NASCAR adds tracks but loses soul

Saturday night, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series will visit a new track for the first time in 10 years. Tony Stewart’s excited about it. So, too, are the people who live around the Ohio-Kentucky border who have reportedly snatched up all 107,000 tickets available for Kentucky Speedway’s Cup debut.

Nothing against the good people of the Bluegrass State, who have done their damndest to earn a Cup date, but I can’t get behind it.

Why? Because I’ve seen this movie before. Saw it just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, when the Cup Series visited Kansas Speedway. And I’ll see it again two or three more times before this season is over.

For years, in its vision of expanding its brand, NASCAR’s focus has been squarely on the location of the track. Gotta be in New York City. Gotta be in Los Angeles. Gotta be in Chicago.

Bruton Smith bought Kentucky Speedway in 2008 with the hope of bringing a Cup race there.
Getty Images

Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to the tracks themselves, or if it has, those paying attention have thought entirely inside the box.

Since 1997, seven markets have been added to the Cup schedule – Los Angeles, Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, Miami and now Kentucky. All seven feature tracks with very similar, 1.5- to 2-mile layouts, that can host both stock-car and open-wheel races.

While some of these tracks do have their perks – Bruton Smith has spent millions creating amazing fan experiences, including one in Las Vegas where fans can literally look down through a glass ceiling at crews working on their cars – those perks do absolutely nothing for the bulk of fans – those at home watching on TV – who are tuned in solely for the racing.

What has the TV crowd gotten from all these new locations?

A strip-mall version of NASCAR where all the shops are the same, no matter the town. There’s the UPS Store, the Burlington Coat Factory, the Lone Star Steakhouse – box stores that serve a purpose, but don’t evoke an emotion that you’re actually somewhere.

If that weren’t enough, the racing at these cookie-cutter tracks tends to be really, really – what’s the word? – oh yeah, boring.

And as NASCAR has found, just because the Cup Series shows up in a new market, doesn’t mean fans will buy into it. Case in point, suburban Los Angeles’ Auto Club Speedway, which drew big crowds initially, but has since experienced such a drop in attendance that the track actually lost one of its two Cup dates. A major factor contributing to the attendance woes is the track itself, which produces very little of the side-by-side, door-banging action that made NASCAR famous.

The same can be said of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Added to the Cup schedule in 1994, fans initially bought into the idea because it was Indy. But after more than a decade of being force-fed arguably the most boring racing on the Cup schedule, fans are saying thanks, but no thanks, leaving more than 125,000 seats unfilled for last year’s race.

(Quick aside: NASCAR announced Wednesday it’s moving the Nationwide race from Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Raceway – an action-packed, .686-mile short track – to IMS. Why? To help support the Brickyard 400, as if that’s why fans aren’t showing up.)

As it turns out, location isn’t everything. The track matters, too. Nowhere is this more apparent than Bristol Motor Speedway. Located in rural northeastern Tennessee, where the closest town of any size (Knoxville) is 113 miles away, Bristol sold out every race from 1982 to 2009. Since 1996, that meant drawing more than 100,000 fans to the middle of nowhere. In spite of its location and exorbitant hotel prices, Bristol’s half-mile bullring became the toughest ticket in NASCAR because the action on the track was undeniably and intensely good.

But since the track was repaved in 2007, the racing hasn’t been as exciting. There’s not as much bumping and banging, having become more of a single-file affair, much like at the aforementioned cookie-cutter tracks. Not coincidentally, the sellout streak ended last March.

Last week at Daytona, NASCAR gathered its drivers and owners to unveil its innovative strategy to attract new and younger fans. The plan focused on social media, fan engagement, experiences at the track and better use of its drivers’ star power.

“I think we need to stay concerned and focused on the competition side – what happens on the race track,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “That is what we sell. We don’t sell personalities. It is cool to have personalities and it is great when drivers have good personalities, but the fans show up to [see] a race. We need to make sure we put on a race.”

He’s right. NASCAR has become overly dependent upon the buzzy moment, be it a vicious wreck or an owner punching a driver in the face. Sure, these are the kinds of stories that garner attention these days, but they are entirely fleeting and mere snippets of the product NASCAR is trying to sell.

To be more relevant, the sport needs to come off as more than just cars going around in circles. (I know, big news flash.) Fans – diehard or otherwise – have to be able to see the skill it takes to wheel a race car; they have to sense the danger; they have to witness the no-holds-barred approach. This happens at a place like Darlington, where just getting around the track unscathed is a chore; at a place like Daytona, where they run nose-to-tail at 200-plus mph; at a place like Martinsville, where bumpers bang continuously for 500 straight laps.

With the addition of Kentucky Speedway to the Cup schedule, we aren’t going to get any of this. Instead, we’re going to be served up another Kansas or Texas or Las Vegas – tracks where they’ve already run races this season, though I can’t remember anything that happened in any of them.

Jay Hart is a Senior Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jay a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jul 7, 2011