NASCAR – What’s Goin’ On???

NASCAR – What’s Goin’ On???

It’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and sportscar racing here at The Esses. Indeed, today we will be diving into the wondrous world of stock car racing. Unfortunately we are not visiting the topic of America’s most popular racing series under the best of circumstances; attendance, TV ratings, and sponsors continue to dwindle at an alarming rate. So what’s going on? Where has the sport taken wrong turns? More importantly how can they return to their former glory?

I first fell in love with NASCAR in 2004 at the ripe age of 14 (the year the “chase” was first implemented), I was pretty new to motorsports in general, and even on television the thrill of seeing race cars battle at high speeds was incredibly captivating. At the time I could have had no way of knowing the events that preceded in the 2003 Winston Cup Series, or the cascading effects they might have.

In that 2003 season Matt Kenseth driving for Roush Racing won the premier championship by just 90 points over Jimmie Johnson despite having won just a single race throughout the season. Jimmie, notably, had 3 wins to his name, Ryan Newman, who wound up sixth at year’s end had a whopping 8 trips to victory lane that year. Heading into the 2004 season the sport was peaking, record attendances and sponsor deals brought upon an era of riches for NASCAR.

Despite their rising commercial success, the powers that be decided that what happened in the 2003 was not desirable if they were to maintain their upward trajectory. Kenseth played it conservative, and backed into the championship having failed to finish the final race of the season, a result that might seem incompatible to fans of other sports. NASCAR was worried, they didn’t want to see driver’s “racing for points”, they wanted to see driver’s race with a heightened sense of urgency and desperation, valuing the win above all else. Even the likes of Roger Penske cited the apparent flaw in the points system that rewarded such conservatism in a sport that is supposed to be all about risking it all. I’m not sure this is what he had in mind…

“The Chase”, in its many forms (I honestly had a hard time figuring out all its various configurations), sought to brought an end to the conservative racing strategy employed by Kenseth. NASCAR may have achieved its goal of changing how driver’s approach their race strategy, but in doing so began a chain of decisions that combined with other circumstances to virtually bring the sport to its knees. In the chase format,  drivers can race more aggressively during the “regular” season, assured a spot in the championship playoff if they win a race or if they remain comfortably towards the top end of the points standings. It doesn’t matter if they crash a few times, or even a lot. Yes, it literally does not matter. As is stands in 2018 a driver can win one race in the regular season and DNF all others, and still be eligible for the championship playoff. On the other side, drivers can no longer lay back and cruise to the finish on a lead built up over the first 2/3rds of the season. With the points reset for the playoffs, one mistake in the final 10 races, or one race finishing down on your opponents could mean the difference in the championship, now, winning is everything.

So what’s the problem, that all sounds pretty good right? Well, yes and no. While its great to see driver’s racing hard (even if things do get a little out of hand at times for my sensibilities), the chase to me leads the list of reasons NASCAR is in a free fall. Allow me to share these with you.

The Problems

Gimmicks: If there’s one reason people like to watch sports, its that they are (supposed to be) the ultimate meritocracy. With a little luck on your side, you’ll win if you manage to outperform your opponents. We love this no B.S., trial of the human potential and spirit. If there was one thing sports organizers could do to undermine the captivating nature of this sort of entertainment, it would be to take the merit out of it. Well it seems to me NASCAR has done exactly that. When your performance in the regular season doesn’t really matter, well, why should I watch a race that doesn’t matter? As a result, I think many fans feel that many drivers have been given a shot at, or even won championships that they did not entirely deserve. This is not to take anything away from the driver’s who have found success in this era, they won the competition as it was presented to them. I’m just not so sure the purist NASCAR fan has taken too warmly to changes like this. These gimmicks implemented in an attempt to make the show more appealing the to “casual fan” have done a lot of damage to the sport’s core fan-base, which should be the governing bodies primary customers – these are the passionate folks who will tune in and show up week in and week out. What the sport has gained in measurable “excitement”, it has lost in prestige and recognition. What good is having an exciting race if doesn’t mean anything to anyone because you’ve completely diluted your product?

Stage racing would be another good example of an unwelcome gimmick. I’d be hard pressed to come up with something less meaningful than “stage-win”, especially given that the points they give out for these don’t really mean jack either. Imagine if they gave hockey teams a trophy for leading after the first period of play, whoever came up with that idea would get punched in the face. Stages are effectively a thinly veiled way for NASCAR to do what it loves to, and does best – wave that yellow flag and bunch up the field so we can “go racing boys!” and pretend like the race is close for a few more laps before we throw the yellow again. Which brings us to the next major problem.

