Flat Spot On – A Win for Bubba and Motor Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 8 2021

Race-winner Bubba Wallace got a congratulatory hug from good friend Ryan Blaney after Sunday’s race at Talladega. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Welcome to the race to promote motor racing to the younger generation. It didn’t start with Bubba Wallace’s victory at Talladega, but that sure accelerated things for NASCAR.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the TV ratings in NASCAR are not what they once were. They are falling, even relative to other sports leagues in an era of decreasing interest in live sports coverage. Meanwhile, IndyCar’s viewership numbers are showing positive signs of growth, albeit in the final year of a fruitful relationship on the NBC Sports channel that is being shut down and replaced by NBC, Peacock and USA Today.

There’s no insider info here, only what longtime sportswriter David Kindred might call a “dime store hunch” about these TV ratings. It centers around the same issue for both organizations: legacy fans. They’re coming back on the open-wheel side, thanks to the revival of the Indy 500 in 2016 at its 100th running and last year’s sale of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series to Roger Penske. (This, of course, also meant the departure of Tony George and his family, the owners of the Speedway since World War II and a primary source of lost enthusiasm for many fans.)

Meanwhile, the older generation of fans that followed NASCAR are leaving, if not long gone.

It is the cynic in me that suggests NASCAR finally dispensed with the Confederate flags at race tracks not only because these battle flags were on the wrong side of history. The sanctioning body, I suspect, had recognized that its efforts to woo back the legacy fans, whose departure led to an attendance and TV ratings meltdown, had failed.

By ceasing to chase the (ahem) older folks, the door was opened to pulling out all stops to the future such as pursuing a more diverse following. Other than ratings that were already slowing, there was little to lose by being on the right side of history.

Wallace’s victory at Talladega on Monday demonstrated there was everything to win.

After reminding himself to be aggressive, the Cup series’ only black driver turned in a classic performance at one of NASCAR’s most storied tracks to score his first career victory. His pit crew kept him in contention. He drove through wrecks. With the race on the line due to the threat of rain, Wallace then got to the front in an always fierce draft and maintained the lead on board his Toyota against two Team Penske Fords. As his friend and fellow Cup driver Dave Blaney said, “He put it to ’em.”

Wallace won in a series that is tougher than out-of-date beef jerky. He has risen to the level of his equipment at each stage of his career. Fortunate to have been on Cup teams where he has been the only driver, first at Richard Petty Motorsports and presently with 23XI Racing, Wallace’s teams have sunk or swum with his results. Starting with a second place in the Daytona 500 in his first full season with the Petty team, Wallace has done his part to become a winner.

Will this victory help turn a recent tide of history that suggests motor racing is no longer major league? That’s a perception resulting from empty grandstands (long before the pandemic) and plunging TV ratings.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the incredibly large crowds at motor races kept sports editors in line. Once the Great Recession hit, those big crowds disappeared due to legacy fans giving up on a sport that is always destined to change. After this scenario of disappearing fans occurred in NASCAR’s biggest events and at the Indy 500, newspaper sports editors, besieged by shrinking budgets, gave up on racing.

As for electronic “journalism,” it was only a matter of time before networks stopped paying much attention to any sports organization that was not a broadcast partner. Meanwhile, sanctioning bodies tried to fill the coverage gap with their own in-house version of events on websites.

Prior to COVID, racing finally got back to full houses at the Daytona 500 (albeit with reduced seating) and the Indy 500. As those big events go, so goes racing’s fortunes. But even in 2020 when NASCAR and IndyCar were the first to resolve the problems of scheduling during the pandemic, mainstream news and sports stories talked about the NFL being the first major league to attempt a full schedule. AS IF RACING DIDN’T EXIST.

When Helio Castroneves won an historic fourth Indy 500 earlier this year in front of a COVID-limited 135,000, ESPN yawned and gave this story a quick minute halfway through Sports Center with a voiceover that included some guy named “pillow” finishing second. That guy—“Pal-oh”— is now the IndyCar champion.

In the case of Wallace, he earned a Q&A feature on ESPN, which suggests how far the needle can be moved by diversity in motorsports when a black driver is successful in America. Needless to say, perception is significant, because it has much to do with sponsorship, media coverage and TV contracts. 

In many respects, IndyCar is about as diverse a major league sport as possible, given the participation of women and drivers from all over the world. Alas, black participation remains scarce in American open wheel racing’s upper ranks.

In the long view, all forms of racing in America are better off to the extent that they embrace diversity, because the country is becoming more diverse. In addition to attendance and TV ratings, it can make a difference in terms of dollars for NASCAR and IndyCar to be perceived on the same level as Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL, which have long since embraced diversity.  More recently, the stick-and-ball sports have become far more oriented to sponsors and now compete for sponsorship with racing.

So, a tip of the racing cap to Bubba Wallace for sticking to his career game plan and winning a Cup race. He’s putting it to ’em in more ways than one.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”  Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is also available on Amazon.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 8 2021
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