04/30 2013

NASCAR – Monte Dutton

NASCAR – Monte Dutton

On this rainy Sunday, I find myself unable to avoid tackling this issue because I’ve put quite a bit of thought into it. Last night, aerial shots on television revealed that the NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway was sparsely attended. It’s a recurring theme.

It must be frustrating for NASCAR officials who seem unable to move the needle on the sport’s decline no matter how hard they try. They’ve introduced a new car that looks more like the cars that populate the highways of the land. This represented not only a massive investment, both by the ruling body and the teams, but also a renunciation of the entire premise of the previous model. The Car of Tomorrow, implemented piecemeal in 2007-08, was largely generic because NASCAR wanted to eliminate variables in terms of competition and believed brand loyalty was no longer important. NASCAR wanted to stress its drivers over its cars. Inexplicably, the manufacturers at the time – Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Dodge – went along with it.

When the current car, the so-called Gen6, was rolled out, NASCAR officials sounded as if the COT had never existed. “We want NASCAR fans to know that brand loyalty is back,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton, leaving the obvious question hanging in the air. Where had it gone? Ignoring the fact that sameness had been an intentional matter of policy, Helton sounded as if these generic cars had just gotten out of hand and NASCAR had to step in and do something.

To their credit, they did. Unfortunately, so far, it hasn’t produced tangible results. Since NASCAR seems to be unable to use the word “mistake,” more alibis are required. Borrowing the old line from the Clinton presidency, “It’s the economy, stupid,” all is neatly rationalized. Attendance is down, so the culprit must be high gasoline prices and price gouging in accommodations. It’s a factor – never mind price gouging by NASCAR itself — but it’s far from the only reason.

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for 20,000-30,000 fans to show up for qualifying. Now it’s closer to 200-300. Attendance in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series is more off than the Sprint Cup races.

Here’s my observation. The chief difference in the crowds is the difference in the campgrounds. There aren’t nearly as many people lining the hills around Bristol Motor Speedway now as there were during the boom times.

Gas prices have fallen recently, but never mind that. Adjusting for inflation, gasoline was higher in the years after the 1973 Arab Embargo than it is today. A dollar a gallon in 1973 is more money than four dollars (at the moment, it’s closer to three) today. You can look it up.

What no one wants to acknowledge is that stock car racing has gone out of style. NASCAR will counter this with its alleged marketing surveys. They are flawed since, by and large, they deal with the staunch fans who remain in relatively large numbers. Surveys would be more pertinent if they dealt with the people who have left than those who stayed. NASCAR, flush with evangelical zeal, went after new fans, ignoring the fact that they were doing so at the expense of those who were already in the fold. Now it has alienated many of the most loyal fans, and many new ones have moved on to some other fad.

All that being said, NASCAR is still a powerful part of the American sporting mainstream, which wasn’t true before the 1990s. It’s just not what it once was. The deficit isn’t nearly as much in the absurdly priced hotel rooms as in the camping spots.

Watching on television isn’t nearly as good as being there, but it is considerably less expensive and more convenient. Fans who used to attend eight to 10 races each year now go to two or three. The fans who brought their tents and customized schoolbuses have been either priced out of the market or gotten old enough that wandering around half-drunk and unwashed for three or four days isn’t quite as appealing as it once was. It has occurred to them that they can grill out and drink beer in the privacy of their homes, watching gigantic high-definition TV in stereo, for a lot less cost and a lot more convenience.

Here’s what NASCAR needs more than anything else: a younger generation of hell-raisers to replace the ones who have succumbed to advancing age.

Which brings me to another observation that comes from being home – my job covering NASCAR was eliminated in January after 20 years on the beat and 16-1/2 at the Gaston Gazette – instead of at the track.

One of the advantages I’ve always considered valuable is the fact that I live in my hometown. I’m shocked that I don’t miss being at the races more, but I’m well on the way to being a Clintonian (Clinton, S.C.) again.

Most people have their perspectives skewed by changes in their lives. People who go to college tend to hang out with others who went to college. Lawyers hang with lawyers, but local businessmen and factory workers (what few are left) also hang with other people who are like them. I’ve been kind of an anomaly. I live in a town of 8,000 people, but I used to travel all over the country. Though I was never rich and famous, I dealt with people who were.

That’s why I say that NASCAR just went out of style, not with its loyal fans but to just average people. Ten years ago, I’d sit on a plane next to a fellow and mention in passing that I wrote about NASCAR for a living.

“I love NASCAR,” he’d say, and there’d be no reading on that flight. I’d be fielding questions about Junior and Jeff and Tony and Jimmie. By last year, when people found out I was affiliated with NASCAR, the typical remark would be, “You know, I used to really like it, but to tell you the truth, I don’t pay much attention to it anymore.”

I used to stop at a convenience store, and the kid behind the counter would find out I wrote about NASCAR. He’d say, “You don’t need somebody to carry your bags, do you?”

Last year that kid would say, “Oh.”

In Clinton, the change is even greater. On Friday night, I was playing music at the twice-monthly jam session at a Mexican restaurant, El Jalisco, here in town. Ten years ago, the kids here loved NASCAR. There was one woman I saw wearing a faded Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt. I asked her if she was a NASCAR fan, and she said she liked Junior but didn’t watch the races much. This was partially obvious since, at that very time, the Nationwide Series race in Richmond was going on.

That kids don’t give a damn about NASCAR anymore is as clear as the sky outside is cloudy right now. I don’t believe they care about sports in general as much. I believe their love of football is more grounded in “Madden” on a Wii than in actually watching the games.

Once I asked Brian France how he was ever going to make people who went to work each day on the subway develop the great love affair with the automobile that facilitates the love of watching automobiles race. He said the answer was computer simulation. He said the kids would play video games and that would make them love NASCAR.

Watch what you ask for. You might just get it.

On Saturday afternoon, I drove to the post office. A few blocks away, a kid wearing headphones walked across the street right in front of my truck. I had to hit the brakes to keep from hitting him. It wasn’t too close a call. I didn’t have to blow the horn. I looked at him as I drove by. I don’t think he ever knew I was there. He might as well have been a zombie. He was probably paying attention to Li’l Wayne.

Thirty years ago I had a discussion with a high school football coach who had fallen on hard times after winning a state championship a few years earlier.

“Times change,” he said, “and it’s the hardest thing in the world to keep up with it. Playing football just goes out of style, and you never see it coming. All of a sudden, playing in the band becomes fashionable, or getting a job and buying a car, and before you know it, it’s hard to get enough kids out to field a team.”

The decline isn’t irreversible. Trends rise and fall. Another factor is that NASCAR lost sight of the market for its product. The sport based its projections on how much it needed, not how much it could charge. Why did ticket prices get so high? NASCAR was trying to upscale its fans to meet its demands. It wasn’t a matter of how much the market could absorb. It was a matter of how much money NASCAR needed. The whole idea was that the sport was growing so fast that middle-class fans would be replaced by rich ones. The old fans would just have to pony up or watch on TV.

The latter part of that plan worked.