Entertainment Value: Plain and simple, NASCAR just isn’t that much of a joy to watch anymore. The trigger happy official on the flag stand is certainly a big part of this. Flip on a race broadcast and much of what you’ll spend your precious Sunday watching is cars slowly circulating under caution, weaving to keep some heat in those Goodyear tires. I understand NASCAR’s thought process here, but I dare say its just flat wrong. I love close racing/restarts as much as the next guy, but what I really crave is the long green flag run. We don’t readily think of it this way, but NASCAR’s cup series is really, for the most part and endurance racing series (and we know how much The Esses loves endurance racing!). Green runs let teams employ strategy, a layer of uncertainty and volatility the sport desperately needs. As the races seem to run these days, we are left with a long (very long) drawn out series of meaningless sprints and then a final chaotic run to the flag. Its often incredibly exciting, but it leaves this fan with something to be desired, I’m never quite sure if the man in victory lane really would have been there if not for the overly managed gimmicky nature of the race. Rubbin is racing is the embodiment of NASCAR, i get that NASCAR racing is meant to end in tears from time to time, but it seems almost every week people are wreaking eachother for positions on track. I’m all for rubbing is racing, but only to the point where it causes a caution! Because of course, once you cross this line, you arent racing at all! You just have someone (s) in a ball of crunched up car while eveyone else circulates like they driving to grandmas house until they clean up the mess. The saftey issues have to be emphaized here as well. We’re spoiled in NASCAR, we haven’t had a serious incident in some time. But that day will come again, will it really be worth it to race like this when we hurt someone or worse. Thinking about Dale juniors 25 concussions… on top of this a driver (cough Kyle Busch) who wins by wrecking his competitors, is not viewed in an impressive light by the fans or his colleges. Its a simple fact – its much harder, and more impressive, to pass someone without wrecking them than it is to simply spin them out of your way.

Its simply an unacceptable situation to have race fans show up or tune in only to watch caution flag laps for most of their weekend, these are the fans you already have! One can only imagine this trend has been driving them away.

It’s Stale: Another big problem I see with NASCAR is how stale it has grown. I find it ironic how the organizers had to keep changing the chase until they found a way to keep Jimmie Johnson from winning it every year. I’d say mission accomplished on that front, its now a complete crap shoot to win the Cup (again I’m pretty sure this is not what the fans want. Despite the fact that we have had many new champions in these past several years, the product some still manages to bore me. Its the same dull racing on the same tracks, with the only spice being the aforementioned, chaotic, and overly engineered finishes.

The problem with the cookie cutter tracks is painfully obvious – they are all the same! I often have to look around for clues when I tune in to remind myself what venue the series is running that week. The end to this model of going to same boring tracks multiple times a year cannot come soon enough. NASCAR has traditionally visited many venues multiple times in a season, with many seasons featuring even more races than the astounding 36 they still manage to put on, but I’m afraid times have changed…

The Modern Entertainment Environment

NASCAR needs to face facts, the world is quickly changing. People have countless options when it comes to entertainment, and many, many of them are more attractive than the entertainment value presented above. Netflix and YouTube are right at your fingertips ready to entertain you at a moments notice. Imagine if you went to watch your favorite show and 5 minutes into it a yellow flag waved across your screen and you had to wait 10 minutes for the action to resume. I get that cautions happen, but its worth acknowledging what we’re up against. Younger generations (and many older frankly) aren’t going to just sit down and give up their Sunday afternoon to watch a mediocre program, not to mention one that is constantly interrupted by commercials. The TV model seems to be breaking for all sports, notably the NFL, its just not something people are looking to do in the same numbers. I’m not so sure the same is true for live events. Most successful sports teams or musical artists are still regularly packing crowds into venues across the country. I see no reason why NASCAR shouldn’t be able to it if they can manage to create a captivating product again.

 

So How About Some Solutions Then?

I think I’ve exhausted my ability to complain about this topic (try to contain your joy), so let’s hear about some potential solutions.

 

Mix it Up While Going Back to its Roots

  • New Tracks
  • More short tracks
  • Less double dates
  • More road courses – how about Lime Rock Park, Willow Springs?
    • Portland
    • Mosport, road atlanta?
    • Road America and Mid-Ohio are big successes
  • Forget about mainstream america, embrace racing america
  • I am salivating at the possibility of going back to Rockingham or Fairgrounds Nashville – tracks with real character and uniqueness. If the France’s had any sense they’d pump some money into making it work at North Wilkesboro Speedway before its too late.
  • some shorter races
  • More relatable and attractive cars. Its a miracle to me that NASCAR amounted to anything after putting cars the like the Gen IV Ford Taurus on a racetrack. If those sad family sedans were able to usher in a the heights of the early-mid 2000s then anything is possible. That being said, I think the sport will benefit a lot from its transition to sports cars (Mustang, Camaro, Supra). People relate to these cars as sporty vehicles, but they have becoming increasingly niche. Most drivers and most cars aren’t really catered to the exhilarating aspect of driving anymore, which is increasingly about comfort, amenities, and automation. These on the other hand are whats left of the “drivers cars”. it only makes sense that racing identify with them.
  • can the chase. completely. i know its scary but its a giant 17 headed tentacled monster that must be slayed before it sprouts any additional heads or appendages
    • How can we emphasis wins? restructure the points to dramatically emphasize wins. this keeps people racing responsibly for points instead of just going for broke, but also incentivizes drivers not to be complacent and go for it.
      • could really clean up the driving, which again desperately needs to be done for a multitude of reasons.

 

other advice

  • can the gimmicks
  • tone down the over commercialization of everything. Its not exactly epic to be dropping sponsor plugs over everything, which have completely infiltrated the broadcast of the race itself

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