with no way to keep it cold. Do you remember the old grandstands that had roofs or canopies, so you didn't have to be in the sun for hours? You can still have that for the price of one of the "corporate suites" reaching to the sky around many tracks. Forget it! Your wallet just burst! I'm amazed that so far, no one has put a fee on the Porta-Johns, but stand by; that's probably next.
Now we come to the amenities surrounding each and every track on the circuit. It has become common practice for motels and hotels in the area to raise room rates to an untenable level on a race weekend, and beyond that, insist on a minimum four-day reservation. It ain't just Saturday night racing anymore folks! Restaurants throughout the area will change menus without warning, offering you only the most easily prepared dishes at exorbitant prices, simply because you are a race fan. "Service stations", those places that sell gas but no longer provide service of any kind, raise the price at the pumps especially for you on a race weekend, knowing that sooner or later, you have to drive home. Gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, doesn't it?
*** Time out while your scribe watches the Solar Eclipse on TV. ***
Next, let’s consider the fans that enjoy the races on TV, in the comfort of their own living rooms. Ah, you say," There's the way to get around it all. If the tracks have become unfriendly, I'll stay home and enjoy the race on TV." Think again! Those Cable TV stations I spoke of, that loved and thanked the fans, have been gone since the start of the new millennium. What happened to the loyalty to the networks that had done such an admirable job of bringing us the races all those years? Well, it seems that loyalty was auctioned off to the highest bidders. Welcome to the New NASCAR!
Over the years, the new networks all seem to have taken the same approach to covering races. The fans at home see less and less of the actual race, but are treated to more and more gimmicks, glitter and technological toys each week, coupled with babbling BS from too many sources. Do we really need bubbles on the screen to know which car is the leader? Has anyone else grown weary of being treated to the underside of a toy car, or being taken on a simulated ride around the track?
Race coverage on TV today has many fans running to their radios for the MRN/PRN broadcasts, and muting their TVs as the announcers prattle on incessantly about the good old days, how "I would have done it" or how this or that part affects the handling, steering, braking or whatever of a car, while the race goes on without comment and too often without even a camera.
Then of course, there are the ads. Oh yes, commercials by the carload, with the same ones repeated over and over ad nauseum throughout the broadcast. Back in the "good old days”, there were commercials of course. They are a necessary evil, since they pay the bills. When ESPN/TNN ceased broadcasting the races at the end of the year 2000, actual advertising time was running about 13 minutes an hour. That is less than 25% of the racing being lost to commercials.
Advertising time now runs well over 20 minutes out of each hour, which translates to over 33.3% of your race being given over to commercials. How long should the fans be expected to remain brand friendly in those circumstances? I'm too lazy to calculate exactly what portion of any race is actually being seen, after accounting for commercials, gimmicks, tech explanations, jokes from the broadcasting booth and the like. My guess would be far less than half. Are they trying to drive us all into buying those overpriced tickets to a traffic jam?
"He won seven at Daytona
It was STP and forty-three
King Richard is a legend
And he's a hero to me
When he wins he waves his hand
To the folks up in the stand
He is dedicated
To all the NASCAR fans"
That is the second verse of the Alabama song I cited in the beginning. King Richard was indeed dedicated to his fans, and never turned down an autograph request if he could possibly oblige. Almost all the drivers who were around through the 1970's and 1980's were all too happy to accommodate their fans, realizing that if the fans didn't come, there was no reason to race. My guess is that most of today's drivers would like to do that too, but sponsor commitments have become so demanding that they have to ration their time. They attend scheduled sessions where they must sit and sign for an agreed upon time, without ever having a chance to actually talk to a fan beyond the words "Hello" and "Thanks for coming". For a while, it actually became a fad to hire bodyguards to keep the annoying fans away.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but that just hurts my heart. In my time at the tracks, drivers still went out of their way to mingle with the fans and engage in actual conversations.
Well, to NASCAR, to the TV networks, to the drivers who have no time for their fans, I would only say, “Remember us! We’re the fans. We’re the reason for the races!” Just maybe, all those fancy reasons for the empty seats and plummeting TV ratings are just so much balderdash. Maybe… the fans just got tired of being treated like the a field of mushrooms…kept in the dark and fed BS… and decided to move on to a life without racing… or mistreatment.
Just before we close this one out, I’d like to take a moment to address a statement issued by Brent Dewar, President of NASCAR, in regard to recent violent acts in America and elsewhere.
"NASCAR brings fans of all different backgrounds and points of view together to celebrate one thing they all have in common – a love for NASCAR. We are saddened by recent tragic events around the world and feel strongly there is no place for bigotry, racism, hatred or violence in our society."
Sir, speaking as a race fan of long tenure, I would respectfully request that you change one word in your statement, so that it reads “A love for RACING” not NASCAR. As I’ve often pointed out over the years, the two are not synonymous.
What about it race fans? Let’s hear from you on this one. Are you tired of being mistreated and bled for every dollar possible? Is that the reason for going from a “core fan” to a “casual fan” and finally to a “lapsed fan?”
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and though today’s song isn’t exactly Classic, it’s the obvious song to occupy this space. Please enjoy Alabama offering their tribute to Richard Petty and “You, the fans.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!