Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR Arrogance Gone Awry

The recent Kentucky mess was preventable. The reaction to it was initially far too unrepentant. The blame game that followed it was unseemly. But NASCAR’s apparent attitude towards the whole thing now takes the cake.

Look for Brian France’s response to Bruton Smith’s bold answer to being asked if he would consider a refund for jilted fans: “We don’t want to.” Or more correctly, the lack of response. If France has commented on that in any way, I can’t find it in searches. But the proper response should have been to immediately get in touch with Bruton and let him know that he will be relieved from future post-PR-disaster press conferences.

Did anyone at the highest echelon of NASCAR leadership at least think that that might not have been the best thing to say after thousands of people sat for as long as 10 hours in Kentucky heat to miss a race? Presumably not.

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NASCAR continues to do a lot of things that, if not deliberately, certainly seem to suggest a great deal of arrogance in their attitude. That may have been understandable for a sport that was about to overtake the NFL in popularity, as NASCAR once was before the Chase completely sucked fan devotion out of the sport. But they are no longer in a position to treat their fans so cavalierly.

Fan dedication to sports is sometimes unfathomable. I live in the Philadelphia area. The Eagles stick it to their fans more every season. Season ticket holders have to pay for two meaningless preseason games. The price of parking at Lincoln Financial Field has more than doubled in the last five years. Ticket prices are, of course, outrageous — $129 for standing room on StubHub — unless you don’t mind the preseason tickets no one wants.

But every game, those dedicated fans come out, cheering on the team that’s bankrupted them. The Eagles can get away with it, for now.

NASCAR fans were once no less devoted and perhaps even more so. It’s a true testament to the damage that has been done when the real diehards — who were once willing to sit on hard metal benches in the heat for six hours, endure the traffic that is always bad and sometimes horrendous, and go broke for tickets and hotel rooms and gas — have moved on. To lose fans that were that fanatical, you almost have to be trying.

The backlash against NASCAR for their tone-deafness on many things is unlike anything I’ve seen in any sport. The strike in 1994 hurt baseball, but the downslide was short-lived. Cal Ripken showed fans that some in the sport still appreciated them and excitement over the home run race in 1998 reminded people why they put up with the shameless greed.

For an entity to not only deny a refund to fans who sat in traffic for nothing because of their own lack of planning, in the sport’s current climate, is astounding. Every time the sport seems to be recovering from the downward trend, they find a way to let their fans know that once they pocket their cash, they couldn’t give a damn about them.

Consider the NASCAR.com poll of fans last November, asking if they love the Chase now, when three drivers could have potentially won the title and interest in it probably couldn’t get higher. Would not 55% of remaining fans still saying “I’ll never like it” be cause for perhaps rethinking clinging to this idea? This is something that doesn’t even cost anything. Losing the Chase would be simple. Instead once again, the poll is removed and articles appear on NASCAR.com and ESPN.com still insisting that a mindless points reset is pants-wetting awesome. It’s great and you’re an idiot for not appreciating how great it is.

We all remember Indianapolis 2008. Of course there was backlash. But that backlash might have been better handled if it had occurred to someone high up at NASCAR that maybe they should be showing some remorse for how their policies resulted in an awful race. NASCAR left that to Robin Pemberton, who shouldn’t have had to endure that.

It’s one thing to put on a bad race. Things happen. It is to NASCAR’s and Goodyear’s great credit that they corrected the problems and racing has greatly improved at Indianapolis. Surely they eventually figured out how aggravated paying customers for the event had to be.

The fix hasn’t helped. Each year since the Brickyard’s attendance has been declining. In this light you’d think that the sport would take steps to ensure that PR disasters like this do not happen again, and that they let cheated fans know that they appreciate their business and will make it right.

The fault of the traffic nightmare at Kentucky is none other than SMI’s for not adding sufficient parking the moment they were awarded a race and on NASCAR for awarding a Cup race to a track that was nowhere near able to handle it. The blame doesn’t belong anywhere else and even if it did, directing blame shouldn’t have been the reaction of NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports.

But like with Indy, that wasn’t the worst of it. I’m betting the most long term damaging moment in the Kentucky mess, in the long run, will be the words: “Because we don’t want to.”

Kentucky was much worse than the Brickyard. Most everyone at Indy at least got to see a green flag. To repeat the same pattern of delayed remorse and then to throw out a verbal middle finger at the suggestion of a refund is beyond baffling. It’s hard to understand how people this successful could think this way, but I guess that’s why I’m not a billionaire.

Loudon and Texas and other tracks have had traffic and parking problems, but they’ve done things to improve them. It is certain that Kentucky will too. People don’t stay angry forever, and if the situation improves, some might actually return.

But as for this already now “casual fan,” (now part-time writer) if I were one of the folks who sat in traffic in the heat for 10 hours, wasted my vacation time and money on a hotel room that was tripled in price for the weekend, all to see nothing, and then heard the track owner say he won’t give me a refund because he doesn’t want to — while Brian France looks on — Kentucky Speedway would have no need to create any spaces for me, ever. Nor would any other NASCAR track. Had I been stuck in that mess, “We don’t want to” would be the final straw.

I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one.

It isn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr. not winning. All the fan favorites in the sport’s history had lean years and it never hurt attendance or ratings. It isn’t the racing. Downforce was a problem even at the sport’s peak. It isn’t lack of personalities. There is no shortage of emotion when people talk about Kyle Busch. And it isn’t Jimmie Johnson either; there is no way a competitor as stupid good as Jimmie is should ever cause any sport problems.

The root cause of NASCAR’s decline in popularity is nothing more or less than the dedicated tone-deafness of its leadership. You’re upset with something? Oh well.

Whether people who missed the race at Kentucky should get a refund isn’t even the point. Eventually, no matter how popular the product, a business with this attitude will not survive. If a sport’s leadership continues to dismiss fans so much so that it can chase away people willing to put a second mortgage on their home to afford a ticket, you can bet it’s bad enough to kill the sport for good.

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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