Saturday , October 25 2014
Home / Amy Henderson / The Frontstretch Five: Ways Fans Have Changed During NASCAR’s Rise and Fall
The Frontstretch Five: Ways Fans Have Changed During NASCAR’s Rise and Fall

The Frontstretch Five: Ways Fans Have Changed During NASCAR’s Rise and Fall

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.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Geico 400

Of course there are still passionate fans in the stands, but does that passion still trickle down to the little guys?

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.

2014 Sonoma CUP Carl Edwards wins CIA

Are stands not as full today because of the racing or the astronomical travel costs?

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.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

25 comments

  1. As for # 2, it is definitely true. Part of that, IMHO, is the fact that we have all of the Cup Drivers running every weekend in both the NW and Truck Series. I remember back years ago, when the only person doing this was Mark Martin. You got to know all of the drivers in the Busch Series because you did not have all of the Cup guys stealing all of the wins and attention.

    I used to be one of those who made my schedule pretty much around when the race was run. Now if I am at home when it is on, I might or might not watch.

  2. I’ve said this before, but I know it’s not just me that’s changed, and I can prove it. Why can I watch events from 20-plus years ago on Youtube, and be enthralled, when I already know who won, it’s somebody I don’t like, and my favorite driver isn’t even in the field? Yet, I can be watching an event live today, and even when my favorite is doing well and being covered as one of the “chosen few,” I’m still sitting there thinking about how I could be washing my cars or planning dinner or something.

  3. Just about every move that Brian France has made has been a swing of the ax to cut me away from the sport. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even set the DVR anymore. My main problem is that I can no longer relate to any of the drivers on the track. I doubt that you would need all your fingers on one hand to count the number drivers that have ever had to work a 40 hour week in order to put food on the table. No longer can an average Joe build a race car in their backyard shop and race their way to the big time while pulling a regular work week. Now, if one of the big time owners doesn’t point a finger at you in the late model ranks by the age of 16 then you don’t stand much of a chance. One of the things I loved about the late 80s and early 90s is that the Busch Series or the Trucks could hit a local speedway and it offered the local Saturday night guy a shot to strut their stuff. You don’t even see this happening in the K&N Pro Series these days. I don’t even know why the top four divisions bother to put out an entry list each week. The only thing that changes is the continuously rotating sponsorships.

    One other thing and this is to NASCAR…when someone will choose to watch a PGA event before viewing your product then you have a problem. This comes from someone who use to have anxiety attacks if I missed a lap of an event. Be it TV coverage or live at the track. I can remember actually running to the bathroom during cautions or commercials.

  4. The biggest problem is that nobody listens to us, the long time loyal fans. Do you really think that the people in positions of power actually read this stuff ? They,re off jet setting around the world playing golf or just hanging around other rich people trying to impress someone. And we’re left to eother like the way things are………….or not. I am probably one of the biggest nascar fans around. And I’m also an anomalaly. I have a favorite driver, but I don’t like his beer. I buy my hardware supplies from whoever has the best price that day. And im also not car brand loyal. I buy whatever appeals to me that year. I like long races. I think the Coke 600 is awesome. Except this year because CMS closed my grandstand and crammed me into the worst seat in the place. But i’ll keep going as long as I can.Been goin to Charlotte since the first “Winston” in 85. I just wish one of those “power people” would ask me what I thought sometime.

  5. NASCAR fans are bad – are you kidding – ever been to Yankee Stadium? – you should try it – beer spilled on you, swearing and screaming right next to 8 & 10 year olds – great fun really. I never took my kids back. I have never experienced anything like that at a NASCAR race.

    Some of the article rings true. But are fans supposed to solve all that? Shouldn’t that be management responsibility? Someone above makes a really good point about making the weekend an event – why does New Hampshire have the Modifieds on the weekend. (Especially since the Modified race is the best race of the week , but that us another story). Look talk about fans changing all you want, talk about the economy all you want, blame Obama if you have too – but I adapt to changing work, schools, kids growing up just like everyone else – part of life no complaints – but it is NASCAR that is responsible for putting a less appealing product on the track.

    One more thing now that I am on a roll. (Yikes!) – stop telling fans that they don’t know a good race when they see one – please stop that. We know – do you ever read some of the people on this site? They know believe me. A single file parade with several seconds between cars is not exciting. We love short track racing so let’s get rid of just about all short tracks! And fans changed? NASCAR needs to take responsibility.

    Thanks.

