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Harris: Fans Not Sprinting To Cup

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2010

Excitement is up, attendance is down at NASCAR tracks. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The Chase race Sunday at Dover was competitive enough to satisfy most people.

There were lead changes, some pit stop drama and plenty of the Chase drivers right in the midst of the action up front.

What there wasn’t much of was an audience. At least not like just a few years ago when seats at Dover  and most of NASCAR’s other tracks were at a premium and full houses were what everyone expected.

One huge portion of the big Dover grandstand was empty, used as little more than a background for a couple of huge advertisements.

More telling, an overhead shot of the entire grandstand showed that the part that was populated had big areas of empty seats.

Granted, there was the possibility of rain in the forecast, which may have kept the walkup clients from coming out. But it wasn’t that long ago when most of the tickets were sold well in advance of the events at Dover.

And I’m not just getting down on the Delaware track, which puts on a great show and does a very good job of catering to the fans. This is fast becoming an epidemic.

And, of course, the TV ratings have been sinking, too – although we don’t know the numbers from Dover as yet.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is NASCAR’s showcase event. It was designed to help the stock car sport compete with the NFL and baseball’s postseason. But it seems that in its seventh year, the NASCAR postseason has lost some of its allure for the general public.

Rabid stock car fans will turn out at the tracks, watch on TV and listen to the radio broadcasts on a regular basis. But, between the moribund economy and what seems to be large numbers of casual fans jumping off the bandwagon that was so robust only a few years ago, times are getting tough.

Remember all those stories about NASCAR moms and dads and all the excitement about how Sprint Cup might be able to give the mighty NFL a scare?

Forget it.

It’s beginning to look like a lot of those estimated 75 million stock car fans that NASCAR has repeatedly alluded to have lost interest.

There is a familiar, if uncomfortable feel, to what’s going on.

When I first began covering NASCAR in 1980, it was considered little more than a regional sport and it was hard to get a story in the newspapers outside of the southeast – unless it was about Richard Petty or a nasty crash.

But RJ Reynolds, with its Winston brand, began putting huge sums of money into the sport, helping tracks modernize facilities and spending millions on promotion. ESPN began to promote stock car racing, NASCAR expanded into new areas of the country, Dale Earnhardt became a huge star and Jeff Gordon came along to challenge him.

It was an upward spiral that resulted in fabulous television contracts, a building boom that increased overall seating by hundreds of thousands and enough of a buzz that people who had never  shown any interest in the sport, suddenly began watching and buying tickets.

Companies lined up to throw money at teams, sponsor races or become official NASCAR sponsors. It was suddenly “The Golden Age’’ of NASCAR.

When Bill France Jr., then chairman of NASCAR, announced the first centralized TV contract in the sport’s history in Dec. 1999 – a $2.4 billion, six-year package covering Winston Cup and what was then the Busch Series – he was asked if NASCAR could keep growing indefinitely.

“I don’t see why not,’’ the late Mr. France said. “This sport has a little bit of something for everybody and we’re just starting to hit our stride.’’

Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing that tough economic times a few years down the road would gut the car companies that are the backbone of the sport, force even mega-companies to rethink their participation in NASCAR and take disposable funds out of the pockets of even the most loyal fans.

Now, despite what may wind up being the best 10-race Chase yet, there appear to be more questions than answers about where the sport is headed.

We can only hope that better times will bring back the buzz that turned the sport into a phenomenon in the late 90s and early 2000s.

In the meantime, NASCAR and the tracks are just going to have to learn to deal with empty seats and flat or sliding TV ratings. And that’s simply a fact of life in 2010.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2010
11 Comments

11 Comments »

  • LeRoy says:

    I enjoyed NASCAR when I first started watching it in the early 90’s. It has a fire to it that you couldn’t ignore. Then came the COT and “improvements” to tracks. I think those two things killed the sport. If you look at practice with the COT and see which cars are going the fastest, those are the only cars that will go fast the whole race. With this new car, you can’t improve the car during the race. So the awesome cars lead the race, the simi-good cars are top 15 and everyone else is just riding around. With the old car, it seemed that teams were able to make adjustments to make the car come alive during the race, but not so much with the COT.

    As for the “improvements” to tracks that were fan favorites is a bad idea. Adding additional racing lanes only creates passing opportunities and not good racing, so those awesome COT cars can go to the front and stay there all race long.

    Now the only reason I watch NASCAR race is if I had trouble sleeping the night before. Watching a race will close my eyes quicker then anything else out there.

  • Terry says:

    They made it an all driver based show…..they let Ironhead SR. BOOT people in the wall to pass for years and ESPN said “great” fans love it…
    they tried to control costs by cloning cars and tight rules…..NOW everything is cheating……THEY TOOK THE …..CAR MAKERS OUT…INNOVATION OUT….MECHANIC’S OUT…..
    it is all driver …..and they are go cart kids….not a MAN at the track unless…BILL ELLIOTT is racing that week….
    I love the old school WOOD BROS….60 years in NASCAR and still holding on …..with MEGA teams and NASCAR sucking all the money up…

  • mark mitchem says:

    I aggree the chase sucks . nascar trying to be like football . Guess what . Its NOT FOOTBALL ! Auto racing was and still would be the fastest growing sport in the world if it wasent for a few things . The Chase , The COT , The lack of short tracks and tracks like the rock and wilksboro . I used to go to all the Charlotte races , Rockingham , Martinsville , and wilksborough . But no more havent attended one in two years and dont plan to . At least not until things change . BTW you want to see some real racing go see the Frank Kimmel Street Stock Series . They race at the rock and are usually 60 cars strong ! Come on Nascar Get witht he program and listen to the fans that have made you what you are , I mean were .

