Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy’s got five changes she’s noticed in NASCAR fans in the last 15 years or so.
1. Fans are not as brand-loyal as they used to be.
A lot has changed with NASCAR fans over the years, or at least the fairly large number of them that I know, and many have said that while they used to go out of their way to choose products (or stores, restaurants, etc.) that sponsored racecars, they don’t necessarily do that anymore. Most have cited the economy, which is understandable—dollars have to stretch farther and the most cost effective choice isn’t necessarily the one fans would make if funds were unlimited.
Still, where does apathy come into play? It used to be that fans of one driver sponsored by, say a brand of beer would not be caught dead drinking a brand that sponsored someone else. A Bill Elliott fan would not have been seen eating in Burger King, and a Tony Stewart fan simply didn’t ever shop at Lowe’s. To a degree, that kind of fierce loyalty has disappeared, even if cost is relatively similar. Sponsorship is hard to come by in the sport these days, and one reason may be that sponsors can no longer count on race fans to use their product if it’s on a car.
2. Support seems spread across fewer drivers.
Many years ago, I conducted a (highly unscientific but really fun) experiment at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. On Sunday morning, I took a copy of the race lineup and a pencil and checked off each driver as I saw a fan supporting him with a t-shirt, hat, car decal, seat cushion, or some other item. By the time the race started, every name on the list had been checked off. That included the drivers without a prayer of contending, the ones past their primes, the ones just getting a start in the Cup series. Every driver had people who were passionate enough to parade it around for all to see. Conversations happened between complete strangers about drivers—even if it wasn’t a favorite in common, it was a “Hey, I like Ward Burton; he’s a good guy,” to a guy wearing a Burton hat or a good natured ribbing along the lines of “Rusty Wallace? Really? Here, have a Bud.” (Wallace was sponsored by Miller).
I haven’t conducted the same experiment in a while, but last time I tried, it was much harder to find all the drivers represented. All the big names are there, but the little guys are much harder to find. Some of that is due to sponsors (or the lack thereof) and an overall lack of paraphernalia for those drivers. Not all of them have souvenir rigs at the track these days. Also, there’s the coverage that television doesn’t give so many drivers and teams. If fans don’t feel like they know Josh Wise or Landon Cassill, why buy a t-shirt? There’s no one answer here, and there are many truths.
3. Expectations are higher.
It seems like many fans want every race to feature ten cars beating the fenders off each other on the final lap (sometimes on every lap) or they automatically declare the race “boring.” That’s not really the case, of course, and perhaps social media and electronic commenting on racing websites are part of it. In general, people tend to take more time to write and post negative reviews than positive ones, leading the casual viewer to believe that the vast majority of them hate everything about racing and everyone in it. The negativity gets blown out or proportion until many believe it’s the vast majority of fans and the norm in the sport.
But overall, it does seem like fans expect more than is perhaps realistic on a week-to-week basis. Not every race is going to be a barn-burner and not every one is a clunker, either. It’s never been that way. In fact, races are more competitive today than they were for much of the sport’s early history. Were fans complaining as much when the winner was two laps ahead of the second place guy back in the day…or do we just think they weren’t because they couldn’t tweet about it? It’s something to think about, but at the end of the day, perhaps a little perspective is needed for some viewers.
4. NASCAR isn’t a destination anymore.
Once upon a time, fans would plan a family vacation or a guys’ or girls’ weekend around a race. The track was the destination, and other activities were planned around the race. Camper rentals thrived and local businesses could count on a race weekend to boost their bottom line. Charlotte in particular was a must-see, because during a trip, fans could visit not just the races but also the team shops and other local attractions, such as racing museums. Van tours of area race shops were a big seller.
Again, the economy is a big part of the overall issue here. While fans have most certainly found racing less appealing overall than a decade ago, when racing was the hot ticket, hotels capitalized by doubling and even tripling rates, a practice that still goes on today. Coupled with rising fuel prices, it’s hard to blame even the most diehard race fan for finding a better value in another vacation option.
5. Is there a united front?
As long as there have been rivalries on the race track, there have been rivalries among race fans. That’s part of being a fan: intense loyalty toward a certain driver. Most rivalries are friendly, with fans good-naturedly poking fun at others’ choices. It’s always had the potential to get tense, but for the most part, it’s been fairly tame.
What has apparently changed, though, is a general feeling among fans of basically all being in this thing called NASCAR together. If fans were unhappy with something NASCAR did, they commiserated together. Now, some rivalries have turned bitter, at least on social media. Conspiracy theories run rampant, and instead of lighthearted ribbing, there’s more and more vitriol.
The question here is if fans want NASCAR to change things, can they afford to bicker among themselves over things? False accusations and baseless theories aren’t going to make anyone in a position of power take complaints seriously, even when they are valid. Perhaps fans should consider a return to the days of civility and camaraderie in the stands and at the local watering hole. Even if it changes nothing, it sure makes the sport a lot more fun.