NASCAR’S NEW DIRECTION
If you were paying attention, this past weekend, NASCAR held its annual pre-season Busch Light Classic event. This is the warm-up for the annual Daytona event. It’s really more of an exhibition, but this one was special.
For starters, it wasn’t at Daytona, or any other regular NASCAR venue – it was held in the Los Angeles Coliseum, making it the first time The Coliseum has ever hosted a NASCAR event.
Secondly, instead of racing on a 2.5 mile oval, racers would be on a 1/4 mile oval. The contestant’s 63mph average lap speed was nothing compared to the speeds of attending fans on California’s freeways.
In addition, this week, the Next Gen NASCAR (7th Gen) took to the track in an actual race. The new car now sports a 5.8L V8 and a five-speed sequential gearbox. Lordy, lord, no manual transmissions anymore? Say it isn’t so? Is life still worth living?
Other firsts at this NASCAR event included the appearance of a live DJ. DJ Skee built an empire by consistently identifying the next trends in music, culture, and tech. As a DJ, Skee is best known for introducing the world to artists including Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Post Malone, Travis Scott, and more on his TV and radio platforms. Skee has produced for defining artists of this era ranging from Snoop Dogg to Michael Jackson and composed music for top-selling video game series like HALO and Ghost Recon.
Another popular performer, Pitbull, performed at 2Pm, just before the kick off the big race. In an event series that was accustomed to catering to country and rock and roll fans, the entertainment lineup was a radical departure and it signals NASCAR’S new direction. This is a clear effort to draw new fans for NASCAR events.
Did it work? NASCAR says 70% of ticket buyers have never been to a NASCAR before.
I can’t fault NASCAR for it’s departure from conventional practices. NASCAR has been in dire need of changes for ages, as audiences have been dwindling for decades. It didn’t happen overnight and there have been many things contributing to the slow exodus of fans.
THE DECLINE OF NASCAR
If you’re sensing that NASCAR is trying to draw a younger audience, you’d be right. If you’ve noticed that NASCAR seemed to be falling in popularity over the years, you’d also be right.
For decades, the race on Sunday, buy on Monday era resonated with audiences. We could watch our favorite racers race in our favorite cars and then go to a local Ford, Chevy, Dodge, or Pontiac dealer on Monday, and have one of these cars in our garage. To me, as a teenager, was a big thing.
Over the years, NASCAR moved to cookie-cutter exteriors shells that were decaled up to look like certain cars. NASCAR fans suffered through a dark era of ugly race cars built to look like ugly streetcars. Moreover, the big V8 engines we saw in NASCARs were not available at the dealerships. A Ford Taurus never had a V8 and it was front-wheel drive.
The cars being too similar built to the same specs and for all intents and purposes, visually indistinguishable from one another turned off a lot of people. At this point, I lost interest in NASCAR. I still went to a race or two a year, but it wasn’t the same.
The “Car of Tomorrow,” unveiled by NASCAR in 2007 was little more than a box. It was boxy, ugly, and top heavy…and its shape was part of the reason for the Indianapolis debacle of 2008. In that race, caution flags were flown almost every ten laps for tire wear, as Jimmie Johnson limped to a victory. The fan backlash was loud and intense. If any single event hastened the decline of NASCAR, it was Indy 2008.
Lack of manufacturer identity may have been a reason some hardcore fans left the sport in the early 1990s, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a valid reason for the sport’s popularity plunge since 2005.
Then, some would say, NASCAR allowed a Japanese car company enter the series. This didn’t sit well with some NASCAR fans, many of whom had lived through WWII. Toyota breathed new life into the series, even if rousing fans to root against the Toyota branded cars. This new direction worried some fans that their sacred American playground would change, and not for the better.
Let us remember how NASCAR got its start. An article by Norris McDonald summed it up brilliantly:
When NASCAR first started, you had a bunch of good ol’ boys who worked blue-collar jobs, usually in garages, and got their hands dirty and went racing at local speedways on the weekend and, if they were any good, developed a following. They got famous because of word-of-mouth (“Hey, didja hear about that new kid blowin’ ’em away over at Hickory?”), weekly newspapers like National Speed Sport News (called simply “Speed Sport” and who’s Editor’s Notebook by the late Chris Economaki was a Must Read) and magazines like Stock Car Racing. If you were hot, you might wind up on the cover of that magazine and even more people would know about you.
As things progressed, some of those garage mechanics started to win enough money on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons that they gave up their day jobs to become full-time racers – guys like Lee Petty and his son Richard (who raced as “Dick Petty,” originally), David Pearson, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker and Benny Parsons.
Further, NASCAR has become all about the money. Today, the drivers are paying to play. Most of them are paying, some are not, but today, young NASCAR racers don’t start at their local tracks and work their way up. Nowawadays, they have to buy their way.
NASCAR is now an elitist sport because only those who can afford to pay to play need apply.
NASCAR’s franchise system, put into place in 2016, meant that the league essentially became a closed shop. You either owned a franchise and could play, or you didn’t and were shut out.
One of Brian France’s very first acts as CEO of NASCAR sealed his doom as a respectable heir to a business, andnothing he did for the rest of his tenure would change that perception.
I don’t often see NASCAR’s ill-conceived playoff idea as a reason people cite for the decline of NASCAR in articles I read these days, but I promise you, that was not the case when I covered the sport. NASCAR’s initial playoff brainchild was hugely unpopular, and every griping fan in comment sections of blogs everywhere had the artificial points reset near the top of their list of complaints.
It’s not so much that the points reset NASCAR introduced in 2004 was a monumentally stupid idea. It was, but even that wasn’t the point. It was the insistent implementation of it over loud objections of fans. NASCAR polled fans about the idea on their website following the 2003 season, and fans overwhelmingly rejected it. They shut down the polls and went ahead with it anyway.
If you want to attribute the decline of NASCAR to arrogant leadership, look no further than that single act. It was blatant condescension towards what was arguably the most loyal fanbase in sports. Why poll the fans if you’re just going to ignore them?
That and it really was a stupid idea. Looking at this through a 2022 lens, that was some “woke” nonsense: You earn a bunch of points, and because you’re so good, the rest of the racers need “participation trophies” of sorts. It didn’t sit well with fans who protested most vocifersously and France was tone deaf to the outrage.
In case you weren’t there or don’t remember, in 2004 NASCAR welcomed their new series sponsor, Nextel (now Sprint), with a new “playoff” system called the “Chase”. After 26 of 36 races, the top ten drivers would have their points reset, putting them all on a level playing field again for the last ten races.
Yes, NASCAR actually believed an artificial points reset after two thirds of the season was the move that was going to catapult them past the NFL.
Making matters worse, within four years, the driver with the second largest fan base finished with the most points in a season twice, only to lose the title to a points reset.
And so, here we are – at place where NASCAR has to find a way to put butts in seats which means catering to their interests. The booked entertainment certainly shows that NASCAR is serious about moving to a new, more hip crowd, but I have to wonder how they can balance the preferences of NASCAR loyalists and those of the new audiences.