DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As NASCAR stands on the doorstep of its 60th racing season, it faces tough questions about where it is and where it might be going.
By all objective mesasures, the national racing series that brought shape and form to the void that was racing’s early organizational dysfunction is a true success story But all of NASCAR’s changes – a new championship format, national venues replacing regional ones, a new breed of drivers – some of those who once were among NASCAR’s biggest fans now often sound like its harshest critics.
Fans in the Carolinas feel betrayed because races were taken from tracks in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and spread out across the country, then seem to revel when the new venues, such as California Speedway, struggle to sell tickets.
This undercurrent of disconten prompted NASCAR chairman Brian France to declare on this year’s media tour in Charlotte that the sport will reach out once more to the “core” fans whose fervor has cooled as it has grown and changed.
“Change is good to a certain point,” France said. “But we’ve got all the change we think the sport can stand and needs. Now we want to build on that and we’re going to minimize change and we’re going to zero in on the best racing in the world. We’re going to get back to that.”
So far, there is good news heading toward Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout earning overnight TV ratings of 4.8, up from 4.2 last year. Grandstand tickets for the 500 have been sold out for weeks, and Fox Sports sold all of its 30-second commercial slots for Sunday’s broadcast. According to Ad Week magazine, those slots went for $550,000 each, up $75,000 from a year ago.
But overall television ratings, ticket sales and questions about the health of the industry in a perilous national economy are also a part of the story.
After boasting that television ratings proved it to be America’s second most successful professional sport behind only pro football, NASCAR now tries to distance itself from numbers that last year showed nearly 1 million fewer viewers, on average, for each of the races in its top series.
There are other ominous signs:
Of the 53 cars trying to make Sunday’s Daytona 500, at least 17 lack full-season sponsorships.
Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which won the Daytona 500 three times between 1991 and 1995, closed its doors recently.
Multicar teams are dominant. Cars fielded by five multicar-team owners won 34 of 36 races and accounting for 81 percent of all of the top-five finishes in 2007.
NASCAR officials insist stock car racing is not doing poorly. But the verdict may ultimately have more to do with feel than facts.
“We have to get back to fiddles instead of violins,” Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said. “What’s the difference? It’s a matter of perception, and one of the positive things we have going for us is the fact that we recognize that.”
Wheeler said NASCAR’s desire to polish its image is nothing new. He remembers a time in the 1960s when it was suggested seven-time champion driver Richard Petty, of Randleman, needed diction lessons. But, Wheeler said, that finally reached a tipping point.
“It got completely out of hand right after Dale Earnhardt died and the new television contract came along,” Wheeler said. “We had so many people making decisions who didn’t have a clue what the common man wants. The common man is who got us here and is who is going to keep us here.
“Now the people in control of it understand that we have to get back to where we were. We were trying to change something that did not need changing.”
Some, especially the estranged longtime fans, believe NASCAR got in trouble by failing to listen to them. But driver Kyle Petty said he believes NASCAR might be paying too much attention to what the fans, the media and the marketplace thinks.
“Whatever the topic is that week, we run it into the ground and then, boom, there’s another topic next week,” Petty said. “All we do is reacting. Nobody is being proactive and getting anything fixed.
“What it’s about is having a plan, staying the course and taking the heat when you have to. I don’t care what your plan is, part of the people will like it, part of the people will hate it and part of the people won’t give a rat’s rear-end what you do. But if you just keep bouncing around every time somebody likes something or hates it, you get off.”
Everything about NASCAR – the money, the crowds, the amount of television coverage – is bigger and more complicated than it was even a few years ago.
When Ernie Irvan won the Daytona 500 victory in 1991, he won $233,000. Last year, Petty got the smallest check among the 43 cars in the field – $248,050.
That, Petty said, is the reason 2008 is big.
“Every move is important now,” he said. “I think NASCAR has grown to a point where ... the decisions have a bigger ripple effect. Success and failure happen on a much grander scale.”
That, Petty believes, has made NASCAR a less decisive.
“They used to make every decision like the one they made about restrictor plates at Talladega that time,” he said. “You came in one day and they handed you another plate. I have no problem with that, they made a call and you went with it.
“Now they’d fret and they’d worry and send up a balloon and check which way the wind is blowing.
“You didn’t mind them changing when they just said, ‘There it is, live with it, boys.’ When they get their dance going now, you’re like ‘What’s that all about?’ ”
Talking about mending relationships with the core fan is all well and good, Petty said.
“But it’s like talking about Britney Spears’ problems,” he said. “We can talk about it all we want to but until she gets her head right it’s not going to change.
“We can talk about everything, but until the powers that be establish a solid plan and work that plan then we’re wasting our breath, and I am at that stage in life where I don’t have a lot of it to waste.”