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 (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 understanding 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 Winston Cup Series crown by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson despite having won just a single race that  season. Jimmie, notably, had 3 wins to his name, and 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 had 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. Of course true race fans understood that Kenseth’s body of work was deserving of the crown, but still many wanted to see winning more significantly rewarded over “solid” finishes. NASCAR was worried, we didn’t want to see driver’s “racing for points”, we wanted to see driver’s racing 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 what followed is quite what he or many others had in mind…

“The Chase”, in its many forms (I honestly had a hard time figuring out all its various configurations over the past 14 years), 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, have virtually brought 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 – I’m not sure that would make too much sense to fans of other sports either… 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 being 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, at least in the playoffs, winning over your opponents week in and week out 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 own sensibilities), the chase to me leads the list of reasons why NASCAR is in a free fall. Allow me to elaborate.

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 work hard enough to outperform your opponents. We love this no bull shit trial of the human potential and spirit. If there was one thing sports organizers could do to undermine the captivating nature of sports, 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? After all, it doesn’t really 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. The 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 and alienated your fan base?

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, say, hockey teams a trophy for leading after the first period of a game, 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 in race control 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 back and fourth 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 (very) long drawn out series of meaningless sprints capped with 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, its not Formula 1, but it seems almost every weekend people are just blatantly wrecking each other 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 the race is under yellow, you aren’t even racing at all! You just have someone(s) in a ball of crunched up car while everyone else circulates like they driving to grandmas house until they clean up the mess.

The safety issues have to be emphasized here as well. We’re spoiled in NASCAR, we haven’t had a serious incident in some time. When that day inevitably comes again, will it really be worth it to race like this? Crashing is a part of racing, especially NASCAR, but I think I speak for many when I say it should be minimized wherever possible when it can be done without compromising the spirit of the product. Thinking about Dale Junior’s  apparent 25 concussions, I have to wonder how many of them could have been avoided with a bit higher driving standard. This topic also hearkens back to the driver’s who seem to prefer to win by simply wrecking their competitors out of their way (cough Kyle Busch).  This is not viewed in an impressive light by the fans or many of the drivers. 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 – allowing this proceed really makes a mockery of the sport. Everyone has worked hard to be here, maybe they should be asked to show one another just a bit more respect.

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, as it is 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 returning 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 entertainment world is very different today and ever 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. Even for a NASCAR fan, I’m more likely to pull up some YouTube clips of past races than sit for an on-air broadcast. 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 (or more) 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) just aren’t going to sit down and give up their Sunday afternoon to watch a mediocre program, not to mention one that is constantly interrupted by commercials. I hate to bash NASCAR too much here, as The TV model seems to be breaking down for all sports, notably the previously unshakable NFL. Its just not something people are looking to do in the same numbers as they used to. Personally I’m more likely to go outside and go fishing or hiking nowadays than watch TV, and then watch the reply on my own time (ad-free) on YouTube at a later date. 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 (reader rejoice), so let’s hear about some more potential solutions in addition to those alluded to above.

NASCAR Needs to Mix it Up While Also Going Back to its Roots

I think the main reason I got bored watching NASCAR was that it started to feel repetitive. It doesn’t help that the circuit visits most tracks twice either. Add in that most of them are boring venues and it a recipe for low fan interest. NASCAR needs some new tracks, and yes some of them should be old tracks.

First order of business should be bringing back some of the classic circuits. It sounds like Rockingham and Fairgrounds Nashville might be returning soon. I’m old enough to remember the Rock, a great race between rookie Kasey Kahne and defending champion Matt Kenseth highlighted the venues swansong in 2004. Nashville would be another welcome short track on the schedule, as would North Wilkesboro Speedway. If the Frances had any sense they’d just pump some of their own money into the place and get it going again. Moto GP has 4 events in Spain for a reason – it recognizes the importance of cultivating and maintaining strong interest where it’s core fan base resides. NASCAR should have at least that many in the Carolina’s. NASCAR needs to forget about winning over mainstream American audiences and “casual” racing fans (do these exist?). Auto racing is becoming more and more of an obscure/niche sport every year, and any series would do well to play to its core fans. As far as I’m concerned the “casual” fan is an inherently unreliable customer, and should be of little concern to series organizers. If someone can be won over to tune in weekly, I’d say they no longer fit the definition of a casual fan. If not, then NASCAR should stop attempting (unsuccessfully) to pander to them.

Having said that, I do think there are number of tracks across the country that could win NASCAR some new fans, primarily from other forms of auto racing. I speaking of course about road courses. Virtually everyone loves the road course events, especially fans from other disciplines of racing – this is a golden opportunity. Motorsports needs to make friends with itself as much as possible in these trying times and share what fans it has left. Road America and Mid-Ohio are well attended Xfinity events, and neither state hosts a cup race. I’d love to see NASCAR at some of America’s other quirky road courses such as Lime Rock, Portland, or Willow Springs. Road Atlanta would surely suite the cup cars well too and no doubt draw a big crowd, offering a nice change of pace from the Atlanta oval and Charlotte has tried to accomplish this year with its abomination of a roval. Throw in Mosport for some north of the border action as well and I’d say NASCAR has its best chance of building an audience outside of the southeastern US.

Having said that, NASCAR does need to recognize the modern media environment it is participating in, particularly the low-attention span nature of the modern viewership. NASCAR races are long, a problem that is worsened by the fact that much of the air-time is spent under yellow. I love some of the long races, but I think some shorter races wouldn’t hurt either, and could serve to make the longer events stand out a bit more. IMSA has some great endurance events that always stand out, but many of its short events are appreciated as well, and certainly provide excitement.

Cooler Cars

Let’s be honest, NASCAR’s on-track weapons haven’t really been cool since, I dunno, the 80’s? A couple iterations of the chevy have looked good since then, but not much else. The new Camaro and Mustang are a great step in this direction, but I can’t imagine anyone is all that stoked about seeing a Toyota Camry wheeling around. Racing doesn’t necessarily need to be about high-end sports cars or insane formula’s like indy or F1, but it does need to be cool. I feel this way about ugly uniforms in stick and ball sports, like come on, you gotta sell the sexy aspect here. 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 the heights of the early-mid 2000s then anything is possible, but I think NASCAR really needs to throw the kitchen sink at this given its current state of affairs, and make the product as attractive as possible.

Can the Gimmicks, Can the Chase

I know NASCAR is terrified to do this because it sees these gimmicks as the only thing maintaining any interest in the sport, but as you can probably tell from this article, I couldn’t disagree more. The gimmicks are doing irreparable damage to the sport’s credibility and sooner they can be canned the better. The chase is a giant 17-headed  monster that must be slayed before it continues to sprout any additional heads or appendages. That being said, I agree with the original impetus behind its conception, NASCAR needs to emphasize wins, something I would argue it still doesn’t do a good enough job of. Fortunately, doing this is simple and doesn’t require a complicated, gimmicky playoff system that undermines the driver’s and teams accomplishments. Simply, we just need a points system that more heavily rewards wins. Make it as weighted towards the top as it needs to be to prevent driver’s from racing conservatively. Keep the bonus points for leading a lap and laps lead to promote racing throughout the race. One could also presume that if the sport can reduce its caution flag laps during a race then driver’s would have less room to take it easy on the virtual guarantee that a yellow will catch them up for the final laps when they actually feel like racing. That’s all for now, thanks for reading.

C’mon France’s, let’s make NASCAR great again…

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