Redlined: Ten Reasons Why NASCAR Will Continue to Struggle in 2011
Exactly 10 years ago next month, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was preparing to make its debut on the national stage.
With Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip preparing to bring the call of America's fastest sport to a nationwide audience on FOX, NASCAR was riding high in 2001.
Ironically enough, it may have been the very first race in NASCAR's national expansion that derailed their long-term hopes of competing with the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball as the top sports brand in the United States.
The death of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500 (following Dale's own cryptic remarks about giving the fans "something they've never seen before") took the heart out of racing at a point when it could least afford it.
And while NASCAR's ascent to ratings success continued for awhile in the first years of the decade, stock car racing began to sputter on the national stage just a few short years after it had arrived.
In 2011, NASCAR will be confronted with vast challenges. With ratings for the delay-filled 2010 Daytona 500 falling to pre-2001 levels and the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup suffering a near-30 percent decline in viewership from 2009, Mike Helton and the executives of NASCAR are hard-pressed to find answers to the rising tides of concern from FOX, TNT and ESPN.
Worse yet, the sport has been plagued with steadily declining attendance figures for some time now. Even the traditional powerhouse venues such as Richmond, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington are operating well short of capacity.
Bristol, NASCAR's hottest ticket for decades, fell roughly 22,000 people short of being a sell-out for the spring race in 2010, making it the first race since the early 1980s not to sell out.
When declining ratings and attendance are coupled with a general malaise among the fan base that has driven stock car fanatics to the point of apathy, NASCAR is faced with an unenviable choice: shake up the sport or risk the failure of the sport's national expansion push.
For fans, though, the evidence continues to suggest that another long and frustrating year is ahead of us while the sport tries to turn things around.
Here are 10 reasons why racing fans will continue to suffer through the doldrums of another tedious NASCAR season, including a few often-discussed reasons...and a few that may catch you by surprise.
10. Ticket Prices Put The Squeeze on Attendance Figures
During the relatively prosperous years in the early 2000s, fans were more inclined to plunk down hard-earned money to go and watch a race live.
There's nothing quite like attending a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race: the smells, the crowds and the deafening roar of 43 engines coming out of Turn Four.
Yet the harsh economic recession of the past three years (along with the downturn in interest for the sport) have made life difficult for track promoters.
One of the major culprits for the difficult financial challenges facing track owners is the nature of their business model.
With only one or two Sprint Cup races per season at a given track, ticket prices must remain high in order for the tracks to turn a consistent profit.
Unfortunately for cash-strapped fans, this makes it hard to attend the races when the Sprint Cup Series rolls into town.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, for instance, currently has its 2011 ticket pricing on its website. Yet the cheapest adult general admission ticket price in 2011 is $49, with the costs increasing incrementally for better seats.
When coupled with food and parking prices, the immediate costs for a trip could easily swell towards $100, just for a single person.
If any kind of travel is involved for fans to come to the track, you can add another $150 to $200 or so in lodging and fuel costs.
At a track like Bristol, you may have difficulty finding a single ticket for less than $80. The cost-prohibitive nature of attending a live race forces a lot of fans to stay at home and watch the races on television...when they're not blacked out locally.
With more fans staying home, NASCAR is forced to capture the attention of fans who now have far more entertainment options available to them on a Sunday afternoon.
Even with ticket promotions and special packages being offered by track promoters, the ability to attend a race remains elusive for many.
9. NASCAR's Sprint Cup Schedule Leaves Much To Be Desired
NASCAR's schedule has been the subject of much debate over the past few years.
Despite stock car racing having expanded to several brand new facilities in the past decade, the Sprint Cup events calendar doesn't get shaken up too much, which leads to a stagnant feeling among the fans.
Even when the sport does change up its schedule, the new race dates are often created at the expense of the sport's more legendary tracks.
Boring circuits such as California's Auto Club Speedway and Kansas are getting four dates between themselves in 2011, while Atlanta Motor Speedway joins fellow Southern-favorite Darlington as a traditional NASCAR hotbed to receive only one race per year (Atlanta's spring race became the summer event in Kentucky).
While Kentucky's entry to the Sprint Cup is a positive direction, the overall balance of NASCAR's schedule remains hopelessly out of focus.
The schedule, already longer than the schedules of the other major sports leagues in North America, has many of its dates locked into place thanks to contracts with track owners.
This means that the only way to shake up the schedule is for track conglomerates like the International Speedway Corp. to cannibalize one of its track's race dates in order to expand to a new market. As a result, the hodge-podge nature of event planning in the Sprint Cup Series will continue to feel disjointed for some time to come.
8. Racing's Traditional Fan Base Is Fading Away
This one is a bitter pill for many long-time NASCAR fans to swallow. Ever since the France Family decided to push stock car racing into the national spotlight, traditional hotbeds of NASCAR fandom in the South have begun to wither away.
