Happy birthday, Roger.
There’s been no shortage of reasons offered to explain NASCAR’s ongoing loss of fans and plummeting TV ratings:
- The car of tomorrow makes for boring racing.
- Junior has to win.
- Johnson has to lose.
- The points need rearranging.
- The Chase needs changing.
Most are valid observations, but none of the arguments get to the root cause of the basic problem: NASCAR is getting old. Very old.
Racing Against the Clock
Motor racing is a young man’s game. Young drivers dominate. And a youthful, growing fanbase is essential to the sport’s ongoing success.
But you wouldn’t know it when you look at who’s running the teams that dominate NASCAR today. They are old and they are tired:
- Roger Penske turns 74 this month and he appears to have lost his mojo. He signed on one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, Kurt Bush, and turned him into an also-ran. The Sam Hornish, Jr. experiment was a similar disaster. Captain, we're taking on water.
- Joe Gibbs will be 71 in November. His team runs two of the most talented young drivers in Sprint Cup, but it can’t seem to give them what they need to seal the deal with a championship. (On the plus side, Gibbs’ son, J. D., actually runs the team as its president. That arrangement provides a working line of succession, which Joe Gibbs would be advised to take advantage of now.)
- Jack Roush and his favorite hat will be 69 years old in April. His multicar team has gone from being consistent contenders to visiting Victory Lane on rare occasions. Meanwhile, Jack has kept himself busy crashing his private aircraft. Maybe it’s time to hand in the old pilot’s license, Jack, and sell your NASCAR team to someone knows how to fly right.
- Richard Childress will celebrate his 66th birthday in September. Ever since the tragic demise of Dale Earnhardt, Richard has been promising a championship performance from his multicar team. Delivery has been a problem. To be fair, it’s a long season and it’s hard remembering in November what you promised in February.
Even the young lions are starting to look long in the tooth. Rick Hendrick has dominated the championship with his Jimmie/Chad combination. But he has failed to give the sport’s most popular driver a winning team. Meanwhile, time’s a wastin’. Rick is entitled to start collecting Social Security this July.
Old Guard vs. Bold Guard
The main problem with NASCAR’s aging leadership group is that they can’t relate to the younger fans who are needed to keep the sport growing. The aging owners are too cautious and set in their ways to make the changes that are necessary to ramp up the action.
The car of tomorrow is a perfect example of this. Everything about it is “comfortable” and “safe.” Those are attributes that are attractive to old folks. But nothing about it is exciting and compelling.
Now turn up those hearing aids and hear this: Fans like NASCAR because it’s exciting and compelling, not because it’s comfortable and safe. You got that, grandpa?
Which brings us to Chip Ganassi, who at 52 is in his prime compared to the senior citizen brigade which is dominating NASCAR. Chip is winning all the big races not only in stock cars, but in open wheel racing and sports car events as well. He’s overdue for a Sprint Cup Championship, but time is still on his side.
And there’s a younger hope on the horizon. What may save NASCAR from its doddering ownership class is the reemergence of the owner/driver.
Tony Stewart is carrying that torch, straight to Victory Lane. And drivers like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Junior are dabbling in team ownership in the lesser series. They will be ready to kick that commitment up to Sprint Cup when the time is right.
With reservations to the NASCAR Nursing Home filling up, perhaps that time is sooner than they think.