Pedley: Add Irrelevance To NASCAR’s Woes
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Two very important American races were held last weekend. Only one left its promoters smiling. Why?
It’s a fool’s quest to think that a question like that can be answered with a simple, short, one-reason-covers-everything explanation. In truth, there may be as many explanations as there are race fans.
But in debates like this, not all explanations are created equal.
During a phone conversation on Tuesday, I asked colleague Rick Minter – who was at Bristol Motor Speedway last week – why he thought that the NASCAR event he was at was greeted with yawns, criticism and empty seats while the the Twelve Hours of Sebring race which I was at attracted what may have been a record crowd.
Minter didn’t need time to think before saying, “relevance”. I think he – along with a hefty number of people who have written to this website – is dead-on accurate in this assessment.
Car dudes and car chicks these days are much more into the kinds of cars raced in the American Le Mans Series and in the GT classes of the Rolex Grand-Am Series. Cars by Audi, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar, Corvette.
When I say “more into”, I’m talking about the passionate affair between Americans and their automobiles. The kind of cars – these days – which people spend their Saturdays detailing in their driveways. The kind of cars they visit first at car shows. The kind of cars younger people go to bed dreaming about driving some day.
Sorry, NASCAR and Detroit (well, Canada and Mexico these days) but I just don’t think there are a whole lot of 15-year-olds out there who have posters of Ford Fusions hanging on their bedroom walls.
And I think that the car folk of today are very aware that the vehicles they see at Auto Club Speedway
or Bristol Motor Speedway have very virtually noting in common with the Impalas and Camrys they have in their garages. They know that Sprint Cup cars are little more than very slow Indycars with fenders.
Detroit Iron used to rule the roads in this country. An entire generation grew up dreaming about, and eventually buying, GTOs, Super Stock Dodges and Mustangs. And once they had those cars, they would start bolting on gleaming chrome and coveted American-made speed equipment.
When they went to Darlington or Martinsville to see the Cup shows, they could watch the genetics of their personal cars at work on the track. If David Pearson won at Rockingham, the drive home in the Ford Torino was accompanied by major pride.
See, in racing, fans have always pulled for cars – and against cars – as much as they have pulled for drivers. It is their very personal link to what goes on at the race tracks.
A big, orange sun had barely crept over the flat, still-active runways east of the Sebring track on race day when a 35-ish guy in facial stubble, jeans and a t-shirt caught my eye. He had a microfiber cloth in one hand and can of some kind of energy drink at his feet. He was standing next to a dark blue Porsche 911 which was parked next to his fold-out camper.
Nope, ’91, but…
…And he went on to detail the car’s modifications, history, specs, power and speeds through each of the five gears. He corrected me on my assessment of its exact color and he apologized for the flecks of dirt around the wheel wells. He talked about getting ready to put it away for the summer: Too hot to drive cars with older, challenged air conditioners around Florida in the summer.
But, he said the car would not just sit. He had some small fixes in mind. A mod or two he was considering. It would need new tires soon. “Michelins, of course.”
“Want something to drink?”
That’s the way it was at Sebring. Car people and their cars. The official “corrals” were filled with A5s, M3s, 599s and C7s. Around them, people stood with arms folded and heads nodding in conversation. Along the infield roads, kids and boomers alike stood pointing at a classic Cobra or Testa Rossa or 356.
When warmup laps started and the dew began to disappear, cars which looked remarkably like the
cars in the infield began blowing past. They looked remarkably like the cars in the infield because they were like the cars in the infield. In the GT classes, the Porsches and BMWs and Corvettes had actual headlights, for goodness sakes.
The oldsters at NASCAR races talk about the days when the cars used in races would be driven home afterward. Many of the cars at Sebring were street legal, or could be with a couple turns of the wrench.
And the prototypes? The DNA of those exotics is closely linked to the GTs.
Yes, the still-anemic economy is hurting NASCAR attendance. Yes, the plethora of weekend programming is dragging down the TV ratings. And of course promoters over-build grandstands in the 1980s and ‘90s.
And another colleague, Larry Woody, is absolutely correct when he said 100,000 is still an enviable head count for any sport these days. And no, not all ALMS and Grand-Am races will attract the kind of crowds that showed up for Sebring last week and last month at Daytona for the 24-hour race.
But, at Sebring there was just this heightened sense of identification between people watching and the cars and drivers who were being watched.
You know, like it used to be at North Wilkesboro.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments