MOORESVILLE, N.C. — I got to thinking this past week about all the reasons why NASCAR has seen a decline in both fans attending their national series races and also in viewership on TV.
I don’t go nuts over the TV ratings thing just because I know that NASCAR’S social media numbers are through the roof, so all that tells me is that the way some fans are getting their NASCAR content has changed, which doesn’t surprise me given our “device-happy” society of the day.
I think we’re in the midst of a bit of a transition in the NASCAR “fan” audience composition. There are untold numbers of fans who will never watch another NASCAR race again because Dale Earnhardt is no longer in the field. There is nothing you can do to win those people back. They were fans of a driver more than fans of a sport.
Fair enough. So you just need to move on from them.
Then there is a larger portion of the fan base from that era who are trying desperately to find every reason not to watch, but they just can’t help it. They also love to complain about everything and compliment nothing. Short of shoving them in a time machine and being able to transport them back to their favorite era, there is little NASCAR can do to please them no matter if the racing gets better or not.
They hate the Chase. They hate Joey Logano. They think it’s nothing but a sport for rich kids now and that there are no Daniel Hemrics, Garrett Smithleys, Jordan Andersons or Ross Chastains anymore who, like the old days, actually grew up without a bunch of family money and have had to work very hard on their cars and their relationships to propel them to the national level where they are at least able to continue to compete and stay “in the game” in hopes of getting a Cup shot.
These fans mean well; they just can’t help themselves. Maybe it’s sometimes easier to lament the lack of something than to work hard enough to find the positive, but the drivers I mentioned above are just a few examples of the many really neat stories that exist in the sport today if you just look for them.
I would agree, however, that NASCAR often steps on its own attempts to make the sport better and makes it less fan-appealing instead.
I like the Chase, for example, because I do think that it makes the last ten races a lot more entertaining, and for today’s youth, entertainment always comes first because their attention span is measured in seconds not minutes.
If they cannot find an app for it or use their phone or tablet to engage with it, it’s a whole lot harder to get them excited about it.
The fans of my generation are dwindling, and the fans of my father’s generation are literally dying off.
I believe NASCAR needs to focus on exciting a new and younger fan base now. Here are three things they can do that may help them do that.
1. Stop using words like “encumbered”.
We’re not all Harvard graduates, people. You either win or you lose. At almost every one of NASCAR’s “training tracks” (read — short tracks all over the nation), if you’re illegal after the race you lose. You lose the win, the money and the points.
Then, when you get up to the national series, the rule changes. Why?
Keep it simple. Counting a win as a win, but not as a win for Chase purposes, is unnecessarily complicated. When’s the last time you saw a word like “encumbered” used in any other sport?
“Unsportsmanlike conduct … Encumbering the tight end … 15 yard penalty … repeat first down.”
Speak our language.
2. “Encumber” yourselves from having any further rules that you have to make more rules to clarify later.
You use a laser system to do post-race tech. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that if someone’s 1/100 of an inch out of spec, they aren’t getting a performance advantage.
We don’t need a rule book full of levels of a screw-up. Again, the “training tracks” — which should be the “on-ramp” where our youth get their first taste of the sport — don’t have all that nonsense.
The best tech inspectors at weekly tracks are tough but fair and consistent. If something’s not a big deal, they’ll note it, tell you not to bring it back and then check the next time to make sure you didn’t.
We don’t need a press release to tell us that you had to have tolerances. That should have been in the rule to begin with and shouldn’t need to be explained.
The same thing applies to things like drivers “pushing” on some tracks. You make a rule that says drivers cannot “stay locked” together but then don’t say for how long it’s OK to do that.
Fans don’t like anything that amounts to a “judgment” call because they know it cannot be consistently enforced, and the members of the tin hat society are completely convinced you’re using these things to fix races.
Get rid of restart boxes and let the flagger start the race. Do away with anything that requires in-race “on-the-fly” calls from the tower because no human can be consistent with that type of officiating when cars are doing upwards of 200 mph.
This brings me to the final philosophical adjustment I think NASCAR needs to make…
3. Let your drivers say your sport sucks if they want to.
I promise you, no fans are going to run away because they said it. They’ll come back and be on the edge of their seats waiting for the next driver who thinks like they do!
Why do you think Dale was so popular? Sure, he won a lot of races. But he was the symbol of the fan base. He didn’t need to always blast his disagreements publicly, but every fan knew he had Bill France’s ear and at least believed that he thought like they did much of the time.
Get rid of these Wednesday fines and points for a driver being honest. Obviously, there are lines you cannot cross in terms of social acceptance and such, but if someone wants to have an opinion or share a point of view, let them do it.
Settle it quietly, like Bill and Bill used to. Your fans want WWE, because that’s how they think. Good guys and bad guys. They want to bash Joey Logano for getting Matt Kenseth sideways and then cheer Kenseth when he pile-drives Joey into the wall with his race car on purpose.
Think of it like this: how many drivers have come and gone from your sport and nobody missed watching them but their family? Yet, we’re going to lose Tony Stewart at the end of this year and what are we going to miss?
His brashness and relentless desire to speak his mind to help the sport. Oh, and of course we’re going to miss his old-school racing style a little bit, too. He’s entertaining on and off the track, like him or not.
I love NASCAR. I also understand as a business owner that not all the right decisions are going to make you more popular. I just think the current regime in NASCAR has spent so much time trying to engineer the sport that in some ways they’ve engineered much of the “entertainment” out of it.
My suggestion for Brian and his staff: Relax.
Take off the suits and ties, put on some jeans and a t-shirt, sit back with a hot dog and a beer, and enjoy the show. Don’t sweat the small stuff so much.
It’s supposed to be fun.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, the Performance Motorsports Network, Scorpion Radio Group, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Tom Baker is the Owner and Senior Editor of Race Chaser Online, as well as creator of the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show — airing Thursdays at 7 p.m. Eastern on the Performance Motorsports Network.
With 27 years of motorsports media, marketing and managerial experience, Baker serves as coach and mentor for several next generation racers as well as Race Chaser’s passionate lineup of rising motorsports journalists.
Email Tom at: [email protected]
Follow Tom on Twitter: @RaceChaserTom
Follow Tom on Instagram: @CoachTomNC
Email Race Chaser Online: [email protected]
Follow RCO on Twitter: @RaceChaserNews