NASCAR runs out of gas
Xs and Arrows
October 15, 2022
While I have covered a myriad of sports in my time and spent plenty of hours behind microphones, notepads, press boxes and sidelines, the genre that I made my first real splash in was motorsports.
As a young writer I was assigned plenty of local short track NASCAR, dirt track and drag racing events as I cut my teeth in the sport. I went on to spend time as a track announcer at the former Mesa Marin Raceway, hosted a local racing radio show, television show and an international NASCAR/independent racing podcast-back when podcasting was very new.
At the time of my first jobs NASCAR and auto racing was enjoying a resurgence. The death of Dale Earnhardt put new eyes on the sport in 2001 and the sport carried that momentum for a solid decade or so of growth. However, most of us that were connected to the local racing scenes and tuned in on Sundays for the NASCAR races knew this would not last forever.
NASCAR did what any expanding professional sport would do, they overstretched themselves, they watered down the product with more corporate tracks, more cookie cutter corporate drivers and threw all their eggs in the sponsorship baskets all while allowing the racing on the track to suffer. Meantime, they cut the legs out from underneath their local tracks by hosting big national televised events on Saturday nights (the local tracks racing night) and making the sport so expensive at many levels that only the connected drivers with lots of cash had much chance of success. I remember some Saturday night events at Mesa Marin when we were competing with a NASCAR televised race, we drew crickets and lost our shirts.
Today, much like many of the short tracks that once dotted the American countryside, NASCAR is broke, or quickly on their way to it.
Recently, some of the most powerful NASCAR teams that have reaped the benefits of a sport angled at making them successful, claim the economic model of the sport is "broken." They are complaining about the revenue sharing-or lack thereof, the costs of the "Affordable" Next Gen car that NASCAR mandated this season but has also reportedly led to some big-name driver injuries and the inability to attract major sponsors anymore. Gone are the days when a driver spends nearly his entire career with one brand on his hood. Most teams are lucky to get a sponsor for a quarter of their racing schedule.
It started with greed and ends with a thud. Usually, the same story for any sport or franchise that expands too quickly without an equitable plan-and usually without a respect for their roots, or as an old school driver in NASCAR would say, "dance with who brought ya." This started in the early 2000s when older NASCAR venues with character were replaced on the schedule by large progressive-banking corporate tracks owned by members of NASCAR's ownership family or their subsidiaries. They built tracks all over the U.S. in major media markets but forgot that it also takes fans in those markets to fill those seats. They rewarded those fans with astronomical ticket prices and subpar racing. Now the fried chicken has come home to roost. Or something like that.
Today, NASCAR is suffering, profits are down, drivers are no longer the characters they once were, as most of them seem to be shaped from the same corporation-derived model of the perfect size/weight of a race car driver needed to fit into a car as economically as possible. They have the personality of an infomercial, and not those of the late great Billy Mays or the Sham-WOW guy; unlike their infomercial counterparts, drivers are out of products to sell.
NASCAR used to be the one sport where your brand was displayed heavily on the hood for all 500 miles of racing with several camera shots, a post-race mention and commercials during the broadcast if you could afford them. Now, most companies can reach millions of customers with targeted advertising online, or personal endorsements by social media influencers for a fraction of the cost of slapping your logo on a race car that looks like nothing in today's showroom.
There is that as well, a sport founded by rich auto dealers with the basis of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday," now drives around in cars made in fabrication shops the have little resemblance from what is coming off the production line. And good luck finding a new car on the market these days anyway.
NASCAR's problem is not new, they started down this failed road 15 years ago and are finally seeing the error of their ways. Instead of simplifying the sport, they have made a half-cocked attempt to dumb it down by over-complicating it. Do not ask me to explain their "playoff" scenarios or their "stages," points used to reward consistency, now they reward luck in order to be more like the stick-and-ball sports they always claimed they were different than.
I really hope NASCAR figures it out, but unfortunately when a sport is owned and operated by families that do not understand the common fan, respect reasonable costs and realize that fans watch for three things, the rubbing, the crashing and the fighting (maybe that is the first place to start their recovery). More likely the ignorance to all of that will be their long-working demise.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter, broadcaster and athletics administrator. He advocates for the value of athletic competition and serves as the President of the Tehachapi Warriors Booster Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.