Cold, Hard Realities

It’s an almost-annual event in NASCAR — collective hand-wringing and concern about the state of the sport and its place in America’s sporting landscape.

However, this year, more than any other in recent memory, there’s a real, unpleasant undercurrent to the yearly How are we doing? introspection; and that concern can be seen in all those empty seats ESPN and ABC are struggling so hard not to show you each weekend. (As you watch the next race, notice how quickly the camera pans away from the less-populated grandstand or suddenly gives you a tight shot of the lead pack — think that’s an accident?) Whether it’s boring racing or the crappy economy, a whole lot of people are no longer enjoying America’s Fastest Growing Sport the way they have been for the last 10 years.

Attendance is noticeably off and TV ratings have stopped their inexorable rise. The former can be rationalized, but the latter is more problematic for the sport — and whatever the reality of the larger economy’s role, the fact remains that perception is reality and those empty seats? Neither TV nor sponsors like them.

Whatever the root causes, NASCAR would be wise to heed the warning signs and not, as the organization sometimes seems inclined to do, merely count on the gullibility of a public that has blithely accepted NASCAR’s protestations that its underlying fundamentals are incredibly strong.

The numbers paint a different story.