KRYSTEN OLIPHANT: I have to admit I’m surprised NASCAR has hung on like it hashas, but it’s definitely going the way of the gas-guzzling dinosaur. There just isn’t the interest anymore. I’m not sure the reasoning – cost of tickets, cost of travel, lack of interesting characters? But as someone who grew up with a dad obsessed with NASCAR, even I have to admit it’s not what it used to be, as he rarely turns on a race until the last few laps these days.
So I asked him: “Why don’t you care about NASCAR anymore?”
His answer was both simple and complex. In a nutshell, there’s no one to like — or to hate. Dale Earnhardt’s death took away one of the most magnetic characters to ever compete in the sport, and his antithesis, Jeff Gordon, has lost the edge that made him hated by nearly every fan. First, he isn’t winning like he used to, and second, he’s not that young punk kid anymore. Only a select handful of drivers win each race — Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch — and there just isn’t the excitement it seems the sport used to have.
Which brings us to another problem. Everyone racing now, at least as far as my dad sees it, is some young punk kid. There’s no one he can relate to, no one he’s been watching for 10 years. And the peer age group, those in their 20s to early 30s, don’t seem to care about auto racing like the older generations do. NASCAR certainly needs to do a better job of marketing to that audience (you know, the ones that won’t be dying off soon). And there’s no over-arching rivalries in NASCAR these days. Gordon said it himself in 2010 — there needs to be two drivers who really hate each other. It makes things interesting. The fights, the bumps, the spinouts, the trash talk, all that is just plain fun!
Third, the economy is really dragging NASCAR down. Aside from the mind-boggling amounts of money it costs to run these races – when you consider fuel, tires, and the like — the target demographic of fans isn’t exactly your millionaires who can afford front row season tickets. Most racing fans don’t fly to see a race. They drive, and usually in big, honkin’ RVs. In fact, many of them made a retirement lifestyle of following NASCAR around the country in their mobile homes. Now, with their savings wiped out and the cost of gas slightly less than the price tag of a small island in the Bahamas, attending races just isn’t in the budget. So maybe you spread the races out more? Offer discounts for RV parking? I’m not sure what the answer is, but these seem to be some of the problems.
CHRIS PUMMER: I think the notion that NASCAR is some sort of “Sport of the Future” is fading faster than a cheap rear window decal in the Texas sun. But it probably also isn’t going to fade into oblivion.
At the very least, I’d expect NASCAR to maintain the regional foothold it long held in the South, and also niches within other regions of the country. There probably still remains an apatite for auto racing, and there just doesn’t seem to be another serious contender capable of displacing stock cars at the front of the pack.
Open-wheel racing has found a niche, though admittedly a smaller one than it once had when races like the Indy 500 captured many more imaginations. Drag racing has a niche, too. So do a lot of other motorsports.
NASCAR will probably continue to occupy the biggest motorsports niche in this country. Just don’t look for it to find actual parity with football, baseball or basketball for the affections of a much greater audience.