  6. The racing has changed, the cars have changed, the drivers have changed, and Nascar has changed, so it’s only natural that the fans change too. We’ve all gone on ad nausem about what’s wrong with the sport, though I’d agree that things are a little better than they were a couple of seasons ago, but the problems that persist… bland drivers who have little inter-action with the fans, manipulated race outcomes, and horrible TV coverage to name just three, can’t be whitewashed away. I don’t think it’s vitriol to be passionate about wanting these problems to be addressed.

    One small personal change I will share… I will never again buy a ticket to a Nationwide or Truck race that isn’t a stand-alone event without what we used to call Busch-wackers. I refuse to spend my money watching Goliath beat up on David. I’m one fan reacting to how Nascar conducts it’s business, but I’m sure I’m not alone.

  7. Not as many of us like Kool Aid.

  8. 1. Brand loyalty – well, there has been lots of movement in the sponsorships for various drivers. People who might have supported Tony Stewart with Home Depot may not have felt the same about it when it was Logano or another driver in the seat. Plus as you say, there is the economy involved and much of it depends on where items are on sale and how close a business is for convenience.

    2. Fewer drivers being supported – I agree with your point about the issue of tv coverage, plus Nationwide and the truck series see a lot of the Cup drivers in them, not just taking up space but also the coverage that might go to some of the other less recognized drivers. Also souvenirs have become very expensive and IMO NASCAR has made many of the hats/shirts so generic that they are boring. I used to buy a new hat every year but now unless I need one, I don’t because every driver’s hat is the same and that is not true of the ones I have in my closet from earlier years.

    3. Higher expectations – I don’t know that my expectations are higher. I want to see decent racing. I do know that since the inception of the chase, the overabundance of D-shaped oval tracks and the introduction of the kit/COT car that my level of disappointment in the racing has increased. No every race doesn’t have to be a barnburner, but the lack of ability to race side by side and pass for the lead, the resulting 500 lap parades, rock hard tires that don’t give up so that fuel mileage runs became the order of the day has not made me enjoy the sport nearly as much as I once did. Plus you have the blatant manipulation by the sanctioning body with debris cautions, double-file restarts and green-white-wrecker finishes because the racing was no longer interesting enough w/o them. Now the 10 race chase (because how terrible that someone could win the championship by (gasp) being consistent) will now be reduced to a 1 race crapshoot/demolition derby. Wow, yeah, I wouldn’t say I have higher expectations, rather NASCAR has forced me to lower them.

    4. NASCAR no longer a destination – right, when the racing became less fun to watch – and by that I go back to side by side racing & passing and no need to contrive the finishes, yet the prices for hotels, airfare and food have continued to be high, well, if I am going to travel and spend my $ and my vacation time, the racing needs to be worth my time and effort.

    5. United front? – well maybe so. The internet, including twitter, has certainly allowed fans to interact a lot more than when news was only sent out in the NASCAR magazines and whatever we heard on radio and tv. When I went to more races, the fans used to talk about their favorite or least favorite driver/team/car mfg whatever, but I noticed that after the introduction of the COT, the chase and some of Brian’s other changes, that more and more fans were talking about how they weren’t happy with those changes. But NASCAR chooses NOT to listen to its fans and they have paid the price for it. They wanted the casual fans and they got them, in many ways by turning the diehards into that or by losing them altogether.

    I have a favorite driver. I’ve followed Gordon before he came to NASCAR and when he started in 1992 in Atlanta I was there. I enjoyed the great years when he and his fans were heckled and downright abused by fans of other drivers and through the more recent tough years when he couldn’t catch a break. I plan to follow NASCAR until he retires. When that happens, I’ll be gone, too, unless NASCAR finds a way to interest me again. That’s on them.

    • Wow!!! Nothing left to say. You covered it all GinaV24. Awesome!!!!

      From what I’ve been observing it seems to me that The Frontstretch not only redesigned their website but their approach/agenda to covering the sport. Seems like they are trying to get away from honestly appraising the sport warts and all and want to become another NASCAR mouthpiece. Everything is great. The sport is thriving. Brian knows best. Kumbaya.

      • Thanks, Bill B. I’m not into drinking the NASCAR koolaid. I stopped watching the pre-race garbage because the “panels” seemed to think that if they kept saying everything was great or could just make the fans feel stupid enough for NOT just going along with NASCAR’s big plan, that things would all be wonderful again. Remember the emperor has no clothes – just no one’s willing to tell him.

        I’ve spent enough time and money going to races, as well as watching them on TV, to feel as if I can decide for myself what is or is not good racing or at least a product I am willing to buy.

