A new NASCAR season dawns. High hopes abound. Dramatic changes have occurred. Four days before the Daytona 500, though, the chief question is: Will the needle move?
The development of a new car, the ballyhooed Gen6, is just the latest attempt by NASCAR to stem a long, slow slide in the public consciousness. The Lords of Daytona have been behaving as if they were running for office for half a decade, and this is unfamiliar territory for a sport that has always been a benevolent (at best) dictatorship. They have changed their positions more times than Mitt Romney and reversed field more often than Gale Sayers. They have tried to attract new fans. They have tried to energize the base. They have cleaned house, brought consultants in and turned them out, focused on studies and studied on focuses.
The frustration is understandable. To paraphrase Mel Tillis, they keep looking for tomorrow and finding yesterday. This is literally true in regard to the car gradually implemented in 2007 and abruptly discarded in 2012. The Car of Tomorrow, a laughable description in hindsight, was generic because, according to NASCAR officials, brand identity didn’t matter anymore. The fans could tell the manufacturers by their decals. The Chevy, Dodge, Ford and Toyota fans were supposedly irrelevant. NASCAR was out to promote its drivers, not its cars.
The NASCAR of a decade ago was awash in delusions of grandeur.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)
The COT. The Chase. Free passes. Wave-arounds. Double-file restarts. Green/white/checkered. Nothing moved the needle. Well, actually, the needle did move. It moved the wrong way. Still the Lords ask, “What’s it going to take?”
The boom of 2003 became the bust of 2012. For the longest time, NASCAR officials offered up mostly excuses and rationalizations. It was the economy. It was the price of gasoline, the gouging of hotels. A decade ago, NASCAR officials claimed they had 75 million fans, even though less than half of them watched – whether by television, radio or fannies in seats – the sport’s biggest race.
They’re still trying to move that needle in the opposite direction.
On Sunday, new cars, cars that look a little like the ones on the highways (or in the case of the Chevy SS, the highways of the next autumn) will take the Daytona 500 green flag. Barring the unexpected, a woman, Danica Patrick, will take it first. The new way the lineups are constituted wasn’t new 10 years ago. With the current paucity of extra cars actually attempting to make those lineups, the change is really inconsequential.
It can’t be said that NASCAR has done nothing. It’s more appropriate to conclude that NASCAR panicked. Its leaders used to think they could market sand dunes to desert nomads. A major obstacle in righting the ship was NASCAR’s inability to admit that any of its policies were wrong.
It took a while, but they got that message, and it’s cost everyone gobs of money.
The latest changes represent a New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society and Reagan Revolution all rolled into one.
Patrick, the Pixie on the Pole, could boost attendance and TV ratings on Sunday. If it doesn’t, God help them. As big as the Daytona 500 is, it’s only the first chapter of a season-long epic. Patrick’s impact will be lessened if she descends into competitive irrelevance after the Sprint Cup Series leaves the cool breezes of Daytona Beach behind. That’s a distinct possibility and, quite possibly, a likelihood. Nothing in her background suggests she can hoist the sport on her shoulders, Jackie Robinson like, and change it forever.
At best, she is no more than a talisman of what lies ahead. It’s going to require patience and time to restore stock car racing to its former majesty.
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