Nextel Cup Race at Martinsville in 2005. Empty seats were a sign of the future.
Robert Weintraub, writing for Slate.com, is willing to say publicly what others have been thinking privately: That NASCAR, which abandoned any pretense of being a real competitive sport long ago, needs to just go away.
As a lifelong NASCAR fan who grew up here in the home county of stock car racing legend Curtis Turner, I have to admit that I didn’t watch more than two or three races this past season and I haven’t been to a NASCAR race since Martinsville in 2005. Under the mismanagement of Mike Helton and Brian France, NASCAR has become little more than motorized wrestling,, a pre-packaged, rule-manipulated farce that limits competition and guts the life out of what once was an exciting, competitive sport.
NASCAR has lost its soul, selling it to the devil of commercialism and television, abandoning the fan base that built the sport.
There was a time when I would have cried over the thought of NASCAR sinking into the sinkhole of history.
As the proud owner of a Honda and a Toyota, I’ve been following the to-bail-or-not-to-bail dance between the federal government and the Big Three automakers from a slight reserve. Forgive me, but as I’ve worked as a producer on a television show about NASCAR and written lots of articles about the sport in recent years, I’m most concerned about the fate of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Given the brutal financial climate, I should, out of pure self-interest, support whatever measures will preserve NASCAR. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that Detroit’s version of the Troubles is the right time to put the sport out of its misery.
It would be one thing if NASCAR were exceptionally strong and this were merely a cyclone to be ridden out in a basement somewhere. But the sport has been leaking oil for some time. Attendance at races dropped drastically in 2008 (in large part because steep gas prices this summer curtailed the RV armada that follows the circuit), and TV ratings declined for the third straight year. The season-ending "Chase" has failed to provide fireworks or closure—if not for the BCS, it would be the worst playoff system in sports. There’s also a growing disconnect between racing and its hardcore fan base that began when the Frances stripped races from traditional tracks in Rockingham, N.C., and Darlington, S.C., in favor of places like Kansas and Las Vegas. And the most visible part of NASCAR, the driver corps, has morphed from a crew of heroic-yet-relatable, older, mostly mustachioed hell-raisers to an interchangeable posse of corporate-ready drones fresh out of driver’s ed.
But NASCAR’s biggest problem isn’t fixable with a couple of sexy drivers or a breathless season finale in Miami. The sport can’t escape the fact that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels are technologies on a steep downslope. With hybrids and electrics on the way in, it’s hard to see where gas-guzzling, emission-belching stock cars fit in. Unlike the Indy Racing League and Formula 1 (open-wheel racing circuits famous for the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, respectively), NASCAR has yet to implement alternative-fuel programs—hell, it only switched to unleaded gasoline last season! Open-wheel racing isn’t immune from the economic turmoil (Honda recently announced it was dropping out of F1), but it stands a better chance at survival. Formula 1 and the Indy crowd run machines that are less cars than science experiments, highly engineered equipment that can and will adapt easily to new technologies. Stock cars are just tricked-out Dodges and Chevys—you know, the ones that nobody’s buying anymore.
David Poole, racing writer for the Charlotte Observer, admits this kind of thinking was inevitable, even though he disagrees that NASCAR is finished:
You knew it was coming. The wonder is that nobody has done it before now.
But there’s a column/blog/whatever on the web today that calls, out right, for NASCAR to just go away.
What’s surprising is that a number of commenters on Poole’s blog are agreeing with Weintraub’s thoughts.
Like this one:
I read Weintraub’s Slate article yesterday. I was skeptical at first but he makes a compelling case that NASCAR’s best days are behind it. I have to say that as the economy gets worse, it gets harder and harder for race fans of modest means to travel to races, pay high ticket prices, and buy a track hot dog. As more people become unemployed, NASCAR looks more and more like an unnecessary luxury.
Or this one:
The guy is exactly right. I turned off the TV and stopped going to races about 3 years ago. The racing got boring, the drivers are nothing but corporate pretty-boy robots (for the most part), and they kept moving the races further west. Not to mention it costs a mortgage payment to even go to a race anymore.
I wouldn’t shed a tear if big-league stock car racing shut down. Doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. I’ll still go down to my local track and watch them beat and bang on each other for $100 purses.