As it is right now, NASCAR is in need of saving—namely from itself.
Seemingly, the NASCAR high-ups are focusing a great deal on what other leagues are doing while ignoring what the actual fans want.
And as Brian France Jr. continues the NHL-ification of NASCAR—namely the pandering search for the non-existent "casual fan" at the cost of alienating the actual loyal fan—longtime NASCAR followers are beginning to speak up and tell Mr. France and Co. how they feel, voicing their displeasure primarily by not buying tickets or watching on his product on TV.
And while not fully learning from the mistakes of Gary Bettman, Mr. France does seem to realize that something drastic needs to be done to remedy the current situation of his sport.
What is interesting, though, is that his remedy seems to be only aimed at tweaking a somewhat unpopular playoff system rather than dealing with the broad issues that are hampering NASCAR's growth. It appears that NASCAR is either not listening to or doesn't want to do what the loyal fans are asking.
But what are the fans asking for and, if they got it, would it actually help rescue NASCAR from its current quagmire? Let's take a look at the most common fan solutions to the current state of NASCAR and analyze if they would actually make a difference:
Fan Change No. 1: Lose the Chase
NASCAR implemented the chase in 2004 to a) get more eyeballs away from the NFL in the fall in order to b) make more money. Unfortunately, it seems that neither a) nor b) has materialized in any steady fashion. Chase ratings have been in free fall ever since the initial bump of its inaugural year.
If NASCAR dumped the chase next year, there would be considerable cheering from the hardcore fans of the sport—namely those from the older generations—but doing so still wouldn't solve the initial purpose of the Chase: creating a "must see" experience for the casual viewer.
Without the hype of a Championship Chase, why would anyone who isn't a NASCAR fan throw on the Phoenix race near the end of the year? What would be the "buy-in" for the non-fan? The buy-in of the Chase is spectacle in seeing who will win the Championship. Without that there is none.
Or so it is argued.
It can be debated, though, that the elusive casual fan would actually become a loyal fan, not by some dreamed up system, but by increasing the entertainment value of the actual racing on the track.
In other words, making the racing more interesting.
By focusing on the racing and avoiding long stretches of boring, single-file parades like what was seen at Indy, the casual fan would be served by getting the "spectacle" of exciting nail-biting racing action.
There are merits to both these arguments, but It should be argued that both are the way to do it. Have the hype of a Chase, but make certain the racing is entertaining first and foremost. No single-file follow the leader—this isn't F1, nor should it be. That way you draw the eye of the casual viewer and KEEP THEM with the racing action; that's how the older fan came to love the series in the first place.
What would be interesting to see, though, is if the hardcore fans really would reciprocate in a Chase-less world by purchasing more tickets for the final 10 races in a Post-Chase series.
Fan Change No. 2: Lose the COT
It's been argued—even by this columnist—that changing from the current cookie-cutter style car would benefit the sport. Outside of safety, which has been an enormous upgrade, the COT is ugly, slow, and doesn't produce good racing.
Just like the NHL moving into markets where people don't want to watch, Mr. France seemed to think that giving his fans a spec car with little to no chassis variance would suddenly drive the fans wild.
Well, it did drive them wild: wild with anger.
Truth be told, NASCAR hasn't had a "stock" car racing in its series in nearly two decades. But the jump from car of yesterday to a car with a splitter, wing, and aerodynamic properties of a shoebox was too much of a jump for the traditional fans. So would changing it help?
In a word: Yes.
There is no reason whatsoever that NASCAR couldn't take the COT template and modify the chassis to look like actual stock cars made by Ford/Chevy et al. And there is certainly no reason to think that doing so would alter safety.
It could even be argued that more recent safety and technology advances—such as fuel injection—could be easily installed into this newer COT. The fact that it would look like actual cars on the road would drive old fans back and most certainly draw newer fans in.
In fact, this seems to be the biggest no-brainer facing NASCAR: You want casual fans? Then how about making the COT look like the casual fans' cars?
Changing the chassis is a cheap prospect in light of the payback: As the casual fan flips through the channels, they'll actually recognize their own Ford flying across the screen and, in that moment, there will be some "buy-in"—albeit temporary—to keep them from changing the channel. And even more so if there's a greater focus on an increase in the quality of the racing.
Fan Change No. 3: Change up the Schedule
This one has been parroted by the fans and the media alike: The former because a lot of the tracks are boring; the latter because what would the media sell without controversy?
The act of changing tracks, though, is a beast unto itself. Millions upon millions of dollars are tied up in a lot of the dates and tracks and changing them in a year—as NASCAR seems poised to do—could ruffle a lot of feathers. Fans say that adding more short tracks and older, more loved tracks back to the schedule would increase viewership.
This one, again, seems like a no-brainer. There should be a schedule change, but with a twist.
While there should be more short tracks—especially in the Chase—the cookie cutter tracks that do remain should actually follow Daytona's lead and do something drastic:
Sites like Fontana, Chicagoland, Kansas, Pocono, and Michigan should all repave and change the banking of the tracks to make for better racing.
Case in point was a story that Fontana was planning to change their banking to 24 degrees all the way around, creating a west coast Talladega where cars could easily draft in a pack at 220mph. Some said it was crazy. Those people couldn't be more wrong.
Daytona and Talladega, for all their restrictor plate carnage, are two amazing races. Having a follow-up the week after Daytona—only faster—would provide even more excitement for fans. That is, if Fontana stayed there after the schedule change. That being said, moving tracks around or even varying it year to year could add a real spice to an already long season.
NASCAR has a lot to do in order to right the ship and Mr. France seems to know this. And while he's been busy looking for ways to be like the other leagues out there, here's to hoping that he listens to what the fans are saying too, because while some ideas aren't the greatest the fact remains: some are.
Here's also to hoping that while he's watching what the other leagues are doing, he takes a look at what the NHL has done in the south; how they've ignored the genuine fan in lieu of those who don't love the sport...
And doesn't do the same.