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.

No more.

Writes Weintraub:

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.

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry, I don’t live in NASCAR country, so my knowledge of it is limited to what I catch on TV, and in magazines. What I can comment on is the cost to attend these events. It’s correct that the average fan has been priced out of attending major races. That’s a shame, because the fan following is built on frequent attendance, not TV and rare attendance. It’s a problem that all major sports have. When I was a teenager in the 60s, I used to go to see the Boston Red Sox (now part owner of the Roush Racing Team) on the spur of the moment, pay a couple of bucks for unreserved grandstand seats and enjoy myself. Being able to do that built a strong fan base. The same goes for the Boston Celtics. I paid $8.00 for a good seat to see Larry Bird play basketball in the early 80s. Today, you need connections and a second mortgage on your home to see a game, neither of which is conducive to bringing your family or seeing enough games to build the habit of supporting the team. Who can rationalize paying $300 to $400 to bring a family to a major sporting event, pay for parking, and maybe something to eat (at gouging stadium pricing) more that once a year? Also, in the name of security, patrons are limited in what they can bring to an event to save concession prices. What these athletes need is a serious case of restrictions on their pay, then back it up to the event promoters and bring the cost back to something the average fan can afford.

  2. you know, if your tired of NASCAR quit paying it any attention. I am a die hard fan (24 for life) and would hate to see it go away. All sports have their flaws (NFL overtime rule, BCS), so it’s just something we deal with. Get over whatever your problem is and move on. NASCAR has its issues but the racing is great at most tracks, the COT needs to be tweaked but it’s not that bad. If your disillusioned about the sport go watch the NFL. Not much different. Athletes whinning about money who are way to pampered!

  3. But for once, I happen to agree with the author (what is this world coming to). Brian France and Mike Helton have forgotten the fans who brought them fame and fortune. They have tried to appeal to everybody and in their attempt to pretty up the sport, they have forgotten what made it popular. I long for the days of Cale and Donnie duking it out at Daytona or Rusty and Dale trading paint. Except for a few, drivers are all alike these days with their gelled hair and kewpie doll girlfriends. Heaven forbid these days if someone says “hell” on national TV, Mike Helton will have his big ol mug on there trying to smooth things over so no one is offended. I used to go to Daytona and Speed Week every year; however, 2009 will be my first year that I am not attending.

  4. I grew up in Floyd, went to races at Martinsville, Starkey Speedway, Victory Stadium and even Floyd’s little dirt track out past Kathleen Agnew’s house. Then I got to be a sports reporter in Richmond and had the NASCAR beat from 1972 to 1987 — an era that started with Richard, David, Cale, Bobby, etc., and carried through to Dale Sr., Darrell, Bill & Co.

    I’m still in the news business, and just recently got involved in an online weekly racing commentary on TimesDispatch.com — so, yes, I have a vested interest in NASCAR’s survival.

    That said, I don’t think it’s entirely self-interest that has me thinking that I’m not willing to endorse closing down NASCAR just yet. The sport has its problems, but I want to see if Brian France, Mike Helton, my friend Jim Hunter and other folks down there in Daytona can work things out.

    I still enjoy the sport. There were a few pretty terrific races in 2008. And let’s be honest about the 70’s (which, by the way, I consider the sport’s second Golden Age). I watched a lot of races in which The King or Cale or Bobby won by a couple of laps. Not exactly heart-pounding finishes. When’s the last time a driver lapped the field?

    And here’s another thing to consider. Maybe, just maybe, the drivers are younger these days because the younger ones are better. Back in the 70s, multiple-car teams were rare. Conventional wisdom said an extra car diluted the effort. Who benifitted most from that conventional wisdom? The 3 or 4 drivers who won just about all the races, that’s who. The last thing they wanted was more competition. They knew that if there were 4 Petty Enterprises cars, 4 Wood Brothers cars, 4 Junior Johnson cars, 4 Bud Moore cars — if that happened there would be 16 cars capable of winning, not just 4. With single-car teams, there was very little driver turnover. Older drivers kept their rides. Younger ones drove for second-tier teams and waited respectfully for their chance to drive for one of the top shops. Nowadays, if a young driver shows talent, he’s much more likely to get a first-class ride. And sometimes, as in Jeff Gordon’s case, those young drivers are ready. Sometimes they’re not. We’ll see how things go with Joey Logano.

    I don’t know about the Car of Tomorrow/Today. I’ve never been a big fan of manufacturers, so the lack of distinguishing features doesn’t bother me so much. What bothers me is that Goodyear seems to be having trouble with tires for the CoT, and teams struggle with getting it to settle down on the track. Then again, for about 2 thirds of the season Kyle Busch seemed to have a pretty good handle on the CoT. And Jimmy Johnson managed all right for the last third. Maybe another season will mean more teams figure it out.

    I would like the teams to have a little more room to work with the cars. I agree that they’re too IROC-like.

    One last thing. About the money. I remember in the 1970s that NASCAR fans complained that a) the drivers should make more money, at least as much as golfers, and b) stock car racing should be recognized as a national sport, not a regional one, and all the races should be on TV. Well, fans, you got what you wished for. But if you’re going to have a national sport you can’t have a geographic cluster of tracks — Charlotte, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Darlington, Bristol and Rockingham — accounting for a third of your schedule. And if you’re going to pay big money, TV and corporate sponsors must be tolerated. Myself, I appreciate the expansion, the draw that brings in drivers from across the country — around the world, even.

    On the other hand, I’m not so crazy about how much you have to spend to take your family to the track. And I certainly would not mind seeing more spontaneity from the drivers.

    I just hope the sport can survive and thrive. When I get to my dodderhood (not all that far away), I’d like to be able to peer at the TV’s presentation of some new-fangled NASCAR race and say, “Why in my day….”

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