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Pedley: Add Irrelevance To NASCAR’s Woes

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 26 2011

At Sebring, cars which people drive on the streets – like Corvettes and BMWs – drive on the track with prototypes like the Aston Martin. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

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

A Porsche 911 with real headlights.

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.

Yours?

Yep.

A 964?

Yep.

1992?

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

Fans can watch real cars and prototypes blow past at sports car races.

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 jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 26 2011
9 Comments

9 Comments »

  • Taylor says:

    Dick –

    You get 100,000 plus at Sebring, Long Beach Saturday crowd over 50,000 and Petit Le Mans (at over 100,000 fans) is officially one of the largest outdoor sporting events in the state of GA since the Olympics were held there and even Lime Rock squeezes a capacity crowd for the ALMS race there for the last two years of around 50,000 fans. So in fact, that’ll fill the backstretch bleachers a LOT more than you can imagine. Check the aerial shots in the Sebring race for more info and while we’re at it go to Jayski’s (http://jayski.com/pages/tracks-seating.htm) and you’ll find that Petit Le Mans had more ticket buyers than either of the 2010 Sprint Cup races in Atlanta.

  • Dick says:

    Having a bit of the “apples’n oranges” are we, Jim? Though I hear and ditto your basic, underlying premise, I surmise that a fuzzy math “record crowd” at an endurance race wouldn’t fill the back stretch bleachers at a stock car race.

    Having said that, I personally have turned away from the NASCAR soap opera and towards NHRA, WoO, Lucas Offroad Trucks and NTPA tractor pulling for my ‘need for speed’.

  • Charles says:

    Nascars failure to see how important ‘the make of car’ is to the sport is one thing thats ruining it! The “Car Fan” is what made Nascar!

    Look I been to racing since 60s, the from that era to mid 90s evolved, never really like the ones we drove home, but basic things like bodies, rear drive, engines that were relevant to the make and model, and its what made Nascar!!!!

    Now with COT they have turned Nascar into a spec car series and it has ‘car fans” leaving to other hobbys that the brand of car is more relevant!!!

    I am a Car Fan, not a driver fan, but have favorite drivers, having competion between the brands of cars gives fans a more incentive to go to Nascar races!

    And dont think for one minute the ‘car guy’ is a dying breed, just look at Barrett Jackson, are go to the Food Lion Charlotte Auto Fair this coming APRIL at Charlotte Motor Speedway and you will probably see more young people than at a Nascar event!

  • Andy in Greensboro says:

    Robert -

    You sir are the stupid American here.

    http://www.insideline.com/bmw/m3/2011/2011-bmw-m3-gts-first-drive.html
    http://www.autoblog.com/2010/03/04/bmw-z4-gt3-is-the-v8-powered-z4-m-you-can-race/

    You can buy a race ready Ford Mustang, Porsche GT3, or Ferrari. The Corvette has stepped down a class and could probably be offered race-ready without a lot of effort.

    Any of these cars would cost a ton of money but don’t forget that the engine in a hemi Roadrunner cost as more than the base price of the car. The BMW is not officially available here, but that means it can’t be registered for the street. The government allows any race car to be imported as long as it is crushed or exported again within a specific time limit.

  • Jerseygirl says:

    Sounds reasonable to me. I’m not that much into the kind of cars that ran at Sebring — too pricey for me, but I understand why they would attract more people than the kit car that NASCAR has on the track. It’s ugly and an abomination and doesn’t race for beans.

    I’m a long time chevy fan, but that thing on the track isn’t an Impala and in my mind an Impala isn’t a race car anyway, Nope, I have no loyalty to a decal.

  • SB says:

    If nothing else, using cars that the manufacturers actually built, they could use them for innovation and research. Now, with Nascar building the cars and not allowing any improvisation, there is little reason to get excited about the cars. I still wonder why any of the ‘Big’ Three bother with Nascar anymore.

  • rich busch says:

    I was going to watch the busch race (nationwide) today then I saw the top ten postions .Think ther was eight nationwide drivers in the top ten why waist my time

  • Jim says:

    Robert: Of course you cannot buy an ALMS BMW. You couldn’t buy a Torino and have it race ready either. But you can buy a BMW and build it into a GT car. The point being, the cars at Sebring and Daytona 24 actually have something in common with the BMWs I have owned.

  • Robert says:

    Like you can go to the BMW dealer and buy an ALMS ready BMW? Come on man, the American consumer is smarter than that! You can’t buy an ALMS ready Corvette either and no one at Sebring believed you can.