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NASCAR: Driving in Different Directions?

by Patrick Snow

Some recent events in the world of NASCAR have made us here at Swampland ask the question: In what direction is this sport going? I’ve expressed frustration before about how NASCAR seems to want to forget its Southern roots as they try to put cookie-cutter tracks in large (TV markets) urban areas where racing is more of a novelty than a passion. In light of stagnant attendance and TV ratings, I believe it’s time to take a close look at the decision making of the leadership of NASCAR, and see if their choices can continue to grow the sport in a positive way.

Last month, billionaire owner Bruton Smith added the Kentucky Speedway to his impressive list of quality tracks like Bristol, Charlotte, and Texas. He called Kentucky a “fabulous market” and expressed his desire to bring a Sprint Cup race there as soon as possible. Meanwhile, NASCAR Chairman Brian France called Kentucky “not a market that we've said is highly desirable.”  Really? This is a track that has sold out the grandstands every year for its Nationwide race. The speedway in Northern Kentucky brings in fans from Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Columbus, and southern Indiana. Instead of serving that passionate crowd, NASCAR seems more interested in expanding to the Pacific Northwest or New York City.


Another factor hurting growth in the sport is the decreasing popularity of Nationwide Series. NASCAR had to accept much less money for the title sponsorship of this series when the “Busch” relationship ended in ’07. This series was historically known for growing new drivers, but now has become a few Sprint Cup drivers beating the heck out of lesser competition each week. I guess NASCAR thinks all of its young drivers will come from F1 or Indy cars, but this direction is hurting smaller outfits all over the country. Even the sport’s most poplar driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., says his JR Motorsports group may leave the fledgling series for the Sprint Cup because of how expensive the Car of Tomorrow switch will be.

Another questionable event happened last week when NASCAR President Mike Helton called a meeting at Michigan telling drivers not to complain so much about their cars because it looks bad to the fans. Of course, this is the same sanctioning body that asked the drivers at the beginning of the season to be more of a personality and express themselves. The hypocrisy of this meeting and of NASCAR telling drivers to “care more about the fans” is quite disturbing.

It’s hard to see how a watered-down, corporate version of an exciting sport is going to work long-term, especially if you continue to alienate your core fan base. NASCAR’s strategy of chasing fans in non-traditional, urban areas and getting their new drivers from open-wheel racing seems very short-sighted. We’ve seen what happens in other sports when owners overpay for veterans and chase short-term goals in place of growing a quality product for the long-term. Before the ’08 season started, France the sports needed to “get back to basics.”  We couldn’t agree more

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