Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Is NASCAR Seeing What’s Happening?

Long ago as a young lad, I worked for a department store you may have heard of called Caldor. I wasn’t the best employee – I goofed off and hit on girls a lot – but for the most part, I showed up for work every day on time and did my job as expected.

I wasn’t a thief, ever. But I was fired for an employee discount violation that I didn’t even know was a violation, in a transaction that cost the multi-million dollar corporation $2. A friend of mine there, making a similar wage, was also fired on a technicality a week after I was. Caldor looked at the numbers and decided to lose people making over a certain amount of money. They lost all of my family and friends permanently as customers as a result, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. They saved $4.90 an hour and lost thousands of dollars in sales.

I worked in the radio & TV department, and every week a brand of VCR would go on sale. If it was Sony or RCA or another decent name brand, they’d ship us two. If it was Goldstar, they’d give us 12. Either way, we’d sell out of them the first day, with no one ordering us any more to honor rainchecks. And I’d spend the rest of the week listening to customers tell me they weren’t ever coming back.

The assistant manager would shrug it off. “They always say that,” she told me, “and in a week they’re back.” The voice of concern.

Caldor is no more.

It very often seems as though NASCAR shrugs off similar complaints. Nearly every week I read multiple comments from people saying they’re done watching. And judging from the ratings this season, it sounds like people mean it. NASCAR can point out having more viewers than women’s basketball or golf, but the reality is that the ratings have been dropping every season for several years now and there is still little being done to improve the fan experience.

See also
Talking NASCAR TV: Jump the Shark

The broadcasts are still constant corporate bombardments with sprinkles of racing thrown in. Drivers and crews strongly dislike the car and fans know it. The second half of the season features too much points racing. People on the east coast need No-Doz to watch races that start well into the evening.

And as the sport hemorrhages fans, NASCAR shrugs and says, “They’ll be back.”

Certainly, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance is a part of the reason for the ratings slide. It’s no fun for the largest fanbase in NASCAR to watch their hero run 14th every week. That Brian France himself has acknowledged this says that they are very much aware of Junior’s importance to the sport.

But the response has not been to analyze why he is so popular but to make ridiculous rule changes to keep Junior and other popular drivers in the running for a championship until the end of the season. They went after bigger teams that didn’t build his cars. They contrived a playoff. When Junior didn’t make the playoff in two out of four years, it was expanded. And at Daytona and Phoenix this season, NASCAR can’t seem to make up its mind whether Junior should be punished for aggressive driving.

It is the overtures to fans of popular drivers that bring out the chants of “WWE”, not Tony Stewart complaining about debris cautions. NASCAR seems reluctant to anger not only Junior Nation, but even the anti-Junior Nation now. Cuban baseball leagues have braver officials.

Instead of trying to figure out a way to make a rule against passing any car with two eights on it, how about looking at Junior’s popularity and ultimately seeing where NASCAR’s base was and is? There are fans everywhere, but they are still largely concentrated in the Southeast of this country – which is the main reason why one of the few drivers left who speaks with a twang is the sport’s biggest star.

So why do races get pulled out of the Carolinas? Why are ticket prices for any worthwhile seats out of blue-collar range? Why are the fans in the Southeast, the clear majority, being made to stay up until past midnight, sometimes on Sunday, to see the outcome of a race?

Why even consider losing a race at Martinsville for Kansas? On spreadsheets it may make sense. Moving Labor Day to California made sense on the spreadsheets at the time. It also makes economic sense for a corporation to have profoundly exasperating automated menus or foreigners whose third language is English to handle their customer service. The spreadsheet doesn’t show the value of lost customers irate at the lack of respect they’re shown by companies they patronize.

NASCAR’s efforts to help Junior win while simultaneously disregarding the core location of the fanbase are both resulting in a crumbling foundation. Fans understand trying to grow the sport. What infuriates them is the disregard for the most devoted among them in the efforts to appeal to those who never have and never will support it. It’s as if no one in charge has ever heard of New Coke.

NASCAR needs to see what is happening before it’s too late. It isn’t hard to do. Look at what people on blogs and websites complain about the most and address it. They don’t have to please bitchy columnists like me – but they should take heed if everyone in the comments section agrees with what I or others are saying. Do internal polling if necessary – and listen this time.

Had NASCAR heeded their own website’s polls about the Chase, instead of insisting on it regardless of fan opinion, they would have quickly ditched the idea. The polls for the Chase ran 75-25 against it before and after the 2004 season. A 50-point margin is beyond “overwhelming majority.” A 50-point margin means “Don’t do it!”

Fans continued to strongly oppose the Big Points Giveaway in polls until NASCAR stopped polling and just had their people tell us it’s great and fans love it. Never mind the ratings. They’ll be back.

See also
Happy Hour: Hey Race Fans, It's Time for NASCAR's Annual Big Points Giveaway!

NASCAR can blame the economy for the plummeting attendance. What they can’t blame on the economy is plummeting ratings. I doubt that everyone has decided to get their NASCAR fix on their computer rather than just turning on their TV set. It’s just as almost free to watch a race on TV as it has always been. There are almost one in five fewer people watching races this year than in 2008, and 2008 saw a similar decline from 2007. That is literally millions of fans not watching. If NASCAR isn’t waking up to the reality, they should really start paying attention.

For now NASCAR gets away with it. They are still the only game in town. They aren’t going to be forever, and if someone with better ideas of what a racing series should be finds the funding, it could reduce a great institution to irrelevance. Do you think Stewart couldn’t be lured to a stock car racing series with more drivable cars and a tire supplier that’s up to the job? He left Gibbs for Haas – he could certainly leave NASCAR for something lesser in stature.

It used to be unthinkable that a NASCAR star like Kyle Busch would even consider leaving for Formula 1. What does it say that a true racer like Kyle must be at least somewhat disgruntled with his current very high-paying gig?

So many institutions in America become hugely popular and then forget everything that got them there. Caldor is just one of hundreds of examples. It isn’t disputed anymore that NASCAR is headed in the wrong direction – down. One need only look at articles and comments and blogs to see the equation. A strange looking and driving strictly spec racecar + poor broadcasts + rules to help popular drivers + rules to encourage points racing + ridiculous start times = plummeting ratings.

Hopefully, NASCAR isn’t shrugging the numbers off and expecting fans to come back. It’s becoming clearer that people aren’t. This season’s ratings from Daytona forward are no longer something to be dismissed. And if NASCAR keeps going the way they’re going, the ratings will keep on following suit.

NASCAR can stop the bleeding. The question is whether they will.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Following his great win at Phoenix, Mark Martin is 13th in the standings… and that’s with two blown engines and a busted tire causing another low finish. He could very easily be leading the points right now. Make no mistake my friends – Martin is in this for real.
  • Is it me or do restrictor-plate races bring all of the subpar teams out of the woodwork? Morgan-McClure is on the entry list this week. I didn’t even know they still existed. So is Jeremy Mayfield. I guess with the Big One always looming, there’s usually a good chance an upstart team can collect a 20th-place payday.
  • David Reutimann’s thus-far very impressive season has moved him up to ninth in the points standings, which may be enough to get his car on television soon. Still, I’m hedging the Chase bets. Martin’s coming and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton aren’t likely going anywhere.
  • Who is the official provider of lugnuts for NASCAR? I’ll bet we’d know if the lug nut problems that have plagued many of the sport’s top teams were afflicting Stewart’s team. That guy is too happy these days.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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