Minter: Recent Races Produce Empty Feelings
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
These are some strange, eerie times in the world of NASCAR. Despite all the rules changed in the offseason to jazz up the racing, attendance keeps falling, and in a big way. Even more strangely, no one seems to want to talk – or write – about it.
Not only did Bristol Motor Speedway end its string of some 50 straight sellouts, it didn’t even come close. Depending on whose estimate you believe, there were 30,000 or more empty seats for the Food City 500.
FOX broadcaster Darrell Waltrip tried to put a positive spin on it, saying during the broadcast: “There are still 100,000 people here.”
But the problem is the place seats more than 160,000.
At Martinsville, a track that in the past has had remarkable success getting fans to come back on Monday after a Sunday rain-out, there appeared to be more empty seats than full ones. And there weren’t many in the stands when the race was called on Sunday.
Those two tracks should have benefited more than any from NASCAR telling the boys to “Have at it” and from the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident at Atlanta.
It also appears that the attendance issues are even more troubling in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
The TV ratings are another big question mark, but they’ve suddenly become awfully hard to find after being readily available on the Net for years.
So what’s the problem?
It’s totally unscientific, but here are some possibilities.
NASCAR’s core audience is being hammered by the Great Recession far more than any numbers reveal.
The unemployment numbers, while bad, don’t count the construction worker who’s working a day or two a week where he or she used to get five or six. They don’t show people who have taken lesser paying jobs, with paychecks that don’t have room for race tickets. Hotel and motel prices around race tracks still are unreasonable, and even with discounted tickets at most tracks, it’s still expensive to attend a race.
There’s a disconnect among core fans and the drivers of today. Part of the allure of NASCAR back in the day was the idea that the mechanic and dirt track racer next door could one day become a NASCAR star. But while the boys and girls next door can make it to American Idol, they can’t make it to NASCAR unless they’ve got big bucks behind them and the looks to be the spokesperson for a sponsoring company.
As Jeff Gordon pointed out in a recent interview, a raw, unwashed talent like Dale Earnhardt would have a tough time getting into NASCAR today. “They’re going to have to win a lot, be really spectacular on the track,” Gordon said. “Sponsors are driving the sport. It’s gotten expensive, and you have to have a sponsor.”
He pointed out that sponsors often prefer marketability over driving talent.
He said some sponsors say: “We’d rather have this guy, even if he doesn’t win as much because we can market him.”
The inevitable late-race caution and up to three tries at a green-white-checkered finish have rendered the rest of a 500-mile or 500-lap race relatively meaningless.
Why spend an afternoon watching racing that becomes old news as soon as the caution waves with 10 to go and a major league race become a Saturday night heat race?
Jimmie Johnson’s dominance is hurting the sport. The only real problem from a fan’s standpoint is there’s really nothing to dislike about him. What NASCAR needs is a rivalry, but again, as Gordon pointed out, neither he nor the majority of drivers out there today can be Johnson’s rival because to have a rivalry, there has to be a stark difference in the two major players.
“You have to have the black and white,” he said. “One over here and represents something more conservative or younger, whatever it may be. Then this one over there represents the core fan, the good ol’ boys and people who have been following the sport for years.”
For me, the most encouraging sign in recent weeks is that in an interview with Gordon, he seemed to recognize and appreciate the importance to NASCAR of its long-time good ‘ol boy audience.
Who would have ever thought back in the days of the intense rivalry between the Intimidator and Wonder Boy that Wonder Boy would grow up to be the one pointing out the importance of the Intimidator’s old fan base?
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments