NASCAR’s fading glory

Empty seats at this year's Brickyard 400. Turn out the lights, NASCAR's party is over (Associated Press Photo)
Empty seats at this year's Brickyard 400. Turn out the lights, NASCAR's party is over (Associated Press Photo)

When Amy and I attended the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis in 1994, a NASCAR official arrogantly predicted the race would “be bigger than the Indy 500 in the coming years.”

An overflow crowd of more than 300,000 packed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that year.

A decade and a half later, empty seats outnumbered those with paying customers at the Brickyard 400. Attendance has fallen more than 50 percent in recent years.

A couple of years ago, the most coveted tickets for the Sprint Cup series came at Bristol Motor Speedway. Now you can walk up to the ticket window on race day and buy good seats at discount prices.

NASCAR is in trouble — serious trouble — and while some of the sport’s problems can be blamed on the economy, much of it is well-deserved payback from angry, disenfranchised fans who are fed up with rising prices, gross overcommercialism and tinkering with rules.

Notes The New York Times:

After years of jam-packed races, sky-high television ratings and record merchandise sales, Nascar has seen attendance at nearly every track slip this year as recession-weary fans continue to cut costs.

The Behler family could see that firsthand while sitting atop their old school bus in the infield at Pocono Raceway for last week’s race in Long Pond, Pa. From that perch, they saw empty patches of grass with untrampled dandelions that in years past were covered by other spectators’ cars, campers and trailers.

Fans like the Behlers who are showing up to races are spending less, too.

“Everybody’s still coming, but no one’s spending,” said Susan Behler, who arrived last Sunday, race day, instead of Friday night to save money. “Three years ago, I used to spend $200 or $300 every time I came here. Now, it’s a question: do I need it?”

Other sports leagues have been hurt the past two years. But Nascar — with its heavier reliance on working-class fans, low fuel prices and the beleaguered auto industry — has suffered disproportionately, racing industry executives say. Ratings on television, sales of licensed goods and sponsorships, the lifeblood of the sport, are also suffering. Several racing teams have merged in the last three years.

Nascar compounded matters, the executives say, by changing its rules in ways that made the racing safer but stripped the sport of some of the spontaneity that made it compelling. Under pressure, Nascar has reversed some of those moves, helping to rejuvenate competition on the track this season. With the economy on the mend, Nascar and its teams, sponsors, track owners and broadcasters seem confident that the worst is over.

The larger question, though, is whether in the coming years, the sport will return to its glory of the early 2000s as a money-printing juggernaut, a barometer of Middle American tastes and a political bellwether, or whether it will become a more modest, streamlined version of itself.

“It was a good candy bar when it was right,” said H. A. Wheeler, the former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. “It’s still a good candy bar, but people are tinkering with the mix. A lot of sports lose momentum, and they can get it back, but it takes a lot of work.”

We used to attend races but no more. We no longer watch races on TV. NASCAR is a shadow of its former self and a parody of what it once was. There are better things to do on a Sunday afternoon.

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8 thoughts on “NASCAR’s fading glory”

  1. NASCAR is a Southern-Americana icon to many; to others, it’s….’what’?. It was a great marketing tool for manufacturers that bolstered sales. Finally, national sponsors drove the dreams of drivers to ‘higher-banks’. ‘Start your engines’ has become a metaphor within the USA.

    In the 60’s, my dad’s ‘drop-ins’ to the Woods brothers’ garage in Stuart, and Junior Johnson’s home in N.C. were nice day-trips. We also visited local driver’s shops, including the Thomas’s and Lynn’s.

    During the same time-frame of NASCAR’s fast growth, European circuits were observed by fun-lovers, as 007 movies catipulted interest in foreign cars. The infamous Aston-Martin DB-7 was a ‘driving-force’. Let alone, Ford’s GT-40 LeMans wins made America a true competitor, internationally; racing was becoming ‘bigger’. Interest in Euro cars led this ‘ole boy to other Euro ‘wheels’; Triump, Ducati, Norton, and Benelli bikes, years before the popularity of such bikes within America other than Harleys.

    Used Alfa-Romeo Spider convertibles, Triumph TR-3 & 6, Corvettes, Camaros, GT-350 and 500 Mustangs: they filled the dreams of this lawn-mowing, newspaper-carrying, dish-washer, bus-boy, construction boy, during his teen years.

    When travelling with a reporter to Darlington, S.C., as a teen, I gained insight about the friendships of drivers. David Pearson, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, and others sat around the pool at the hotel the night before the race. They laughed and joked, having a simple good-time. Then, they displayed their rivalry by, suddenly, wrestling one-another into the pool, just before retiring for the night.

    More recently, it was fun to see Dale Jr. pointing and softly laughing at me, as I laughed and pointed back; my Panama heat-beating hat was a little different from the helmets in the pit.

    It was nice to get to talk to Richard Petty at his museum in Randleman, N.C., a couple of years ago.
    For those that never saw Petty’s hemi-bird ‘flying’ around a track, they missed a special event. ‘Youngins’ of today may want to view some films.

    NASCAR is akin’ to the space-shuttle, in that a lot of research and testing was one of the goals. The difference is that the racing-circuit was not government-supported.
    From aerodynamics to tires, testing became more and more important to the auto industry, as the advent of on-site wind-tunnels and electronic marvels loomed.