Much like the disappearing textile mills across the Southeast, NASCAR's traditional fan bases have started to leave the sport in droves. As many traditional fans would attest, there exists a growing disconnect between the diehard fans and the executives of NASCAR, who many long-time fans view as turncoats and traitors.
In an effort to appeal to mainstream Corporate America, much of NASCAR's Southern identity has been stripped away in favor of a more appealing public image, much to the chagrin of fans who have considered stock car racing a part of their lives for decades.
Traditional venues like Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and even Atlanta have been reduced in stature (or taken out of NASCAR entirely) to make way for tracks in Chicago, Kansas, California, and Las Vegas.
Now Martinsville may be on the chopping block, as NASCAR's executives continue to crave the mainstream spotlight afforded them by bigger and better markets.
There was a time when stock car racing was considered the red-headed stepchild of American sports. Most people outside of the South lampooned NASCAR as a "redneck sport," prompting its fan base to vehemently defend what most felt was a part of their families.
NASCAR, as a whole, was part of the cultural identify for many in the South for a generation. Yet as the sport continues to sacrifice their first fans for the casual viewers elsewhere, the soul behind NASCAR's rise to prominence is slowly beginning to fade away.
7. The Divide Between Haves and Have-Nots Continues to Grow
The size of the racing field has been a detriment to NASCAR for some time now, offset only by the need of small race teams to "start and park" in order to collect a paycheck to keep their operations going.
With many of the sport's big-money drivers locked into contracts with the major racing teams, there exists a large gulf between the widely successful teams (Hendrick, Childress, Joe Gibbs, Roush-Fenway, Stewart-Haas) and everyone else
The polarizing nature of the large-team model in the Sprint Cup Series reared its ugly head during 2010's Chase for the Sprint Cup, when a highly-publicized pit crew swap within Hendrick Motorsports led many to question whether such a crew swap (between the No. 48 and No. 24 teams) should be illegal.
Beyond the controversy of the cooperation amongst teammates within NASCAR, the larger question revolves around whether or not smaller franchises can remain profitable for long with the rising costs of fielding a car in a race.
Legendary ventures like Richard Petty Motorsports and the Wood Brothers have run into fiscal difficulties in the past, relegating the two long-time racing teams to "also-ran" status most Sundays.
With the rich teams continuing to attract the big sponsors, the competitive gulf between the "haves" and "have-nots" will continue to create predictable race results.
Consequently, very few "small team drivers" cracking NASCAR's elusive inner circle.
6. NASCARs "Chase" Model Needs Work
The now-legendary ruckus caused by Matt Kenseth's winless NASCAR Winston Cup Championship campaign in 2003 led the sport's top executives to consider adding a playoff model to NASCAR's season schedule in order to spice up fan interest.
What we got instead was the flawed "Chase for the Championship", now known as the Chase for the Sprint Cup, or "Chase" for short. The major issues surrounding the problems with NASCAR's playoff format are varied.
For starters, the Chase doesn't really add the sudden-death stigma that most sports playoff series convey to NASCAR's schedule.
Even with the field whittled down to 10 or 11 hopefuls by the time the series rolls into Richmond for the final race there, the championship picture doesn't really come into focus until the last few weeks of the Chase.
The sense of urgency surrounding the Chase doesn't really pick up until the midway point, creating a dreary pall over half of the NASCAR playoff schedule!
What's more, the model of the Chase really hamstrings a lot of drivers, who lose the desire to try and advance themselves in the points standings when the points basically reset for the Chase anyways. In most sports, the best team doesn't always win the league championship, which owes to the "anything can happen" mentality of pro sports.
Yet other sports don't actively impede a team's chances of winning a championship to create an artificial "sudden death" mentality like NASCAR attempts to do.
No matter how good you run during the "regular season", your points lead will shrink to nothing when the Chase starts. In a sport where points matter more than wins, this is a crucial factor in the decision-making processes of race teams.
One may question whether Jimmie Johnson, who currently stands in the middle of a historic five-title streak in 2011, would have ever won a championship at all under the old points format.
But perhaps the biggest drawback for the fans in regards to the Chase for the Sprint Cup resides in the nature of the Chase itself. The Chase for the Sprint Cup is essentially a continuation of the regular season, with fewer drivers eligible to win and the points reset.
At some point, fan interest would dictate that a change to the traditional points system should actually change the way the sport operates. Until the Chase has a fundamental overhaul, fans will continue to find NASCAR's playoff system lacking.
5. NASCAR's Race Tracks Hardly Break The Mold
Ask any die-hard NASCAR fan about their opinion on "Cookie-Cutters", and be prepared to listen for awhile. Starting with the introduction of Texas to the NASCAR circuit, track owners have begun designing their racing circuits in strikingly similar ways, to the point that only four types of race tracks exist now in NASCAR's top level.
