NASCAR’s Slow Ride to Nowhere

rebel 500

The thrill is gone, and the numbers prove it.

After decades of phenomenal growth, NASCAR’s popularity has hit the wall. At Bristol Motor Speedway a couple of years ago, Jeff Gordon told reporters he couldn’t believe the rows of empty seats. Where were the cheering fans who normally packed the stands and infield?

Attendance is down at NASCAR races, and no one seems to know why. Even the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte is languishing. Though marketing analysts predicted 800,000 paying visitors would pass through the museum’s doors in 2011, only 272,000 showed up, resulting in an operating loss of $1.4 million. New augurs were enlisted, who soon promised higher attendance for the Hall of Fame’s second year. Instead, the number of visitors dropped another 30 percent.

So what happened? Like many other relationships, the one between NASCAR and its fans dimmed because both parties have changed, making the old love affair impossible to carry on.

First of all, you know a relationship is in trouble when one of the parties says it wants to see other people. That’s exactly what NASCAR has told its Southern fanbase.

NASCAR used to be an all-Southern event. At every race, hundreds would wave the battle flag. The Rebel 500 at Darlington, South Carolina, opened on Confederate Memorial Day. Its opening parade featured a Confederate soldier waving a battle flag.

But that was then. In 2003, NASCAR decided it had to reach out to minorities. A year later, its officials announced they would “change the ‘face’ of the sport” and launched what they called their “Drive for Diversity” program to attract women and minorities. Nothing wrong with that. But perhaps – just perhaps – their approach was flawed. NASCAR officials and drivers seemed to think the sport couldn’t attract Latinos and blacks unless it first drove off its traditional base. In 2006, NASCAR President Mike Helton announced, “the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence.” And referring to the battle flag that was once welcomed, even expected, at NASCAR events, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said, “Anybody who is trying to show that flag is probably too ignorant to know what the hell he’s doing.”

And NASCAR itself has changed. Where once outlaws and daredevils such as Dale Earnhardt Sr. and “Fireball” Roberts flirted with death at 200 mph, today’s stars are too busy babying expensive equipment and fretting about their point standings to take the risks that made NASCAR thrilling.

But the real cause of NASCAR’s woes, the one that condemns the sport to a slow death, is that we, the fans, have changed. We aren’t the “car people” we used to be.

There’s a black-and-white picture on my desk of my father and mother posing beside a new 1952 Pontiac on Daytona Beach. On their honeymoon, they drove that car on the beach – at 85 mph! My parents? Six years later, the Daytona International Speedway would replace the beach track. To my father’s generation, and to a large extent, mine as well, cars represented freedom and status and endless possibilities.

From about the time I was in the seventh grade, whenever we kids heard a friend’s father had bought a new car, we’d have to know the car’s vitals: How many horses under the hood? Stick or automatic? How fast can it go?

These days, people judge a car by its fuel efficiency and number of iPhone adapters.

Cars simply are not the prized possessions they once were. Love of cars and what they stood for – yes, it was love – brought folks together at the racetrack. The chariots of yore are now viewed as relics of a benighted past that are already being replaced — much like the folks who once cheered from the infield.

About Mike C. Tuggle

M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose short stories have appeared in several publications. The Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in 2014. His next book, The Genie Hunt, is a tribute to Manly Wade Wellman’s Southern tales, and will be published this summer. He blogs at mctuggle.com More from Mike C. Tuggle

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6 thoughts on “NASCAR’s Slow Ride to Nowhere

  1. I think the main reason is what you first stated, that NASCAR repudiated it’s fan base. Most folks I know stopped watching cause they felt they were no longer welcome or wanted for that matter. It would also help the sport tremendously if it would return to using actual cars that people can actually buy. It would provide some kind of connection.

  2. I lost interest in NASCAR some years ago. Your analysis mirrors my thoughts. NASCAR drove “us” out to attract the righteous SJW’s. Another, and for me the prime reason, is they forgot “race on Sunday, sell on Monday”. The cars are like F1 or CART, all the same. The trains at super speedways and the whiner foreign and nonsouth drivers resulted in my saying goodby.

  3. I was never a big TV fan of Nascar because, frankly it is boring to watch cars go round and round in a circle. The races were fun to attend in person though. As soon as I heard Nascar’s goal was to become a national spectator sport I knew the fix was in to stab its traditional fans in the back who made it what it was. Traitors deserve a slow death. Id rather drive a porsche anyway.

  4. NASCAR was life(along with football) in the southern town of my youth. Races were 1 to 2 1/2 hours away and crowds overflowed. What made me and many others walk away was when drivers like Curtis Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Buddy and Buck Baker, Junior Johnson began racing against damn yankees from USAC. Slowly but surely they turned “racin” into business. Hell, even football isn’t watchable any more. Find a tape of the Colts with Unitas or Green Bay from that time. MEN against MEN, not leotard wearing prima donnas. WE ARE DOOMED.

  5. NASCAR ain’t the onliest thang wrong. Just you wait til Her Highness Hillary gits coronated… Whoa! Course, if you watch anything other than Bill O’Rielly and Jesse Watters, you’da thunk she were already Presidentess.

    RHugo

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