The End of NASCAR?


I saw something over the past weekend I haven’t seen before.  Empty seats at Bristol Motor Speedway. 

Known as the world’s fastest half mile, the racing at Bristol has long been rough and tumble.  Cars have been in victory lane with front clips torn off, tire marks all over the doors, rear bumpers dragging the ground.  Sprint Cup cars turn a lap there in under twenty seconds.  With progressive banking, the track provides side by side racing for five hundred laps. 

Yet, the track had empty seats this weekend.  What used to be the toughest ticket to come by in sports isn’t so tough to get any more.  People used to travel from all over for a Bristol race.  Not any more. 

Why? 

It’s pretty simple.  NASCAR has priced themselves out of the market.  With the fans of the sport mostly blue collar folks who work hard for the money they make, and with jobs being scarce all over the place, fans have to choose between rent and food or racing.  They used to choose racing.  Not any more.  I wonder why that is.

The days of “cage rattling” died with Dale Earnhardt.  Now drivers have a more vanilla personality.  The closest thing we have in the sport to a villain is Kyle Busch, an incredibly talented driver who knows he’s talented.  He owns Bristol.  No matter where he starts, he gets to the front at the end of the race and has won a lot there.  He typically doesn’t have to rattle anyone’s cage.  He just drives around them.  In the Nationwide race on Saturday he spun Brad Keslowski after Keslowski put the chrome horn to Busch’s car.  Then Busch drove away.  No serious challenges from anyone else.  NASCAR needs its heroes, and its villains.  Everybody who’s a fan has a driver they love and one they love to hate.  But that second category is getting harder to fill.

The racing now is better than it has been in a long time.  But I think old time fans who remember the “Tide Ride,” coffee sponsors, and the black number three can’t seem to reconcile the racing and the official everything of NASCAR.  With everything from beer to tampons being labeled the official whatever of NASCAR, people long for the days of the owner/driver.  Guys like Alan Kulwicki are gone forever.  Nowadays, a team needs hired guns on the pit crew, an engineer on the pit box, and a cover guy (or girl) behind the wheel.  Simply having passion and guts isn’t enough anymore.  Now you need a multi-million dollar sponsor, a two hundred thousand square foot shop and three hundred employees just to be competitive.  Look at Robby Gordon.  He owns the car he drives, and he usually drives around in the back of the pack. 

We may be witnessing the end of NASCAR.  The races will continue, but the fans that made NASCAR what it is are being left behind.  Atlanta Motor Speedway lost one of its two races.  Darlington Raceway is down to one race.  The main reason is that the local areas can’t fill up the track.  And that is because a ticket to a NASCAR race costs $150.  If you have two kids and a wife who likes racing (like mine does), you can barely afford to get into the track, much less buy beer and turkey legs. 

NASCAR needs to dance with the ones that brung ’em.  Great racing isn’t enough. 

Without fans, it’s just forty three guys going fast and turning left.

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