Sunday night in California. The NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are growling around the track and the racing is three, four, and even five wide at times. Tony Stewart won the race and nearly 2 million less viewers watched. The attendance was estimated at 70,000 (21,000 less than capacity), the same as the last couple of races there. This is not an indictment of Auto Club Speedway; rather it is a symptom of what the average NASCAR fan is thinking in the year 2010.
Listening to fan comments this week, it may be a combination of things. Witness this scene as described to me by a fan that had a little race watching get-together at his home Sunday night. As he described it, there were seven fans gathered in his family room watching the big screen television.
Most were in the 50-60 year old age group. There were fans of every brand and every driver. His recollection was that the minute that Jimmie Johnson took the lead, the discontent started. Then, as the race went on, the lack of cautions caused more discontent among the group. Half the crowd left before the race ended. The final four stayed until the end and none were happy. Why?
As much as NASCAR has tried to expand the sport to younger fans, they are in the minority. NASCAR has a base of fans in the age group mentioned earlier that seriously want their NASCAR back. More often than not, I hear fans wish for the days of Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and David Pearson. Go to any track, and the No. 3 flag is dominant in the campgrounds, an area I consider to be the core fans. They come to the track early and stay late. These campers spend more money and are more rabid than any other. And their numbers are shrinking. As we head to Charlotte for another race, last May there were spots empty for the first time in memory. Many would say it’s the economy, but it’s much more. I contend that it is boredom.
A few years ago, NASCAR started to police the sport. Don’t touch was the rule. How many times were drivers “warned” during a race to watch what they were doing? The result was that drivers were not taking the chance because they knew the trip to the NASCAR trailer was the next step. When things started going south, NASCAR decided to let them race. I give credit to Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and others who continued on with what they do best, but they are in the minority. On top of that was the emphasis on the championship. The creation of the Chase has made drivers more tentative and more cautious. The result has been that the core fan is simply turned off. A man I know who attended every race at Bristol Motor Speedway from 1994-2006 summed it up best. “They ruined my track and they ruined my sport. I’m done.”
Yes, the racing was good at Fontana, but it didn’t feed the core fan. A long discussion happened on NASCAR radio today whereby the question was asked if the lack of “wrecking” was the reason for the lack of viewers and attendance. There are varying opinions on this. Racing incidents have always been a part of this sport, and we don’t see so many these days. Also, there is the feeling among racing purists that if the competition is good throughout the field, it’s a good race. Unfortunately, there are many of us who understand, but the majority of fans want to see rubbing and action. That was sorely missing at Fontana and many races throughout the season.
Then there’s Jimmie Johnson. Among many fans, it is a conceded fact that he will be the champion for another year. Who wants to watch the same story over and over? Outside of the usual Christmas specials and “Blazing Saddles” (remember, I’m talking NASCAR fans here), no one does. People turn the race off or leave when Johnson seems to be winning another championship. It’s not Johnson’s nor the Lowes team’s fault, but it has become very old to many NASCAR fans. If there was ever a time the multitudes wish for a new champion, it’s this year. And many realize that it’s not going to happen.
So they turn the race off, watch the NFL, and ratings and attendance suffers. So what’s the answer? Handicap the field? Scrap the Chase? Do away with the monetary advantage that the championship brings? I do not know. I just think that something needs to be done. Television ratings and attendance is important to the sport. And unless this slide is stopped soon, we may not have racing on the tube every week. That would be a tragedy.