Not a week goes by in NASCAR nation when there isn’t a discussion about downward trends in track attendance and TV ratings, and there’s as many opinions out there as there are fans. And just as sure as there are a variety of complaint offered, there as many attempted fixes by NASCAR to try to address it, the latest being tweaks to the side skirts with the aim of creating less down force and greater ground clearance,by another inch. At the end of the day, the desired end is that it will make it easier for the cars to pass each other.
Beyond the points, the Chase, the economy, the sponsorship demands and the well-intended attempts to grow the sport beyond its traditional base, there is very little I hear about what I think is another central issue for discussion concerning automobiles, racing, and shifts in the culture concerning the two topics.
It used to be a car was a symbol of freedom. After threats to those freedoms were beaten back in World War II, America was ready for the open road. Detroit’s automotive industry was more than willing to comply. Just as sure as a second car rolls off the assembly line there comes a question: which one is faster? If both cars are close in terms of performance, then what about the skill of the drivers? Auto racing- the settler of such questions- ascended to new heights. Racing, especially NASCAR, and the automotive industry fed off of each other. “What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday.”
America’s love affair with the automobile was in full bloom. It’s love of speed was an equal passion. Then things changed thanks in part to air pollution, innovation, and global politics. Cars gave way to SUVs, pick-up trucks and mini vans. The need for fuel economy exceeded the need for speed, and automotive technology has advanced to the point where your local mechanic bears a greater resemblance to a Steve Jobs in coveralls than a Smokey Yunick or Red Vogt.
For the teen of today- the hope for racing’s future- the symbol of freedom is not the automobile, but the Internet. Whereas 69 percent of American 17-year olds had driver’s licenses in 1983, just 50 percent possessed them in 2008, according to a University of Michigan study. You don’t need a 20-thousand dollar car when you have an 800-dollar iPad. Things change so fast, we’re raising an ADD generation that can’t sit through a whole song before they go on the the next one. Fix a car? There’s a reason why Adam Carolla’s In 50 Years, We’ll All Be Chicks resonates.
Think about what this means for the appeal of auto racing. not only are the races too long, they have to wait too long for the “moment,” that highlight of the day; in NASCAR, it’s usually the end of the race. Am I going to have to wait 4 hours for a highlight? I can catch a nap, or better yet, I’d better knock back a bottle of 5-Hour Energy. The fact that drifting is finding audience should tell you something about what potential race fans are in the market for.
The point is all this angst over what the car looks like and where it was made may be a big to-do about nothing in today’s world. NASCAR is now more than ever a personality-driven sport, and in this day and age of Sports Center, needs to be one that offers plenty of highlights to draw potential fans. Checking into see if Ford can beat Chevy just doesn’t do it anymore if you’re much under age 50. Brand loyalty means far less in this day and age of suspicion concerning the corporations behind the makes.
NASCAR’s challenges are numerous, and while it’s tempting to think that wiping out the Chase, letting the drivers run amok and changing the points system or the tracks will fix it all, it looks as though, on closer examination, there is no silver bullet. No need to fear, there will always be racing;be prepared, however, for the instruments of racing to be far different from anything Bill France could have imagined back in 1947.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include:
Jim McCoy is a TV and radio sports anchor living in Oregon with his wife and three kids. Jim also moonlights as a radio play-by-play man and writes about his true sports passion: NASCAR. Racing is a sport, the others are just games, to paraphrase.