According to the L.A. Times, NASCAR is looking to snap out of its current ratings and attendance slump. That the country's most popular motorsport is overdue for a makeover is not news. But why, exactly, is it so dull?
NASCAR boring? Isn't this old hat? Yes and no. First off, there's boring, and there's boring. For a lot of people, watching cars drive around in circles just plain sucks, no matter how you slice it. Racing isn't for everyone, and most forms of motorized competition can seem dull in the right circumstances. Identical cars buzzing around in circles in a giant paved stadium? Your grandmother probably won't like it.
This isn't what I'm talking about. I like oval racing, and there's a lot I like about NASCAR. Or at least what NASCAR used to be. Pundits talk fondly of the sport's moonshine days, but most people forget that, even as late as twenty years ago, stock-car racing was interesting. Not artificial interesting, with fake driver rivalries and manufactured "chase" championship points, but well and truly vibrant. Most of that vibrance is gone, done away with in the interest of safety and the drive to brand — and profit from — anything that might appear on television. The sport's current state is depressing: The cars are ugly, the drivers are surprisingly old, and the televised coverage, for all its detail and you-are-there inside perspective, puts the average racing fan to sleep.
Judging by statistics published in a recent article in the L.A. Times, a significant percentage of NASCAR's audience is ejecting from the sport and its coverage. The France family's International Speedway Corporation, which operates 13 tracks across the country, saw a 19% drop in ticket sales over a six-month period ending in May. Lest you think it's just the economy, consider that televised races — long immune to economic dips — on Fox and TNT have seen a similar drop in ratings. The audience shrink isn't isolated, and it's not limited to one particular region of the country. It's real.
"The biggest problem facing NASCAR is that the young males have left the sport." —David Hill, Chairman/CEO, Fox Sports.
In a nutshell, NASCAR's problem is simple: Despite big speed and close competition, ordinary people have a hard time caring. You're probably familiar with the complaints: The cars don't resemble, by any stretch of the imagination, something you can buy or drive on the street —
there's no immediate brand loyalty or "my team versus yours" mentality for the uneducated newcomer. The drivers, almost all of whom are sanitized day-glo personalities, aren't relatable; they rarely respond to problems or setbacks with unique or insightful commentary, and their successes, despite the whoops or backflips, too often come across as mere Xeroxes of human emotion. The whole experience has been so sanitized in the name of predictability and commoditization that even the most unexpected moments lack excitement. If that weren't enough, every move the series has taken to modernize or update its model has backfired — the Chase for the Cup points meddling offers fake drama and a hollow champion, and the safe, friendly Car of Tomorrow is both unloved by drivers and unappealing to watch. Other steps have been taken, but few of them have made a difference in the bottom line.
If you've spent any time reading about or watching modern stock-car racing, this won't come as a surprise. But the statistics are interesting. For a sport that prides itself on having a marketable crop of personalities, NASCAR's pack of drivers is aging at an alarming rate: Just three of the current top-20 drivers are younger than thirty, and there wasn't a single rookie on the starting grid of this year's Daytona 500. In a time of uncertainty, the sport and its sponsors are leaning on experienced faces and big-budget teams, virtually ignoring the progress made in the past twenty years. (As the New York Times so helpfully reminds us, Jeff Gordon entered the series in 1993 at the tender age of 21 and won his first championship two years later, destroying the notion that years of experience were required to succeed in the sport.) Young drivers in NASCAR's feeder series are kept from moving up by an excess of older talent, all of whom love the sport's consistent paycheck and relatively easy lifestyle.
What NASCAR's promoters seem to miss is that stock-car racing thrives on difference. Drivers who are different from other drivers. Cars that are different from other cars. Racing that is comprehensible to people watching on TV or sitting in the stands, and competition that seems to be rooted in real-world decisions. This sort of thing was present not too long ago. It wouldn't take that much work to bring back, but what mystifies me is how no one has made any concrete moves toward a solution.
My problem with NASCAR is simple: At heart, I love it. My heroes are men like F1 driver Jim Clark, rally stars like Walter Rohrl, and drag racers like Don Garlits, but also engineers like John Holman, drivers like Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt, and car-building nutjobs like Smokey Yunick. Once, stock-car racing was an embodiment of everything good about America — it represented freewheeling, under-the-radar thinking and the glory of working within a system. I've sat on pit boxes at NASCAR races, I've stood in the stands, and I've wandered paddocks for hours, gazing into the valve covers of massive V-8s and watching engineers tweak chassis. I grew up in the American South, and I love speed, drama, spec racing, and big engines. I should be the easiest sell on Earth for this stuff, but for the most part, it bores me to tears.
Two-hundred-mph cars and the closest racing on Earth, and the average American, much less the average car enthusiast, doesn't care. What's wrong with this picture?
We've discussed possible solutions to the NASCAR problem in the past, but to be honest, I'm not sure whether or not any of them would work. I don't have answers, but I know what I want, and I know that I can't be alone. I want unpredictability. I want cars that are neither ugly nor indistinguishable from each other, machines worth getting excited about. I want men and women who don't talk or act like fine-wary robots, and I want a show lacking in cynicism. Maybe that's too much to ask. Maybe the current way is the only way for NASCAR to make money. Maybe the rest of America agrees with me, and that explains the ratings drop. Or maybe I'm just talking out my ass.
One way or another, we're going to find out. In the meantime, I won't be watching.
Photo Credits: Top: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images; all others, Sam Smith. (Yes, we know most of the images in this post are from the pre-Car of Tomorrow days. We prefer to remember the sport that way.)