With only three true short tracks (Bristol / Richmond / Martinsville), two road courses (Infineon / Watkins Glen), and four true Superspeedways (Daytona / Talladega / Indianapolis / Pocono), the remaining tracks fall into the intermediate-range facilities.
The issue is that many of these intermediate-range tracks share striking resemblances to other tracks on the circuit, making for a monotonous series of races. Michigan and Auto Club Speedway (California) share vaguely similar designs, while some fans have difficulty determining the differences between Charlotte, Atlanta, and Texas.
Only the banking at Dover Downs separates it from similar track configurations at New Hampshire and Miami-Homestead. But by far the worst offenders are the "Cookie-Cutters", tracks that are virtually identical to one another in the mold of a broad 1.5-2.0 mile "D-Oval" configuration.
Three of the newest tracks in NASCAR - Las Vegas, Chicagoland, and Kanas - employ the usage of the "Cookie-Cutter" layout, despite the fact that the configuration (much like California's track) promotes single file racing, leaving much to be desired by the viewers.
In fact, the similarity in the tracks (both Cookie-Cutter and otherwise) has long been a staple of NASCAR's rather dull schedule.
Of all the intermediate tracks, only Phoenix really stands apart as having its own unique little identity, and only barely. Texas, Phoenix, Darlington and Dover are the only tracks to consistently produce exciting racing. Atlanta and Charlotte are fairly enjoyable to watch, but suffer from frequent cautions that can make races at those venues feel like marathons (on top of Charlotte's insane-600 mile race to start with).
Yet the rest of NASCAR's intermediate tracks (California, New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Kansas, Michigan, Homestead-Miami) are notorious for poor racing. Sadly, NASCAR seems intent on shifting towards these tracks, forsaking the more exciting tracks to broaden its appeal. And the quality of racing will suffer as a result.
4. The Car of Tomorrow Makes Us Pine For Yesterday
With the passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 came a flood of safety innovations that have sought to protect the lives of both the drivers and the fans (thanks to several fatal incidents involving fans at the races). The culmination of this drive for safety resulted in the Car of Tomorrow, the name given to the new body design that stock car teams race with now.
First introduced in 2005, the Car of Tomorrow added a few cosmetic changes to the modern stock car (featuring a bigger, boxier design that came with a spoiler) while adding immensely to the safety of the drivers.
No one desires to see drivers get hurt on the track, and thus in this manner, the Car of Tomorrow has been fairly successful at keeping drivers safe.
Unfortunately, the Car of Tomorrow is an historically poor performer in traffic, which has helped tone down the excitement of races since NASCAR began its inception into the field in 2008.
Single-file racing has become an epidemic in the sport, especially at bigger tracks like Michigan and California which are too small to use the Daytona-Talladega model of Restrictor Plates.
Road courses are naturally inclined towards single-file racing because of their unique layouts, which can be more easily forgiven. Yet the monotonous parade of single-file lines for five hundred miles can wear anyone's patience out, let alone fans who have hundreds of channels to choose from on a Sunday afternoon.
Until the safety of the Car of Tomorrow can be balanced with the need to produce competitive stock cars on the track, the quality of racing will continue to drag down viewer interest.
3. NASCAR Has An Unlikeable Cast of Characters
NASCAR has, in recent years, been dominated by a series of drivers who are, for lack of a better term, "unlikeable". For every Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, or Matt Kenseth in NASCAR, there have been drivers who seem content to stray towards the Dark Side.
The prototypical polarizing figure, Jeff Gordon has softened over the years, allowing former haters to respect him a teeny bit more. Then there are drivers who, despite being quality competitors, have earned a bit of a bad reputation amongst the fans for whatever reason.
Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick are three drivers that come to mind - neither have done anything particularly wrong, but they don't exactly come across as friendly faces, either.
Tony Stewart, those immensely popular, has also earned his fair share of detractors, and seems to be settling into the "love him or hate him" mentality that drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon thrived in.
But those guys have nothing on NASCAR's ultimate villains list - drivers who are legitimately loathed by large groups of fans. The cast has added a few drivers to the list since Jeff Gordon's heydey, and you can typically pinpoint the exact time when a driver makes the leap into vilified territory by his success on the track.
Kurt Busch became immensely unpopular following a famous feud with Jimmy Spencer several years ago, and has never quite shaken the "villain" label. Jimmie Johnson has his fair share of opponents, as any uber-successful athlete will.
But the multiple allegations of rules violations (and the infamous "cheater label" that has attached itself to crew chief Chad Knaus) have made Johnson a detriment to the sport more than a help at this point.
