By now everybody has seen the miles of empty seats glittering under the sun at every NASCAR venue on the circuit. Meanwhile the TV ratings for most of the races in 2017 have been clocking in anywhere from 15 to 30% below last year’s numbers.
It isn’t like efforts aren’t being made draw more interest to these gigantic sporting events. The tracks have initiated lower priced family 4-packs, children’s pricing, and loyalty programs to try and get more fans back into those seats. They’ve tried applying the mythical PJ1 compound to the racing surface in an effort to create more competitive racing on the track. The networks have taken to hiring familiar faces from other sports to help cross-promote our product with other high adrenaline events.
However, are any of these efforts working?
No, because if a newbie tunes in for a Playoff race, they get three and a half hours of muscle cars in a high speed parade. Despite NASCAR’s best attempts to tweak the machines, tires and tracks the magical combination of competition and mayhem has not yet been achieved.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted on his Periscope account that attendance and the competition might improve if some races were rescheduled to run during the day, instead of under the cool light of the moon.
After two decades of careful research on the part of highly paid number crunchers it is clear that night races sell more tickets and gain greater TV ratings, so how is going back to the old-school day races going to actually help the sport? That isn’t going to help.
So, what will help? What’s missing?
I’ve thought for quite some time that the somewhat boring nature of our cookie-cutter races can be laid at the feet of perfected mechanical engineering. The dramatic storyline of each race these days is determined by aerodynamics, fuel consumption, and the durability of the tire compound. Engines don’t tend to detonate unless they belong to a third-tier team. Suspensions don’t fail. Mysterious mechanical failures simply don’t happen to the top echelon of the Cup Series.
Even if the odds-on favorite doesn’t actually grab the checkered flag at the end of the day, there is a 90% chance that one of five other drivers will. There is literally almost no suspense left in this sport.
Take Sunday’s race for example. What was the driving topic of conversation on Monday morning? Jimmie Johnson’s lug nuts, which honestly had zero effect on the outcome of the race or the main storylines. There was no nail biting, no great gasp of dismay, or even an “Oh no!” moment through the entire afternoon, save for Kyle Busch collapsing at the end of the day.
This was Charlotte, the home town of NASCAR. This used to be a punishing race track. A visit to this southern gem is now characterized by yawns and grumpy drivers. How exactly is that going to bring a new fan into the auto racing fold?
We have simply engineered the fun out of watching this sport by creating tracks and cars that can stand up to the abuse of 500 miles without blinking. Remember when that used to be a nigh-impossible goal?
Yes, we need more side by side racing, but we also need an element of surprise worked back into the mix. Perhaps if we went to crate engines, NASCAR could spike a few…that might throw a wrench into the proceedings.
It’s wonderful that all these multi-million dollar teams have got this system down. That’s impressive, it’s not a good show. If we removed some of the rules and regulations that define the structure of every part bolted to the cars and let the teams loose to experiment, we may regain some element of the unknown that provided the background of fun for this sport in its golden years.
We always hear that NASCAR wants to put on a great show for the fans. However, they may have only managed to regulate themselves out of their own sport.
I hope this marks the beginning of a new tradition in NASCAR. After scoring the victory on Saturday afternoon, Alex Bowman signed the checkered flag and handed it off to a young fan at the start/finish line, following the example set by Ryan Blaney the week before. Keep it up! That’s exactly the kind of fan interaction this sport needs. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if the Cup series drivers followed suit?
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