Who Are Tomorrow’s Fans Going to Cheer?
This year’s Pennsylvania Sprint Speed Week starts Friday, June 28, and continues through Saturday, July 6, which means there are two NASCAR Cup races – Chicago and then Daytona – interfering with Cup drivers taking a quick vacation with these monster (small ‘m’) little race cars. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see Kyle Larson at one of the midweek shows. Christopher Bell might sneak away from Xfinity competition to have some fun, too.
If Larson shows up in a sprint car, the fans will follow, so why aren’t there more Cup drivers like him?
There will be some interesting stock car and modified racing during that time, too, at places like Weedsport, N.Y., Wilmot, Wisc., LaSalle, Ill., Las Vegas, Nev., and Smyrna Beach, Fla., but you’re not likely to see any of your Cup heroes moonlighting there.
That’s a shame, because fans like having a visiting star come to town, and it raises the sport’s overall visibility. Too bad it doesn’t fit into the current marketing model for our sport.
Even worse is that it doesn’t fit the plan to have the heroes of those bullrings “move up” to the NASCAR “big time” – unless, of course, they are plucked from that life at a tender age and put in somebody’s driver development program. (For this article, we’ll skip over the role that drivers have in getting into these development programs by bringing along sponsors or big wads of money – that’s another issue.)
I know, I know . . . you’ve heard all this from me before, but it just needs to be said again and again; the stars who built this sport probably would not have gotten a chance to prove themselves in the era of driver development programs and team charters. And to this writer, those two cornerstones of today’s NASCAR are helping to keep the sport from regaining its former popularity.
Bill Elliott – Came into NASCAR as a kid driving a part-time, low-buck car owned by his dad. Eventually, the team began scoring occasional Top 10 and then Top 5 races, leading to investment by a wealthy automotive businessman (who made his move without a charter). That scenario has virtually no chance of happening today. Also, by the time he drove his first full-time season, Elliott was 27, too old to be given a solid shot at the big time today. Scratch the perennial most popular driver – and his fans – from the sport.
Today’s incredibly misguided driver development programs leave little chance of new drivers building the huge fan bases of these guys (and yes, that’s Chase with Dad).
Dale Earnhardt – After driving four races for four different car owners over three seasons, drove four more for a part-time team, then got his break at age 28. While Ross Chastain, 26, may yet find a golden slipper in his size, the age curve skews to much younger drivers today. Besides, what driver development program would have put up with “Ironhead” back in those days? Scratch one of the leading candidates for “greatest of all time” from the sport.
Tony Stewart – Stewart didn’t become a fulltime Indy Car driver until he was 26, and he drove his first Cup race at 28, so age again is something that might prove a problem today. The more pertinent question, though, is whether a team would take a chance on someone as volatile as Stewart. Even today, Tony doesn’t struggle to find sponsors, but the way NASCAR and the PR/marketing world dodge anybody with real personality (Chastain excepted), it’s surprising that Stewart’s ubiquitous cardboard stand-up cutouts aren’t more successful than he is. Quite possibly scratch a driver with an incredible talent and an incredibly loyal and large fan base from the sport.
Talent, personality and accessibility keep Tony Stewart popular and enable him to attract sponsorships post-NASCAR more successfully than many still in the “big time.”
The list could go on and on: Rusty Wallace was another racer who was in his late 20s when he got his shot; Ricky Rudd struggled early in a family-backed team that wouldn’t have had a charter and would have had to compete for one of those four slots at the back of the field each week; ANYBODY who drove for Junie Donlavey would be out of luck today, since…
I’m not going to name names, but look through the starting lineup of a Cup race this year and tell me how many of those drivers you’ve seen on t-shirts being worn around town. I STILL see t-shirts for the drivers noted above, but not for the current “developmental” crowd.
I REALLY, HONESTLY do hope that NASCAR succeeds in recovering its lost glory, but I don’t see it happening unless without a system that enables drivers to build their fan bases by proving their ability at lower levels for longer periods of time, then by earning their way into Cup seats.
I wish I could say I think it’s going to happen.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Went to a party the other night, and I was surprised by how many people I met who had something involving automotive competition or other mechanical interests to talk about – made the night zip right along for me. Unfortunately, not one in that crowd was younger than 50, and most were near or past retirement. Granted, my conversation partners were somewhat self-selected (or maybe the young folks just didn’t want to talk with me), but from the conversations I could overhear, none of the youthful conversation skewed in that direction.
That, to use an expression from a Broadway musical none in that young group would remember, constitutes “Trouble in River City.”
Sadly, this group probably isn’t talking about racing
NASCAR’s recent willingness to express interest in hybrid cars for racing strikes me as odd, since most people of influence seem to think hybrids are just a transitional step on the road to total electric (or maybe hydrogen gas). I think we need to begin the shift to SUVs first, because the car models now being used do nothing for the “win-on-Sunday, sell-on-Monday” logic for factory involvement in racing. Sort that one out, and maybe the future power source will be a little easier to predict by then.
Around the world, Formula e racing is increasingly popular – note that it’s “e” for “electric,” not “h” for “hybrid”
Here’s another drum you’ve heard me bang before: with the July 4 holiday coming up, look at your schedule and see if you can build a day/night at the races in somewhere. Seems about as All-American as anything you can do to celebrate our independence.