The newest inductee to the group is young Kyle Busch, who has become something of a whiner following publicized scraps with golden boy Dale Earnhardt Jr. The fact that Kyle Busch has been tearing apart the competition for the past two years only adds to the fan base's dislike of him.
NASCAR has its share of recognizable young faces, like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano that supplement its megastar (Dale Jr.) in the popularity department. Yet to many fans, there's just a few too many "villains" in the sport for our tastes.
And with those "villains" winning so often, it almost saps the fun out of the sport. NASCAR needs to engage in some major league rehabilitation of its drivers' images if it wants to keep the fans tuning in each week.
2. The Top Draw in NASCAR Has Peaked
Chances are, you've probably heard of Dale Earnhardt Jr. before. If you've watched just one lap of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race before, it's hard to avoid hearing his name. For better or worse, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has moved into his late father's role as the face of NASCAR.
Dale Jr. is its most popular driver, and the marketing engine that other drivers aspire to be like. Being the closest thing NASCAR has to a credible mainstream figure, the sport rises and falls based on how Dale Earnhardt Jr. performs on Sundays.
Unfortunately for NASCAR, they've pinned their hopes onto someone probably can't live up to such lofty expectations.
For starters, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly one of the top drivers in NASCAR, figuratively speaking. He has won the Daytona 500, and competed for a Series Championship on several occasions, which qualifies him as a force to be reckoned with.
Yet despite his immense popularity, one must admit that Dale Jr. has largely underperformed during his career. This isn't really Dale's fault, though, considering the aforementioned expectations placed on him.
Being the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt creates impossible shoes to fill from the get-go - there's only one Dale Earnhardt. Of course, with Dale's tragic death in 2001, NASCAR needed the heir-apparent to step up and fill that role.
Popularity-wise, Dale Jr. has captured a large chunk of his father's old fan base. Performance wise, though, Dale Jr. just isn't as good as Jimmie Johnson.
With a slew of young, talented drivers on the way up (Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards) and a stable nucleus of drivers who could probably capture a Points Championship in the near future (Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle), Dale Earnhardt Jr. may soon find himself lost in the shuffle.
Eventually, one of two things will have to happen. If Dale Jr. has a bounce-back year in 2011, you can almost certainly expect to see an uptick in the ratings, as more fans return to see their favorite driver compete for a title.
Yet Dale already has a huge handicap working against him, being a teammate of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Despite Gordon having many of the same problems as Dale Jr., Gordon's reputation and Johnson's success almost make Earnhardt the third banana at Hendrick.
With the perception of being a bit player to the Jimmie Johnson Dynasty and his lengthy struggles, many fans will eventually start abandoning Junior if he has another down year. And if NASCAR loses Dale Jr. as a draw, the sport is in dire trouble.
1. The End of An Era Looms For NASCAR
Surprisingly, one of the most prevalent reasons for NASCAR's decline (and its forecast for continued struggles) is one that rarely gets a mention on television.
When looking at the current crop of drivers in the sport, 90 percent of its top competitors have only really arrived at the top within the last five to 10 years. Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin; all of them didn't hit their stride until the past six to seven years.
Tony Stewart, one of the decade's best drivers, is at the peak of his career as a driver. Young guns like Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski are adding to the crop of superstars in waiting. NASCAR's big picture is essentially filled with a youth movement.
Yet the sport's biggest stars, both from this decade and the last, are on the decline. Jeff Gordon was the best driver of the 1990s, but his peak days are far behind him at this point. We've already discussed in detail the faltering career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the track.
The past decade has seen the end of many prominent NASCAR legends' careers, including Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Rusty Wallace. Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin are either virtually retired or heading that way. Jeff Burton isn't the same driver he used to be and neither is Bobby Labonte.
The Petty Family saw the final chapter of its legendary in-car days come to an abrupt end with the tragic passing of Adam Petty in 2000. And many of the once-promising young drivers from the late 1990s (drivers like Jeremy Mayfield, Ricky Craven, and Jerry Nadeau) never quite made it to the top of the list for a variety of reasons.
In short, the NASCAR of 2011 isn't the NASCAR that we enjoyed so much in 2001. Those days, and the history behind them are gone forever. Today, NASCAR is just starting to come into its own with the current talent. In the past, it has taken several years for the next wave of superstar drivers to become fully accepted by the fans.
We're just now reaching that point with many of today's best drivers, and so the perception of NASCAR's downfall will still reverberate with the fans, even with so much promise still to be found. Every sport has its transitional periods, where old stars fade and young stars are born.
NASCAR simply had the misfortune of seeing its national expansion push coincide with the double-whammy of a harsh recession and a major turnover of its top drivers.
One day, when the economy recovers and today's drivers become tomorrow's megastars, NASCAR may indeed bounce back and become a force in the world of sports.
But for now, fans will have to be content with the sport we've inherited. It's the price stock car racing has paid for growing up.