What’s It Going to Take?

Danica Patrick can only do so much. (John Clark photo)

Danica Patrick can only do so much. (John Clark photo)

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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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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12 Responses to What’s It Going to Take?

  1. Bobi says:

    Greed has ruined NASCAR. Our first experiences at Daytona were magical, but we don’t go anymore. Yes, high motel prices, gas and ticket prices are partially to blame, but it’s the intangibles that killed it for us. When we first started going, we had friends who camped under the “e” in Oldfield, we could buy t-shirts and souvenirs up and down Volusia Blvd. and see, talk to and get autographs from drivers all over town. It was fun 24/7 and we hated to sleep. Then NASCAR shut down the ‘illegal vendors’ via the local government (and by illegal, I mean the ones they weren’t get percentages from.) Then the driver’s schedules got so crazy that there was no time for the ordinary fans. Now, if you want to see the drivers you either have to pay or be lucky enough to get one of a limited number of wristbands. Forget seeing them out and about in Daytona except at carefully orchestrated events where you have no chance of actually talking to them. Sure they may be more accessible than NFL players but that’s not saying much. And as a non smoker, I probably shouldn’t say this, but Winston was the best sponsor the sport ever had, they really appreciated the fans and treated us well, even us non smokers. Yep, I hate to look back longingly but NASCAR l

  2. Bobi says:

    lost their edge when making money became the most important aspect of the sport.

  3. Ron says:

    Add few more things…dropping the Labor day Southern 500 and cutting Darlington back to one race, the closing of Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, and moving races where no one wants to see a race alienated the base. Also add in that money was all part of those moves. Martinsville was next on the list. Cookie cutter tracks and yes, the Chase turned more fans off. the uniqueness of Darlington, Rockingham, and North Wilkesboro gave way to the blandness of Loudon, Chicago, California, and Kansas. Can it be reversed. Not in my lifetime. It survived and grew as long as the excitement of Dale Earnhardt was around. those fans haven’t come back because there’s nothing exciting for them to watch. The drivers are as bland and Wall Street as your local insurance agent. After watching the racing on the Superstretch last night, I realized that’s what the fans want to see and it will never happen.

  4. crabber1967 says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Bobi.
    NASCAR priced itself out of the model car business [I’m talking about the plastic ones you build yourself, not the diecast ones] years ago and it has been downhill ever since.
    The “trinket trailers” have made a race into a Disney theme park.
    The Disney theme is, by the way, a shopping center with entertainment.
    Disney is brilliant, however. After you come off a ride, you have to walk through a souvenir store.

  5. Mike says:

    The main issue with Nascar is it’s inconsistency on about every aspect of the sport. From the COT to disciplinary actions against drivers and teams. Gordon dumps Bowyer last year very little is done. Busch Stuffs Hornady in the fence and he’s sat not only for the truck race but the next cup race. They’ve run off the major independents. Forget ever seeing a Bill Davis or Junie Donlavey ever again. Hell is this modern day nonsense a Bobby Allison would never survive. Like many people they like to class warfare everything. If Nascar wasn’t such a crap product right now. No one would accuse them of greed. Now they’ve acquired exclusive sponsorship for themselves to hell with the teams. They promote mediocre drivers as the next saviors of the sport. They’ve turned the race venue into a damned carnival and racing is the sideshow now not the main attraction. I mean when you go to a concert are you looking over the set list to see when the Nationwide Series is going to run that night?? There was a day when racing was the show and the drivers were the main attraction. Now we have dumb ass fan voting on how many tires you take for the shootout. The idiotic chase started with 10 drivers then when a certain driver couldn’t crack that they changed it to 12. Hell just make the chase this. The first 10 drivers and any driver who’s last name begins with an E!! I’m tired of mediocre talent shoved down our throats. When teams kick drivers to the curb now a days, they just rehash the same damned drivers over and over.
    Now the nonsense that the car is bringing back brand identity. This is the greatest three card monte ever played on the low attention span race fan. Yes sir, I would like to order my Two Door Camry with the optional splitter please. This is a spec car through and through and you can get it only at?????? You guessed it Nascar. While the manufacturers actually make stock cars for other racing series Nascar has a closed market with their spam in a can car. This is a punch and die car and pretty much the only fabrication is the welds on the car itself. Nascar can do it’s self a favor, quit selling the hype. Hell more attention has been paid to Danica on the pole than a 5 time champion ever got, and I’m not a Johnson or HMS fan by any stretch of the imagination, or the historic achievement of Alan Kulwicki’s championship got. Which you will never see an owner driver do that again. Don’t hand me that SHR is owner driver. Sorry that’s a sub S corporation for HMS. They mega teams are not without responsibility in this. They’ve choked the competitiveness and the independent racer right out of the sport. Nascar claims to have dumped the top 35 from the sport, when in actuality when you do the math did they really?? The Dictators of Daytona beach think all the race fans are stupid and they wonder why guys like me have went back to the ARCA series or USAC Sprint cars. It doesn’t take rocket science or a marketing genius to figure that one out.

  6. Russ Edwards says:

    If I knew the answer I’d be a rich man. But as someone who loved the sport in my youth and doesn’t anymore I can’t say why.
    Each of the factors you mentioned has a part, plus the fact that much of the presentation insults my intelligence. Ex: the new Chevy SS was designed for Nascar racing. (goodbye ;click)
    But its obvious if they cant generate interest in the young people they are doomed. My generation wont live forever you know. And the young people arent interested in automobiles like we were. So good luck.

  7. Wayne T. Morgan says:

    You hit the nail on the head and I too watch (and spend less money) going to ARCA, WoO, USAC and anything dirt. Started watching NA$CAR in 1967 and now gave up long ago.I don’t think in my lifetime it will ever come back.

  8. Bobi says:

    Amen to what everyone else has said! Thanks to Mike for mentioning Alan Kulwicki! I too miss the true owner drivers. J.D. Mcduffie and Dave Marcis (among others) added something special to the field that is truly missing now…heart! You really struck a nerve with this column, Monte 😉

  9. Judy B says:

    Only place I beg to differ is your near-hypocritical comment about Jeff Gordon’s actions at Phoenix. You use that incident to counter what occurred with Kyle Busch but neglected to mention Gordon’s “dumping” of Clint Bowyer was the effect of Bowyer’s actions against Gordon in at least 3 prior races…all of which went ignored by NASCAR.

  10. Andy DeLay says:

    NASCAR only needs to look as far as its very own Camping World Truck Series to see what needs to be fixed in Sprint Cup. Racers with a real burning desire to win, drivers that are approachable and down to earth. Races that don’t take 4-6 hours to watch. Everything that NASCAR needs to fix the Sprint Cups fan hemorrhaging is staring them in the face, in a series they already own and run.

  11. Bruce Wayne says:

    But yet you still tune in each & every week not to mention offer up your comentary about what happened that week. Whats that saying, “Doesnt matter what they are saying as long as they are saying it!?” The marketing numbers dont say upset “boycotting” fan, they just say “They watched!” Hard to say that you still enjoy the “racing” after recertation like that.

  12. Monte says:

    It’s pretty simple for me. I just write what I see. I have always taken pride in criticizing out of love, not hate. I think that has come through to most of my readers for 20 years. If it doesn’t come across to you, I don’t begrudge you your opinion. And I have no idea what a “recertation” is.

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