Some sports analysts and racing fans feel that NASCAR’s popularity has peaked and that the sport has been sputtering and on the verge of running out of gas for several years. But the majority of NASCAR fans understand that they have no reason to worry.
The sport that Big Bill France, Sr. began is alive and well. Big Bill might not recognize the NASCAR of his grandson, Brian France, but he would understand it. He would understand that at the end of the day, a dollar has to be made. And in today’s NASCAR world, there are a lot of dollars to be made. He would also understand that drivers of NASCAR’s early years like Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Tim Flock, Buck Baker, Tiny Lund and even drivers like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and a young Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would have a difficult time fitting into the NASCAR of today.
While these drivers had immense talent, for one reason or another, they would not have fit the modern day NASCAR driver mold. They would be too difficult to deal with, not speak properly enough, and not be handsome enough or sponsor-friendly enough. Of course, Tony Stewart is one of their kind and he made it. But, then, Stewart made it several years ago. And he does seem to have taken up permanent residence on NASCAR’s wrong side of the track. And, in NASCAR, things, and people, change as quickly as a pit stop under green flag conditions.
To insure NASCAR’s popularity will continue to be among sport’s best, officials took the 60-year-old sport in for a timely pit stop where they made a few minor adjustments to repair last year’s sagging TV ratings and fan attendance. One of the adjustments was to have its crew of broadcasters taking a back-to-basics type theme for this season. Fans saw a lot of the older drivers honored during ceremonies at Daytona. And while their early escapades were fondly remembered, any of today’s drivers, including Stewart, who mimic some of the more «individualistic» on, and off, track episodes of those heroic drivers, would be fined and/or suspended for «actions detrimental to the sport of NASCAR racing».
«I think it goes back to about a month before the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s chief, Brian France, reminded everyone that there’s been a lot of changes in the sport so we wanted to get back to appealing to our core fan,» William Wanger, Fox Sports senior vice president of research and programming said. «I think that set the tone for Daytona and the races after.»
Whatever the reasons for «appealing to the core fan» were, it seems to have worked. Rising TV ratings for the 2008 season to date seem to verify that the proclaimed second most popular American sport, next to NFL football, hasn’t yet reached its pinnacle in popularity. Combine NASCAR’s tinkering and tweaking with the resurgence of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and NASCAR seems to be back on track.
When asked if Earnhardt, Jr.’s return to competitive form has been a major factor in the ratings boost, Fox’s Wanger, said, «NASCAR has 35 to 40 stars that race every week, unlike golf where Tiger Woods plays just a handful of tournaments. I think there was a curiosity factor with his fans which helps, but NASCAR is not dependent on one driver.»
Combine popular drivers such as Jimmy Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip with the week-to-week competition for the Race for the Chase and instant drama is constantly unfolding during a Sprint Cup race. That makes for the ultimate in reality TV.
Of course, Earnhardt, Jr.’s personal drama of leaving DEI, the team his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. built, to drive for Rick Hendrick and team with rival Jeff Gordon, helped fuel NASCAR’s notoriety.
Yes, NASCAR has changed a lot in 60-years. It has had to change with the times in order to grow into what it is today. And whether fans like what NASCAR has become or not, at the end of the day, they must remember that NASCAR, like football or baseball, is an entertainment business that must show a profit in order to survive. And to show a profit it has to be popular enough to draw fans to the racetracks, but maybe more importantly; it has to draw the fans to their televisions.
And, so far this season, it has.
By: Terrell Davis
April 18, 2008