Saturday, July 07, 2018

COMMENTARY: Problems... And Solutions

It doesn’t take a microscope to see that NASCAR has some challenges to deal with these days.

In-person attendance is down across the board, with television ratings for the first half of the 2018 season plummeting 23% from last year; from 3.31 million viewers in 2017 to 2.54 million this season. Neither of these situations happened overnight. They are the result of a series of changes – both societal and within the sport – that have dramatically changed the face of the game.

The sport faces major problems that unfortunately will not be solved by minor corrections in course. And while it’s easy to identify those problems, solutions are tougher to come by.

NASCAR has made a number of rule changes in recent seasons, often bowing to pressure from drivers and team owners, at the expense of fans.

When asked for feedback on this year’s Monster Energy All-Star rules package, the sport’s marquee drivers were almost unanimously negative, saying it made the cars too slow and too easy to drive. Interestingly, drivers who routinely race in the middle and back of the pack had an entirely different take, hailing the new rules package for tightening competition, increasing passing and improving the racing.

NASCAR chose to listen to the frontrunners, waving off further use of the package in 2018, despite speaking glowingly of it just a few weeks earlier and promising to roll it out at least once more before season’s end.

In recent months, we have heard drivers – and in some cases, team owners– utter words to the effect of, “I don’t care about what’s best for the sport, I care about what’s best for me.” That is a dangerous precedent to set, in an era when driver feedback seems to guide the sport’s decision-making process more than ever before.

During his tenure, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. would happily listen to everyone with an opinion. He would then do what he thought was best for the sport and its fans.

Today, NASCAR listens to everybody, reacting (it seems) to those who speak the loudest, whether they are paying customers or not. Fans have long complained about a lack of competition on NASCAR’s 1.5 mile ovals. It is a longstanding problem that has plagued the sport for years. And yet, after discovering a promising potential remedy for those complaints at the All Star Race, NASCAR waved it off under pressure from its athletes.

NASCAR these days is like a restaurant, where the chef loves his lasagna recipe and refuses to make changes, despite frequent complaints and a dwindling customer base. If things continue unchanged, the chef will be alone in his kitchen, wondering where the diners went.

Two decades ago, drivers seldom competed at NASCAR’s highest level until they reached the age of 30. Today, however, drivers make it to the Truck and Xfinity ranks while still in their teens, with many advancing to the MENCS before they’re old enough to drink champagne in Victory Lane.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and William Byron are absolutely NASCAR’s stars of the future. But with a total of one win between them – Blaney’s victory for Wood Brothers Racing in 2017 at Pocono – they are not yet the stars of today.

Promoting up-and-coming stars at the expense of established veterans was a critical miscalculation by NASCAR. It alienated the older drivers – who spend considerably more time in front of the TV and radio microphones – and placed an undue burden on burgeoning drivers who currently lack the experience to win races and contend for championships.

Greatness is not awarded, it is earned. And NASCAR fans are too smart to buy into a group of drivers who are not yet running at the front of the pack, much less contending for titles. NASCAR needs to refocus its marketing and promotional effort on winners, not up-and-comers, allowing its next generation of stars to mature organically, without being burdened with unrealistic expectations.

There is also too much emphasis on parts and pieces these days, rather than on people. NASCAR becomes more techno-centric with every passing day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its fanbase couldn’t care less about self-adjusting panhard bars, computer-based inspection processes and the latest, high-dollar carbon fiber doohicky.

Far too often in recent seasons, Monday morning water cooler talk has centered on pre-race inspection failures and post-race penalties, rather than on racing. Wednesday has supplanted Sunday as the most important day of the NASCAR week, and our sport is worse for it.

Nobody tunes-in to watch technical inspections, and nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire. It’s high time for NASCAR to take the focus off the parts and pieces, and put it back on people. There are some amazingly talented athletes playing the game these days, and some captivating personalities, as well.

They deserve our attention.

While we’re at it, let’s stop talking about how safe stock car racing has become. Nobody wants to see the Flying Wallendas fall to their deaths from the high wire, but the knowledge that it could happen is what draws crowds and sells tickets. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze isn’t so daring when he works with a net, and right now, NASCAR spends entirely too much time talking about the net. 
And finally, it’s time for NASCAR to dramatically re-shuffle the cards and revamp its Monster Energy, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series schedules. With the exception of the Eldora Truck race, most fans cannot remember the last time a new track was added to the agenda. And after a decade or more spent circulating through the same venues – year after year after year – stagnation has begun to set in. 
The fans have spoken. They want fewer “rubber stamp” 1.5-mile ovals, and more short tracks. More road courses. More new, more exciting. Moving old races to new dates is not nearly enough to create a much-needed dose of excitement. 
In order to give the paying customers what they want, it’s time for NASCAR to interject a three or four-race series of short track events into its MENCS schedule, returning legendary venues like Hickory, Nashville or Oxford Plains to the competitive calendar for the first time in decades. First-time venues like Myrtle Beach or Berlin would further sweeten the competitive pot.
Imagine the fun of watching Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and company slug it out on a third-mile short track. Then imagine how just a handful of races like that could re-energize our sport.
Those races cannot happen without some major concessions by both NASCAR and its teams. In order to make Cup Series racing a reality at short tracks with limited seating, NASCAR must dramatically cut its sanction fee, eschewing profit – just a few times per season – in favor of excitement, drama and a dose of something new. Race teams must agree to race for a downsized purse – again, just a few times per season – choosing to do what’s best for the sport, instead of what’s best for their own bottom line.
All of these changes are needed, and all of them are doable, if the will to change is there. We have arguably already waited too long.

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