NASCAR: A Trainwreck Like None You’ve Ever Seen

David Fink

The Daytona 500 is now behind us.  “The Great American Race” is the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule and signifies the beginning of a new season of racing.  As of Sunday, Feb. 9, only one week before the race, tickets were still available. Twenty years ago, NASCAR wouldn’t have had a problem selling out tickets even four months prior to the event.  NASCAR has sold out the past four Daytona 500s, but of course, that means that somehow the 2015 race did not sell out. Problems aren’t limited to just this race. TV ratings were up last year but are still down overall over the past 10 years.  Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s NASCAR event, the Brickyard 400, hasn’t come close to selling out in years, and it is more likely to put a viewer to sleep than anything else. Tracks, such as Dover International Speedway, are removing thousands of seats, and tracks, such as Las Vegas Motor Speedway, have axed a ton of seats — black out seats — and still can’t even get close to a sellout. 

What?  How did this happen?

In the 90s, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing was a powerhouse.  The cars were blisteringly fast. They were hard to drive, and the drivers represented true American grit. Personality was overflowing, as were the stands of the tracks. Sponsors were lining up to get their names on the cars.  Now, the top league of American auto-racing finds itself desperately searching for answers as to what went wrong when the answer is right in front of their incompetent faces: it’s their fault. 

NASCAR’s first massive mistake can be traced back to 2003.  The 2002 NASCAR Cup Series season saw Matt Kenseth take home the championship without winning a race the entire season, and NASCAR decided a change had to be made. Enter: the chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Drivers would race under a traditional points system until the final 10 races of the season, in which the top ten drivers in the standings would essentially be in the playoffs and were reset to zero points, as the last ten races would decide the championship in a sport that has always been about putting an entire season together, not a ten race span.   NASCAR wasn’t done yet, as a combination of Jimmie Johnson winning six championships in this format and an incredulous desire to appeal to a younger audience led NASCAR to its next novel idea: stop Johnson from winning championships and appeal to absolutely no audiences at all.  The second iteration of the NASCAR Playoffs would include stages implemented into every race and a three round playoff system into the final ten races of the season that is so complicated I won’t even attempt to explain it (and by the way, Johnson still won his seventh title).

NASCAR’s second major blunder came in 2007.  Following the death of seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion, the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr., in the final laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR knew they had to make a change in the safety of the sport.  Unfortunately, this led to the 2007 debut of NASCAR’s fifth generation stock car, hailed as “The Car of Tomorrow.” The car, although admittedly incredibly safe, managed to turn every race into a complete snooze fest, and countless drivers were very vocal about how horrible they were to drive (see: Kyle Busch).  During this same time period, Goodyear’s tires hit a rough patch and would give out with no warning and for no reason periodically throughout races.

Legends of the sport, including Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon, all retired within a few years of each other, and Johnson will be out after this season as well.  Replacing them, for the most part, include kids who are only there because of family ties and money, largely possessing no talent and largely unlikable (see: Austin Dillon). 

All of this leads to a decimation in attendance and viewership as die-hard fans are alienated by largely unnecessary changes, and efforts to attract new fans failed almost humorously.  We are at the point where Kyle Larson, arguably the most talented driver on the planet, would rather win dirt racing events than the Daytona 500; many are angered by this, but I honestly support it.

How do you fix something this unfixable? Fortunately, it would involve listening to vocal fans. Racing fans, including me, plead desperately for NASCAR to return to high horsepower engines, cars that don’t depend as much on aerodynamics and cars that showcase driver talent.  Fans want bumping and banging on the racetrack. We want excitement.  The cars cost way too much to provide this level of excitement today.  The cost of running NASCAR teams needs to decrease (2017 Cup champion team Furniture Row Racing closed only one year later due to costs).  Go back to the roots of the sport — short tracks, dirt tracks, no stages.  Fans recognize the need for progress, but NASCAR continues to take three steps back every time it takes a step forward.

Next season marks the debut of the Generation 7 stock car, dubbed, “The Next Gen Car.”  This car, along with decisions on championship and race format, could decide NASCAR’s fate within the next several years.