I’ve been a NASCAR fan all my life, having grown up in a ‘NASCAR family’, but over the last several years, I’ve felt like NASCAR just isn’t the same anymore. I’ve been so unsatisfied with so many things in NASCAR for so long that by the end of the 2013 season, I felt like the sport had ‘left me’, and I was prepared to consider the 2013 season to be the last season I would watch with any closeness. When I started this semester and began thinking of blog topics, I immediately felt the need to express my discontent with NASCAR, and thought up a good 2 part argument on why NASCAR has lost me as a fan, and indeed, I had more than enough to talk about in two posts.
However, knowing that NASCAR itself is aware of this problem (as I’m just one of many fans that have felt the same way, as evidenced by lower and lower ratings every year), I decided I would wait and see what announcements were coming from NASCAR that would help address these issues. I am glad I waited, as I’m actually fairly excited about the changes and the upcoming season, but for me, this is a test run. I’m going into this season with the mindset that if I’m not satisfied, this will be my last season as a NASCAR fan.
With that said, I’ve changed my topic of this two part blog post. Here in part one, I’ll give an abbreviated version of my issues I’ve had with NASCAR. In part two next week, I’ll give a counterargument based on the changes that NASCAR has announced and why these changes will (or won’t) make any impact on my decision as to whether I’ll keep watching. So with that, here it goes…
Why NASCAR has (almost) lost a lifelong fan.
To begin with, over the last several years, NASCAR has increasingly taken the fun out of the sport. Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, NASCAR began removing fan-favorite tracks that offered excitement, such as Rockingham Speedway in Rockingham, NC, from it’s schedule and replacing them with ‘cookie-cutter’ 1.5 mile speedways, such as Texas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway in California, Kansas Speedway, and numerous others. These ‘cookie-cutter’ tracks have been dubbed so by fans because they’re basically carbon copies of each other with no deviations, and at that, they’re not very exciting for the fans, providing no good racing, nor exciting crashes. NASCAR needs to add back more road courses, short tracks, and super speedways to increase excitement.
With the problem of carbon copy tracks comes another problem: predictability. Every driver has his strengths and weaknesses, but if more than half the schedule is comprised of the same type of track, only drivers who are good at those tracks are going to win a majority of the races. When you have the same few drivers winning 20 of the 36 races in a season, it gets old and predictable.
Further predictability comes from the points system, which has had many problems over the years. With the introduction of the “Chase” playoff system in the mid 2000s, NASCAR has felt the need to constantly change the points reward system to better reflect track performance. But by constantly changing the rules, NASCAR has confused it’s fans so many times that no one really knows what’s going on anymore. Even with the newly simplified points system introduced a couple years ago (which is easier to understand as it offers one point per position, one bonus point for leading the most laps, and one bonus point for winning the race), many people feel like the combination of the points system and the playoffs have simply cut too many drivers out of contention. Drivers who focus on performance and winning races seem to be falling short, and drivers who basically ‘game the system’ by learning how to use it to their advantage end up on top. This is most evidenced by the fact that in the last 8 years, the same driver, Jimmie Johnson, has won the Championship 6 times, which is not only a record streak, but it’s only one Cup away from the all-time record of 7, which has only ever been achieved by 2 drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, both of whom took decades to achieve what has taken Johnson only 8 years. NASCAR is too reliant on points and not reliant enough on wins, which has caused predictability. Predictability is the enemy of sport. Fans need to be engaged by excitement and the unknown.
This excitement used to come from two factors: fun-to-watch races, talked about earlier with the discussion about tracks, and crashes. Yes, safety should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind in a dangerous sport like auto racing, but that doesn’t mean we should eliminate accidents. After the death of one of the sport’s best, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001, NASCAR cracked down on safety, making more advancements in auto racing safety than had ever happened before. In fact, in the years following Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR not only became the safest racing league in the world, but the safest sport in the world, without having even a single serious injury, let alone death, from Earnhardt’s death in February 2001 all the way through today (excluding NASCAR sanctioned regional/’small-time’ leagues). Interestingly enough however, this new era of safety overlaps with NASCAR’s most popular era, from 2002 though 2007, when it was not only the most popular sport in the US, but also the era of some of the most spectacular crashes in NASCAR history (which was a factor in NASCAR’s growth). In 2007, NASCAR decided to redesign their cars to be more safe, but in the process, all but eliminated crashes. Soon after, NASCAR’s popularity dropped dramatically, and hasn’t stopped dropping since. NASCAR should revert to a car design that is both safe and offers the potential for spectacular crashes.
Next week, I’ll address recent changes NASCAR has made and weigh that with these issues.