Are NASCAR Fans Moving On To Dirtier Pursuits?
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
Anyone who cares even a little bit about auto racing has to be saddened by the empty seats at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend and at other tracks on the circuit, as well as the sluggish ratings for broadcasts of races.
It can’t all be blamed on the economy. If people were true fans, and couldn’t afford to travel to races, wouldn’t they be tuned in at home in large numbers?
It can’t be blamed all on the race tracks, a criticism that Bristol gets from some quarters these days. Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth put on a Petty vs. Pearson kind of battle for the win on Sunday, a battle that should have been a crowd pleaser. But in an era when the pre-race TV promotions in general tend to focus on one wreck after another, the perception seems to be that anything less than a wreck-fest is boring.
An idea as to the whereabouts of the NASCAR fan base can be found in an article in USA Today last week.
In an article entitled ‘’Rednecks swamp TV as viewers seek grittier reality”, writer Carol Memmott took an interesting look at the reality TV shows that have become the rage of late, shows like “Swamp People” and “Hillbilly Handfishin” and “Lizard Lick Towing” that feature the same kind of “real people” that used to drive stock cars back in the day.
And, as the article pointed out, it’s not just men that are tuning in. April Masini, a relationship expert, said swamp people and those who catch catfish with their bare hands are a hit with women as well, something NASCAR discovered about its drivers decades ago.
“Any guy who considered his Porsche, cashmere sweaters and Italian shoes chick magnets, take note. The new man that women are looking for is rugged and fearless — and reality TV has capitalized and is bringing women ‘the new firemen’: men who go into swamps and catch big fish with their bare hands, mano a mano,” Masini is quoted as saying, adding that “Ernest Hemingway would be drinking gin in front of the television, watching “Mudcats” if he was alive today.”
In the article, executives from the History Channel, which carries several shows including Swamp People, said their network is second only to ESPN in viewership by men and that “Swamp People” averages 4.5 million viewers per episode.
Lizard Lick’s Ron Shirley is quoted as saying shows like his feature folks that viewers can identify with, something NASCAR once enjoyed when many of its top drivers grew up in the textile mill villages of the south.
“What America has been looking for for a long time is real people,” Shirley. “They want real politicians, they want real doctors, they want real lawyers. They want people who understand them and are like them.”
It wasn’t that long ago that fans would run into NASCAR drivers at gas stations and restaurants on the way home from races. Now drivers fly in and out of race tracks on private jets and either commute to races on those jets or stay in luxury motorcoaches behind secure fences. They have to be careful what they say or risk trouble with NASCAR or their sponsors.
It’s not the drivers’ fault that they’ve become wealthy, but it’s a sign the sport has changed. Maybe there’s some wealth envy among fans, or maybe they’re looking for a driver like Dale Earnhardt, who hunted and fished and raised chickens and cows away from the race track and on the track seemed like a man who could catch a catfish with his bare hands.
Maybe NASCAR just hasn’t gotten over the loss of Earnhardt. Maybe there’s just not enough drama these days – before, during or after a race.
There’s not much excitement in hearing a Cup driver recite a list of his sponsors and talk about having a good points day. But it is to hear Troy Landry last season, wrestling with a mean alligator on the line, turn to his Swamp People fishing partner, Liz Cavalier and yell: “Shoot ‘im Elizabeth!”
It’s not exactly Danica Mania, but many of the same people that NASCAR used to count on to buy tickets and tune in for race broadcasts sure seem to enjoy it.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments