The opportunity was there. But NASCAR got greedy and missed it on the short side by a country mile.
And therein lies a huge reason for many of the problems the sport struggles with today in terms of faltering attendance and the flagging attention span of the newest adult generation—the 18 to 34-year-old demographic that registered a 25 percent drop in viewership (h/t Sporting News) of televised races last year, according to Nielsen ratings.
Why? Largely because there aren’t enough short tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.
First, a little history is in order.
The year was 1997, and the sport’s popularity was soaring, but nowhere near the peak it would reach around 2005.
The folks who run NASCAR, namely the International Speedway Corporation, owned and operated mostly by the France family and their many minions as well as Speedway Motorsports Inc. that is headed up mostly by Bruton Smith and his many minions, were looking for the best way to continue explosive growth. (And to continue pumping mountains of cash into their pockets while they were at it, of course.)
Unfortunately, when times are great, oftentimes, there is an almost overwhelming tendency to get a little too comfortable instead of thinking a little outside the box. You have to fight it.
Fans were piling into sold-out venues week after week after week, and places like massive Charlotte Motor Speedway, owned by Smith and SMI, and Talladega Superspeedway, owned by ISC and the France family, couldn’t add more seats quickly enough.
Television ratings were off the charts, too. The networks had anted up big money beginning in 2001, when NASCAR was the beneficiary of a six-year contract worth $2.8 billion to televise the 36-race season. The deal was especially staggering when compared to the $3 million total for the entire 28-race season that NASCAR received just 16 years earlier in 1985.
Yes, NASCAR finally had reached the big time. But the sport made its own bed that it now wallows in when it commissioned a flurry of new racetracks to be built—and every one of them was about the same—1.5 miles in length.
Instead, someone, somewhere in stock car racing should have stood up and said, “Now wait a minute. Shouldn’t we build at least a couple more short tracks?”
The circuit has only three in Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond—the latter being the site of some fine racing fireworks both during and following last Saturday night’s eventful Cup race at the .75-mile venue.
See, that’s the thing about short-track racing. People get fired up about it. The drivers often get mad. And then they usually do something about it in the short-term that they frequently regret. But because it’s a short track and you can walk up off the apron during a caution and throw your helmet at another competitor who just ticked you off, it makes for great in-house theatrics and even better television.
It’s fun, and it’s unpredictable—the way racing should be.
But back in the mid-1990s when the sport was growing and new tracks obviously needed to be built, NASCAR’s greatest movers and shakers lacked the foresight to see that eventually the sport would come full circle, and fans would crave more of the type of short-track racing the older generations grew up on and the newer ones don’t get to see often enough.
So, they built Texas Motor Speedway, which hosted its first Cup race in 1997. It was followed by Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1998, Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999, then Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway in 2001. All are 1.5-mile racetracks. Then in 2011, just for good measure, another Cup race was added at 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway.
This isn’t to say all 1.5-mile tracks are boring or bad. There have been, over the years, some outstanding races at each of the aforementioned venues.
But in general, the races at the 1.5-milers are far more predictable and frequently less exciting and entertaining than the short tracks of Bristol, which measure .533 miles around, and Martinsville, which looks like a paper clip and measures .526 miles. The same is true of Richmond, the longest of the short tracks.
In theory, it’s easier (read: less expensive) to put more seats around a larger track, and fans filled them back in the day. And when they couldn’t get tickets, they wanted to watch the race on television to see what they were missing at some of these then-new places.
Unfortunately, over time, the races that played out in places like Texas, Homestead, Kansas and Chicagoland all began to look too much alike—like many of the games once played at old baseball stadiums that thankfully have gone away and been replaced by unique ballparks with character in places like Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
If someone would have just spoken up for a little diversity back in the mid-1990s, when all the construction of race tracks was going on and added even one more charming little short track instead of more of the same, the sport would be a whole lot better off today.