Nascar Fanship Down
It is no secret that the popularity of Nascar has dwindled over the last several years. The drivers and the media folks are trying to figure it out. Attendance is down and television viewership is low. They first blamed the economy but that really doesn’t completely add up because you don’t hear about other professional sports being hurt as badly by the economy. Many folks are blaming Jimmy Johnson mindlessly winning every year as the issue. I was a Nascar fan during its peak and I think I have some answers. I think the way you have to approach this discussion is not just the decline but the peak that began rising in the 90’s. Here are my top reasons that Nascar surged to popularity then began a decline in popularity.
Nascar was built on Tradition way back when with your bootlegging families who began tinkering with cars to outrun the revenuers and the lawmen chasing them. Those families evolved into gear-head and driving legends. Those families grew and out of them and you got real personalities. Some people call them rednecks, I just call them average folks who had a knack for making a car go fast and turn left in close proximity to other cars. The sport was about the names and the personalities that they wore. They hailed form the south fighting for top spots on the track. The average American, whether southern or not could identify with that simple way of life.
In the nineties and 2000’s, you had the beginning of an influx of guys that got into the sport from outside the good-ol’-boy circle because their family had money to get them in or they came in from other forms of motorsports because Nascar was becoming the place where the money and high profile exposure was. You had guys like Jeff Gordon who began to dominate and performed interviews with a different flair. Not that there is something wrong with it but it wasn’t what Nascar fans were used to seeing. How would hockey fans handle a bunch of southern speaking guys came in and became the stars of the sport but didn’t really connect with the hockey culture? What if a new owner took over the Pittsburgh Steelers and said we are going to change our uniforms to a different shade of gold and add some Nike Pro-Combat styling and put the logo on both sides of the helmet? I am not saying anyone is intentionally trying to change Nascar but like it or not, Nascar is evolving. Nascar fans tolerated one Jeff Gordon because, after all, he was the villain and everyone needs a villian to make things interesting. I credit Jeff Gordon for being one reason Nascar soared in popularity. Kids loved him but anyone over twenty one loved to see their favorite driver get the best of him, when they could.
After the year 2000, you began to see the old timers that the average Americans idolized retire one by one (or die in the case of Dale Earnhardt). Guys like Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Darell Waltrip, Bill Elliot, and Mark Martin were retiring or reducing their schedule. This opened the door for a lot of new drivers. Sure, they were talented and would come to dominate but they didn’t have the same appeal as the older generation of drivers even to the expanding fan base.
So then came Tony Stewart, the Busch brothers, Jimmy Johnson, and a host of other relatively young guys that may have great racing genes but they don’t have traditional Nascar genes. Who in Nascar today carries the mantle of Richard Petty with class and dignity, or who has the charismatic persona of Cale Yarbourough? No one possesses the calm laid back demeanor of the Intimidator who would run you off the track then buddy up with you after the race was over; and I am saying this as a person who was never a big number 3 fan.
Networks bash their heads against the wall knowing that they have pumped a lot of money into the technology but Joe Average Guy doesn’t care about the fancy graphics, up to the second telemetry, or how many pretty drivers there are. He wants to see grease and carburetors — smoke and rubber burning on hot asphalt at the hands of a gritty driver rounding the oval at nearly 200 mph. Many of them seem to have a social disconnect compared to the men of old. Perhaps one day some of these guys will become the Cales and Dales in the future for these things tend to go in cycles.
I will throw in one other reason, I think that the length of the season wears on the average casual fan. They start in February and end in November so you really only get about two or three months away from the sport. I think baseball is much the same way. Football is probably the most popular sport whether you look at college or professional and they are forced to keep the seasons short because of the physical nature. Economics would make them lengthen the seasons if it was at all possible but because they only play about a three month regular season with the elite making it for an additional month or two into the playoff/bowls, you have people always wanting more. Even in my greatest years of Nascar, I was Nascarred out by the time football season rolled around and I didn’t have time to watch both sports. Guess what, I quit following Nascar if my favorite driver was not in the chase for the cup.
Before I get any hate mail, I am not saying none of these new drivers don’t deserve to be there or owe anyone any different type of behavior. I am merely saying that the demographics of the contestants are changing but the demographics of the audience is not transforming as rapidly to follow; it is only broadening a bit over the last decade and that is just a fact of life. Nascar fans are predominantly rural and blue collar folks and not the sort that follow Indy or Formula One drivers with the international and Euro flavor. Ask yourself, “How many die hard fans want to see their favorite driver running around in a Toyota?” If Dale Earnhardt Jr. could just win a championship, maybe the magic would return. Personalities and legends have always been what Nascar has been about, not just cute smiles and gold cups.
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