The 1979 Daytona 500. The 1992 Hooters 500. The 2018 Ford EcoBoost 400. Three of the most important races in NASCAR history.
What, you think I’m overselling it? You think putting a “historic” label on this weekend’s championship race is a bit too much hype? Buckle up, my friend, and let’s go for a ride in the south Florida sun.
This weekend’s race in Homestead, Florida – last stop on the NASCAR calendar, last stop in the continental United States – features the three best drivers in the sport (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr.) and one who’s raced his way into their company (Joey Logano). It’s a beautiful locale — seriously, when the sun sets over Turn 1 in the late stages of the race, it’s gorgeous — and a fast, wide track. This year, it’s also the culmination of a tumultuous season that’s included terrible news on the business-of-racing front to go with the on-track brilliance.
It’s also the first season out from under the warm, comforting blanket of nostalgia that’s enveloped NASCAR literally since its inception. NASCAR’s built on nostalgia, for better or worse, on reverence for the good ol’ days and the men who drove then. No matter where you are in NASCAR, you’re never far from hallowed ground and someone ready to remind you of how much better times were when Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty drove this particular stretch of asphalt. The past, as someone once said, isn’t even past.
The good old days will not return
But the good ol’ days are over. This is the first season without Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the track, a year which follows seasons without fellow icons Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Only two drivers still active ever even raced against the Intimidator – Kurt Busch for eight races and Ryan Newman for one. Several drivers in the Cup field weren’t even born when Richard Petty turned his last laps. (That would be the Hooters 500 referenced above, but you knew that.) The days roll by faster than a pack at Daytona.
Which is what makes this weekend so critical for NASCAR’s future. In Harvick, Busch and Truex, NASCAR has the makings of a Big Three that, talent-wise, is a worthy heir to the sanctified glory days trio of Earnhardt/Darrell Waltrip/Bill Elliott. The three even match up well, too: Harvick’s a lead-with-the-bumper driver in the mold of Earnhardt, Busch can talk trash on Waltrip’s level, and Truex is a good-dude-with-a-lead-foot in the Elliott style.
So why aren’t NASCAR fans tuning in anymore? Why, when you’ve got drivers who – on a pure skill level – are every bit as strong as the sanctified legends, have longtime fans turned their backs on NASCAR, and new fans not tuned in? Of 31 non-delayed races this year, 27 saw ratings declines, and 26 have posted decade-low or all-time lows in ratings, per Sports Media Watch. Who or what is to blame?
Where did NASCAR fans go?
The easy, knee-jerk answer is to blame NASCAR itself. The organizing body does itself no favors with regulatory, strategic and enforcement stances that all too often come off as reactionary when it should be forward-thinking, and jump-the-gun early when it should be staying the course. You could also, were you of a mind to do so, blame the drivers, blame the rules packages, blame the sponsors, blame cruel fate.
But slinging blame around like birdseed avoids the larger issue, which is this sad fact: to a large segment of America, what’s cool to NASCAR isn’t cool anymore.
If you’ve read this far, you know that racing isn’t just “cars going around in circles.” You know the chess-match strategy involved in plotting for a pass 50 laps ahead. You know the knife-edge skill and reaction time that all drivers possess. You know the intricacies of plotting a race, from when to pit to when to make that final-lap move.
But not everyone knows all that, and herein lies the problem. The kind of deliberate, deep investment in a sport that NASCAR demands doesn’t fly any more. Sports are chopped into bite-size shareable moments, moments that – outside of wrecks and the occasional last-lap pass – NASCAR just doesn’t possess. The NBA has an entire battalion of fans who never watch a full game, instead getting all the best moments via highlights and tweets. That’s not right-or-wrong, that’s just the way sports is now.
Plus, the classic NASCAR driver-hero stereotype, the bump-and-run badass who celebrates with a beer and a couple pretty women by his side – this is going to be painful for NASCAR fans to hear, but that hero is going the way of rock n’ roll, out of step with changing times. Today’s top athletic icons are more diverse, more outspoken, more politically active than NASCAR fans will ever let their drivers be.
Certainly, NASCAR and its fans can stay a bit out of step, the same way you could keep on listening to the music you loved in high school – which you’re certain is the greatest music of all time. But if that’s the case – if NASCAR’s fans continue to cling to a past that’s fading farther into the distance every year; if they continue to look at the astonishing runs of Busch, Harvick et. al. and sniff, “Dale did it better” – then it’s not going to be a surprise when NASCAR, once one of America’s signature sports, settles at a level somewhere between hockey and tennis, an occasional curiosity but by no means must-watch TV.
The NFL, as you may have heard, had a few self-inflicted problems of its own the last few years, from sidestepping domestic violence to mismanagement of a political firestorm involving anthems and protests, a story I’m most definitely not going to rehash here. But this year, everything’s going the NFL’s way. Ratings are way up, anger is way down. Why? Because the games have been outstanding to watch. Competition cures all.
The best part of racing is racing
There’s a saying, often repeated in NFL circles: the best thing football has going for it is football. Translated: the games make the game great. The same thing applies in racing. You’ll remember with fondness a dud of a race that ends well, just like you’ll shrug your shoulders at a hard-fought race that ends with the leader winning by a half a lap.
I’m not going to tell you what to watch; you can make that decision for yourself. I am going to tell you that if you should tune in to this weekend’s race, you’re likely to see some of the best racing of the year, put on by many of the best drivers in NASCAR history. If that sort of thing interests you, tune in. You might just enjoy it.
Starting this year and going forward, NASCAR’s out in uncharted territory, facing dark, treacherous roads ahead. For a sport that’s accustomed to wide-open tracks, it’s going to be a hell of a challenge.
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