  9. Sponsor loyalty also has to do with how teams are sponsored. 15 years ago, most teams had a primary sponsor for 90% of the races. Now, most teams have 5 or 6 brands on their car throughout the year.

  10. Always the economy…..I live within 50 miles of Ft Worth and no longer make the trip. I agree with spec cars, drivers with no personality, no car manufacturer loyalty, a screwed up points system being the key problems. Also remember when a new facility opened in order to get decent seats you needed to purchase a PSL. This was the only way to get good seats for the NASCAR race, but in turn you had to purchase seats for Indy, Trucks, and Busch. This also shut out some of the loyal fans and instead were marketed to those jumping on the bandwagon for the first time. It doesn’t look like they turned out to be a good investment.and neither is the future of NASCAR.

  11. i don’t think any website can outdo this one as the most negative for Nascar.

    • Negative or refreshing? This is one of the few sites that doesn’t toe the nascar line and drink the Kool-Aid. You may be a sheep and follow what everyone wants you to follow, but the people here genuinely care about the sport and want to see change so that it doesn’t go in the crapper. If there were more websites like this one, maybe some change would take place for the better in the sport.

  12. Howie Feltersnatch

    I was a NA$CAR fan from the mid seventies until the early 2000s until Brain France allowed it to be turned into just another spec car series and the coup de gras was when that dips**t screwed up the points system so idiotically that winning was not as important as breathing. I will go to my local track (Dubuque County Fairgrounds) on Saturday night and watch real racing between real race car drivers instead of the crap on Sundays with all the cute little spokes models (the ones in the identical cars). NA$CAR is almost done blowing it just like the Indy Car geniuses did when they got too big for their britches, treat the real fans like they are dumb and or keep jacking up the price of admission and soon you will be gone-out of business.

  13. You missed whats wrong Amy. Its not the economy. Its NA$CAR and what that moron in charge has done to the racing.

  14. Gone are the days when Dale Sr. had to win or the bills didn’t get paid.

  15. You missed a few. Aging fan base. Lack of relationship one can have with his auto, I did an engine swap in the 80′s now i am not sure I could change my computer controlled oil. Foreign cars (whether you chose to admit it or not). GENeric cars indistinguishable by brand. Total focus on drivers that includes everything but actual skill (in the past month I was treated to stories about how Kyle Larson just bought a mansion and knocked up his girlfriend). And finally, while NASCAR has always been corrupt people are more savvy now. The perception of manipulated racing is a big factor.

    • Not only are they more savvy but they have mechanisms now to point out those flaws via the internet and social media. No longer are people restricted to a soap box at the corner of Main Street and Oak Street. Now any individual can reach thousands of people instantly and point out something fishy.
      There may also be a problem that the sport is over-covered. Too many people writing too many stories with too few topics to cover. After a while you need to write stories about Kyle Larson knocking up his girlfriend because there are already 10 stories about Home Depot leaving JGR.

  16. Exciting racing is in the eye of the beholder. You may think a race without ten guys banging together is exciting for one reason or another, but I’m betting you’re in the minority. There has to be something exciting during the first 480 miles of a race for any but the most fanatical fans to stay glued to their set. At races, notice how many more fans are milling around in the concourse during the race itself compared to fans at football games – they do so because they figure they’re not going to really miss anything.

  17. “NASCAR isn’t a destination anymore.”

    Used to be 10-15 years ago, you went to the track for a 3 or 4 day weekend, and
    there were things going on constantly at the track. Longer practice sessions, more
    support races, second round qualifying… If they had a small oval on the front stretch,
    they would throw out the bandaleros and legends cars…

    Now… Less support races, limited practice, no second round qualifying… What used
    to be a full Friday at the track and full Saturday… is now 3 or 4 hours on Friday and
    4 or 5 hours on Saturday if you are lucky, then you have to go find something else to do.

    Its not worth the travel time and its not worth the expense anymore..

    The fans didn’t change, NASCAR did.

  18. Just go down the list of articles every day on Jayski and see what they are about.and by whom. A large percentage of them are either by Nascar or its “stakeholders”. Then very few of them have any real substance about racing. Rather its a team gets a two race sponsor, or some drivers girlfriend is pregnant, blah blah.
    That ought to speak volumes about the state of the sport.

  19. Nascar better make some radical changes…….changes that they really don’t want to make, if they want to stop the bleeding. APATHY is a true killer and it’s growing in the racing fan base.

    Fans see the caution flags, the highly questionable penalties, etc. and say something is fishy about all of it. Perception is reality.