Earlier this week I wrote about what I feel is the decline of NASCAR as a fan-driven sport. Five years ago such a commentary would have elicted howls of protest from the stock-car faithful.
Not now. Sure,
NASCAR still has the Southern beer-belly fans but they are fewer and fewer as the cost of race tickets climb out of sight.
Once-accessible drivers now move around the infield surrounded by bobyguards and fans are kept behind rope lines that didn’t exist in the sport a few years ago.
NASCAR fans used to be the most loyal on earth, defending their favorite driver with emotional ferocity, supporting sponsors of the sport because those sponsors stayed through good times and bad and sticking with the sport because it remembered the fans first.
No more. Money is now the target audience for NASCAR — big money. Winston, the longtime sponsor of the series, bagged out a year-and-a-half ago, replaced by Nextel, which is about to become Nextel-Sprint. Drivers are little more than walking billboards and drive cars that bear no real resemblance to street cars. Even if they did look like real "stock" cars," you wouldn’t be able to tell under the mountain of sponsor decals.
Team sponsors come and go, sometimes abandoning the sport in mid-season. Team owners, desperate for sponsor dollars, replace drivers and crew chiefs more often, hungry for instant success. Younger fans flock to the hero du jour, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the racing legend killed four years ago in Daytona.
But Dale started slowly this year and some of the fickle fan base has already shifted to even younger stars like Carl Edwards. The young drivers are promoted like movie stars and teen idols but are the young women who come to the track to see them longtime fans are just short-term interests?
With an ever-expanding, grueling schedule that has become the longest season in sports, older drivers announce their retirements and the younger ones say they won’t stay in the sport as long.
They don’t have to. Their salaries are in the millions and, with endorsements, a 25-year-old can easily take home $10 million a year.
But NASCAR’s future may not be as bright as once thought. More and more races play to more and more rows of empty seats. The legendary Daytona 500 did not sell out this year. Neither did California, where a second race was added at the expense of the legendary, and more traditional, Darlington Speedway.
At the Martinsville Speedway this past weekened, you could still go online and buy prime seats two days before the event. Many of those who did attend left grumbling about the track’s new owners, International Speedway Corporation, who charged $3 for a soda and limited the amount of food and drink you can bring into the track.
Many longtime fans think Martinsville’s days as a top-tier NASCAR venue are numbered and ISC seems determined to make that prediction reality. I’ve been going to NASCAR races for more than 40 years, including the old dirt tracks like the Richmond fairgrounds and the new venues like the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte and the first Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.
I grew up in Floyd County following the exploits of local driver Curtis Turner and cheering for legends like Fred Lorenzen, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.
But last Sunday’s race in Martinsville was our last NASCAR race. The sport has become too greedy, too plastic and too driven by forces that forget its roots. NASCAR will discover, too late, that change and the reckless pursuit of fortune can be a killer when it alientates what once was the best fan base in professional sports. The sport born in the mountains of the South forgot one of the oldest rules of the area: "You dance with who brung you."