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NASCAR popularity is plunging – primarily for two reasons

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

NASCAR was at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend and if I was NASCAR, I would be embarrassed.

Saturday afternoon, they held a round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series there and there were so few people in the stands that they should have introduced them to the drivers instead of the other way around. It would have saved a lot of time.

Sunday, when the big-league Monster Energy Series took the green flag, it was better but there were still an awful lot of empty seats.

With two races remaining after this weekend – Phoenix next weekend and then the finale at Homestead-Miami – this would seem to be as good a time as any to take a look at why the bloom has come off that NASCAR rose and why it is going to be almost impossible for it to ever regenerate.

Follow along, because there will be a test later . . .

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.

The top of the mountain in NASCAR circles back then was known as the Grand National Division but in 1971, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., then-manufacturer of Winston cigarettes, contracted with NASCAR to become title sponsor and the Winston Cup Series (to be known thereafter as simply “Cup,” regardless of subsequent sponsorships) was born,. There was suddenly lots and lots of prize money available and other full-time competitors like Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip  joined up to give chase.

And then, in 1979, came flag-to-flag TV coverage of the Daytona 500 and other NASCAR “Cup” races. This brought even more attention and money to the sport and school was soon out. Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, Geoff Bodine, Rusty Wallace and Trevor Boys were among several dozen drivers whose names soon became familiar, if not famous.

The one thing, though, that all those racing drivers had in common – Petty, Pearson, Parsons, Bodine, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Wallace and the rest – is that they all started racing on local tracks and created reputations for themselves as hard chargers who were winners. Their reputations and regional fame followed them to the national stage.

And one other thing about NASCAR in those days: the races were open to anybody who could qualify. Yes, you had to be able to prove that you knew what you were doing out there but if your car passed technical inspection and you could either qualify to race through time trials or qualifying races, you were in. And while some ran their own cars, most were independent contractors who had their expenses paid by their car owner and then split the winnings (that division of money was usually 60-40) with said owner, who paid the bills.

Since early in the millenium, however, interest in NASCAR – both at the speedways and on television – has dropped off. In 2006, for instance, more than 19 million people tuned in to watch the Daytona 500 on TV; in 2018, only a little more than nine million watched. And that is for the Indianapolis 500 of stock cars. Weekly races at smaller locales have come off even worse. It is not unusual to see speedway grandstands half empty and only several million will tune in from home.

How come?

I believe there are two main reasons:

1) Just like all the other major racing series in the world, NASCAR has become a money deal. Translation: the drivers are paying for the pleasure of racing. Not all, of course, but most. No longer do young NASCAR racers start at their local tracks and work their way up. Now, they buy their way in. That doesn’t mean they don’t have talent, or aren’t brave. Far from it. But there is a big difference between changing your own spark plugs and battling your way to the front at your local speedway in hopes of catching the attention of a NASCAR car owner and calling up that same NASCAR car owner on the phone and saying two words to him: “How much?”

So NASCAR racing has become just like European formula-car racing and IndyCar racing in North America. It is now an elitist sport because only those who can afford to pay to play need apply.

2) When NASCAR established the franchise system in 2016, the league essentially became a closed shop. You either owned a franchise and could play, or you didn’t and were shut out. No longer could a late-model driver from Syracuse or Spokane get a car and a team together and show up to try to qualify for any of NASCAR’s races. Now, only the economic elite are allowed to enter the Inner Sanctum and if there’s one thing NASCAR used to abhor, it was elitism of any kind.

Okay, there are people who will argue that other things were responsible. For instance:

– The non-stop promotion of Danica Patrick, as if she was the Second Coming (she wasn’t), turned off a lot of fans. And forget Danica – the non-stop  promotion and ass-kissing of all things NASCAR by the announcers – seriously, compare them against broadcasters of any other big-league sport – has people who were once fans changing the channel permanently. And we won’t get into the murdering of the English language that goes on week after week, ad nauseum. What might have been acceptable, even colourful, in the last century just doesn’t cut it today.

– The playoff system eliminates 25 or more drivers from contention with nearly a third of the season still to go. And abuse and manipulation of that system. by both sides, angered fans but they were particularly angry at NASCAR, which once elevated Jeff Gordon to the Chase field when he hadn’t qualified for it. And stage races have also not gone over well with purists.

– Affluence. Once upon a time, if the “Cup” series had a weekend off, drivers like Earnhardt Sr. and/or Earnhardt Jr. would go to Disney World and drink beer with NASCAR fans they bumped into in the lineup for A Small World. Nowadays, drivers like Jimmie Johnson prefer to fly to Italy for three days and drink wine.

– Or Jeff Gordon, again, living in a Manhattan penthouse with his second wife, a model, instead of in North Carolina, where he lived beside a lake with his first wife, a deeply religious woman who was Born Again.

– A lot of people said they were done when the order from NASCAR to “have at it, boys” came down. And you hear more and more about this today. A driver dominates a race until the last lap and then gets crashed on purpose by the guy who goes on to win. Not only is this tolerated by NASCAR but encouraged. Many former fans consider this state of affairs to be ridiculous.

Yes, all of those factors might have contributed to the decline of interest in NASCAR, But, in the end, I think the franchise system and the ride-buying are what did NASCAR in. And it will be pretty hard to turn back the clock on either of those.

Which might explain why, despite the denials, the people who are descendants of “Big Bill” France, the man who started it all, are quietly shopping the company around and hoping to get out while the going’s good.

OTHER VIEWS? Please email the author at nmcdonald@thestar.ca