A recent upload from Leo Parente on the Youtube channel /DRIVE caught my attention. In it, he addressed NASCAR ‘haters’ and demanded that people at least dislike NASCAR whilst getting their facts straight. He also raised a fascinating point, speculating that the main reason people are so turned off from NASCAR is the way the sport is marketed. He pondered whether the excessive commercialism, sponsor shoutouts, forced hype and awkward ball-sport-style playoffs presented an image of plastic, forced drama devoid of any authenticity and heart that true race fans crave.
As a NASCAR fan of thirteen years and counting, I’d have to agree.
When I first got into NASCAR, the purity was a major selling point. Alongside an F1 car, a NASCAR stock car was like a hammer next to a guided missile. And the drivers were average Joes, hardly any different to the fans in the grandstands in terms of personality. Something about shoving all these simple, loud and bruising men and machines together into a cramped space and asking them to go stupidly fast whilst somehow not causing a huge accident (and often failing) sold NASCAR to me without any PR spin whatsoever.
Which is why NASCAR is playing a dangerous game by trying to distance itself from all that, and fans like me.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember NASCAR or general race fans asking for all the changes NASCAR have made in the last few years. Was anyone so offended by Matt Kenseth winning the title with only one race victory in 2003 that they demanded the Chase? Was anyone clamouring for the COT in 2007, a horrible car to look at and race? Or the Gen-6 which looks good but produces awful racing? And was anyone suggesting that the way to fix the Chase was to make points racing redundant and cram in an awkward elimination procedure ripped from a reality TV show?
NASCAR has been trying to fix problems that don’t exist for years, and back up each decision with relentless marketing spin convincing people that they are fixing problems (that no-one knew existed) and ‘improving the product’. By pure attendance and TV figures, NASCAR dwarfs its closest rivals – so why is NASCAR so desperate to chase after the casual fan, and the smaller Indycar series focusing on improving the show for its own fans? Surely it should be the other way around?
The fact is, race fans will always find something special in a series that connects to the everyday world. People watch F1 and sportscar racing for the technology, but they watch NASCAR, BTCC and V8 Supercars to see humble drivers doing incredible things with the same kind of cars that the fans themselves likely turned up at the racetrack in. NASCAR has the roots, traditions and loyal fanbase that any motor racing series in the world would die for. Which is why trying to cut those roots to appeal to a glitzy primetime TV crowd could potentially be a bullet to the head. Brian France justfies his blisteringly stupid decisions by saying they are what ‘fans’ want – but which fans? Not the race fans that have followed the sport for decades – the fickle ones, the ones who only watch during commercial breaks on other channels and get bored when there isn’t a crash every five seconds. By their very nature they are ADD, prone to be distracted by the latest fad or viral video on Youtube. Flashy commercial promotions and utterly awful gimmicks will not sucker these fans in – and in actual fact dumbing down may only alienate them. My girlfriend, who claims to know ‘nothing at all’ about motorsport, took one look at the new Chase system and declared it ‘stupid’. Isn’t she the kind of non-motorsport fan that NASCAR is now trying to appeal to?
Neither will these changes attract fans of other motorsports. I have many motorsport-loving friends who are NASCAR haters, and if anything, every ridiculous tweak is only confirming what they already held true; that NASCAR is stupid and lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Why should they watch this gimmicky nonsense when here in the UK we have the BTCC celebrating record grids and attendances with epic racing at every round? And the worst bit is that even I, the defender of the faith, can’t defend NASCAR anymore. Not when I know in my heart of hearts that my friends are now right.
It’s telling that no other motorsport series in the world, except for perhaps the British Superbikes, have copied the Chase system. Notice the huge backlash from fans, teams and drivers in F1 when the double-points plan was mooted; and now imagine how much more vitriolic that backlash would be if F1 tried to introduce a Chase system. Race fans value purity and victories earnt the hard and fair way; by scrapping on the track, and arbitrary resets of points and ‘winner-takes-all’ finales diminish all credibility from a championship battle. How many fans, NASCAR or not, have you heard say that they won’t pay attention to the title fight this year? That is an utterly farcical situation for a world-leading motorsport to be in.
So let’s recap: hardcore NASCAR fans are becoming alienated, fans of other motorsports are becoming even more alienated than they already were, and fans of other sports altogether remain fairly ambivalent to NASCAR. I can’t see how anyone wins out of this. And what about those in the garage: behind the micro-managed spin to avoid NASCAR fines, what do they really think? The awful Chase tweaks also threaten smaller teams; with winning now being everything, what is the point of showing battles for position down the order? May as well go to another commercial break. This drives away sponsors, to the point where we now have multiple major sponsors clamouring for the top 10-20 cars and nothing at all for the smaller teams. As F1 is finding out, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots is not beneficial to anyone, certainly not the on-track action as results become more and more predictable. Nationwide is already struggling to fill grids (oh sorry I forgot, Cuppies are keeping that series alive, right?), so what happens when smaller teams start to pull out of Cup through lack of funding and airtime? Potentially the most blue-collar sport on earth could become the preserve of the white-collar masses – and that would be the final insult.
In conclusion: dumbing down NASCAR is driving far more fans away than it is attracting them. Parente had a point, and it’s not just non-fans who are growing sick of NASCAR’s hype machine. We love NASCAR because it’s NOT the WWE. Or NFL. Or MLB. It is motorsport, one like nothing else in the world. And if he doesn’t realise it sooner rather than later, Brian France is in real danger of causing irreparable damage to one of the great motorsport institutions.
The half-empty grandstands don’t lie.