    Christiansburg’s legacy of drivers is unique, having had three drivers in NASCAR: Clyde Lynn, Jabe Thomas, and Ronnie Thomas (Jabe’s son). Ronnie’s 80’s-era Rookie of the Year award probably didn’t receive the level of recognition, locally, as it should have. It was ‘cutting-edge’. It’s always nice to speak with Ronnie. It was a lot of fun to photograph Jabe and Ronnie with Junior Johnson at the Barnes and Noble grand-opening, a few years ago.When I mentioned to Johnson that the last time my dad visited his home his hound-dog was lying across the driveway; Johnson lamented: “yea, he’s there now,” as he smiled.

    When visiting Lynn’s garage with my dad, it gave me unexpected insight into a racer’s ways and means. Clyde’s whole family was involved; some of the ‘lil kids walked barefoot on the grease-laden floors, as motors roared. Friends helped friends in those days; it wasn’t just a family effort.

    The dreams of many are still ‘on-track’; fans are fewer, but not less enthusiastic.

    The ‘Field of Track-Dreams’ was no better exemplified than by Wendell Scott. Wendell was the first circuit African-American driver. His budget, as was the case for many teams, was low. He towed his car to the tracks with a used hearse.

    The ‘rubber-burnin’ days of ‘average Joes’ may have faded, but are still real for many. It is and has been fun to enjoy the ‘wheels’ industry. NASCAR will be ‘ok’, even though some teams may have to be more self-supporting, in that sponsors have pushed the venues to California from the Southern USA. Maybe a Southern-circuit would suffice!

    ‘As GM goes, so does America’….wisdom from the past? More ‘white collars’ need work-ethics of ‘blue collars’.

    ‘Motorheads’: ride on! Start your candy!

    • That was a fun little read…nice job.
      Personally, I do think NASCAR will be fine, but only after an attitude shift back towards the “good ol’ days.” The safety measures have evolved to the point that we have several drivers still doing their thing now after several wrecks that would have killed them just a few years ago (e.g. – Elliott Sadler at Pocono a couple weeks ago). It’s great that those measures (HANS, SAFER barriers, the COT, etc.) are in place, but it’s now time to take those developments and incorporate them into cars that resemble their “stock” versions.
      The sport has just removed itself from the reality of its roots and long-time fans that they can no longer identify with drivers or the sport.

      • Thanks..YES, ‘stock-cars’…where are they? FWD models w/snap-on bodies; RWD models not even on the market..I thought ‘snap-ons’ were limited to dragsters!…the current cars are not even ‘modified stock’, as you know.

  2. I am also a former more involved fan. I can’t isolate one factor as there are many in a continuing evolution. It’s Big Box racing and that’s not a reference to sponsors. The rules have made it more like IROC. The drivers are now commodities rather than personalities. Like other sports with free agency, is it about teams or players?

    It has no gritty appeal with owner/driver tinkering around in a garage for an advantage. Ticket prices tested the theory of what the market will bear. I went to Bristol when seating capacity was 28k and stopped going as it approached 100k. Same with Martinsville.

    It’s really about promotion strategy, sometimes they win, sometimes not. I can’t predict the future but as a disconnected former fan I won’t be running back to the past which is not likely to repeat in the future.

  3. @Bob: Yes, ‘it’s the economy stup*#(‘!!…thank ‘the bushes’ (stay out of them) for the inherited plight. Let’s get the ‘no’ party to participate in the Senate and Congress without so much partisanship. Virtually everyone in the USA seems to be suffering in one way or another, unfortunately.

  4. I’m also among the former fans of the sport. In the 80’s and 90’s, I was a very devoted fan, watching pretty close to every race on TV, even some of the Busch and Truck races too. The action was there, there were rivalries, personalities, and story lines that gave added reasons to watch, in addition to on-track action. My dad and I were also involved with local tracks in the eastern VA/NC area, attending races on a weekly basis and then teaming up with a driver who ran Limited Stock, and then Late Model Stock series in the region. I was a scorer at NASCAR tracks, and in the pits at non-NASCAR tracks (you had to be 16 with a driver’s license and NASCAR license at NASCAR tracks, no such requirements at non-sanctioned tracks). My dad was the spotter. We thoroughly enjoyed our time doing that, and we loved watching the big boys on Sundays.

    Then, by the late 90’s, things really started turning. The venerable southern tracks were being abandoned for shiny, new 1.5 mile tri-ovals in non-southern locations. Drivers with personality and toughness were being replaced by well-groomed corporate spokesmen who just so happened to drive a car. Rivalries faded. Rules changed. The action wasn’t as interesting. And eventually we moved into former fan status. I still check up on the standings to see what’s going on, but I haven’t watched a full race on TV in more than 8 years, and I haven’t attended a live NASCAR or local track race in more than a decade. I’m not sure I will ever come back.

  5. The points y’all made are valid and more. This year a NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in Charlotte and its management predicted 200,000 total attendance the first year. They’ll be lucky to get 100,000.

    NASCAR is not the only major sport that’s feeling the double-dip recession. The new Yankee Stadium opened in New York last year and every game has had plenty of empty seats. New York’s two NFL clubs are having trouble selling out their new stadium.

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