  • Jeff says:

    I will tell you why nascar’s attendence and tvratings are down.The lack of interest is due to nascar’s big push to attract the new younger fan base to the sport by the big influx of young guns taking over the top rides wich started about 6 years ago.This idea has backfired due to the fact that you really never get a chance to learn about the driver they just appear in a winning car and when they win races they will attract the casual younger sports fan but there is no real bond between the driver and the fan so it has a bandwagon fan effect.Because the only true attraction to the driver was when he is winning,when he doesnt win there is nothing else to keep the fan interested.The true backbone of nascar has been the loyal fan that sticks with their driver wether they are winning races or not.This loyalty was created by having a chance to see their driver work their way up to the cup level or start off in a lower budget cup team and work their way into a top cup team.This way the fan gets a chance to get to know the driver.

  • Lou says:

    sorry for the grammer and mis spelled words , watching my grandson , I meant the yankees having a 8 game lead and than hit the reset button and only having a game or two lead , this chase is killing Nascar, If Harvick doesnt win it will be a shame and I dont even like him

  • Lou says:

    SB is right on the screws , it would be like the Yankees having a 8 game lead out of first and come mid Aug it’s all for not , This chase is a shame , they should have kept the old system in place but gave more points to the winner and maybe more for the car that leads the most lap , make it more interesting and give some points to the pole winner , Nascar killed the goose who laid the golden egg and the greedy hotel owners did the same , I stayed in dumps that went for almost 200 a night and they weren’t more than 60 a night any other weekend , yes these people should have made money but they gouged fans for years , I used to go to at least 10 races a year , sometimes more and I went to 1 last year (vegas ) and none this year , the first year since 1987 I havent been to a race , not because I can’t afford it , it’s because Im sick of the crap , cheat get slapped on the hand , the cot , the cookie cutter tracks , I always had darlington , the rock and dometimes north wilkesboro on the schedule , Na$car screwed us older fans for the johnny come latelys and now that ship has sailed .

  • Steve says:

    Mike, you stated “The Chase race Sunday at Dover was competitive enough to satisfy most people.” Only because most people are not NASCAR fans. C’mon, this was one boring race. Then you followed that up with this, “There were lead changes, some pit stop drama and plenty of the Chase drivers right in the midst of the action up front.” I was there, seated at the exit of turn 4. There were two green flag passes for the lead all day, so technically you are right. I don’t count those taking the lead during green flag pit cycles as “passes for the lead.” The most exciting part of day was watching attempts to enter pit road during green flag racing. These cars were sliding left and right and smoking tires. To NASCAR, it’s the car stupid! If these are the greatest drivers in the world, then it must be the car. Until NASCAR engineers the inequality of clean air handling vs in-traffic handling then this is the type of sorry racing we’ll continue to see.

  • Junior says:

    Good column. I’m also one of the “old timers” that has finally stopped going to the Atlanta race after 18 years. I would say right now it is somewhat a money issue, but it is also the fact that the drivers are getting younger (as I get older) & I tend to feel out of touch. I’m 49, I have Mark & pull for him, also pull for Kyle as my young guy! But I miss the day’s of the old guys (more than one or two of ‘em) out there giving the younger drivers a lesson or two in respect for the path paved for them BY them! I was not an Earnhardt Sr. fan in the day, but I sure miss him now! Give me him, Rudd, Allison, Rusty…etc. They are the magic NASCAR is looking for, but you rarely even see THEM at the track to enjoy a race. I think that is quite telling!

  • SB says:

    Gee whiz, it seems the closer we get to the end of ‘the chase’, the thinner the crowds in the stands and the TV audience gets. Think there might be a connection? It doesn’t matter how much you tweak it, fans aren’t buying this phoney not-a-playoff scenario. Nascar has managed to trivialize 2/3 of the season, blow off the team leading the points after 26 races, and left most of their most exciting tracks (those would be the short ones) in the dust. Seems like the fans are now leaving Nascar in the dust. Chickens coming home to roost.

  • GinaV24 says:

    The best chase ever? You mean the phony method that NASCAR dreamed up to try and boost interest at the end of the season? It’s a bust as far as something that interests most fans.

    It’s not the economy as much as poor management decisions by NASCAR. There’s a fine line between supply and demand and NASCAR jumped the shark. Between the spec car, cookie cutter tracks, too many races so the season is too long and the idiotic way to determine a champion, the fans, both diehard and casual have lost interest. The only people who care about the last 10 races are Johnson fans and there aren’t enough of them to put people in the seats or watch the tv coverage.

  • steve says:

    Nascar should not have tried to be GOD and change everything. Rules,cars,tracks. They should have left it the way it has always been. Now you’ve got maybe 5 drivers that win all the time?how. Everyone is bummed and tried of watching boring race’s, watching the cars go round and round until 1 of the five drivers wins. WOW NASCAR HAS REALLY MADE IT INTERESTING.