For most people, there are 4 major sports leagues in the United States (the NHL, MLB, NBA, and of course the National-Anthem-obsessed NFL). However, in strictly financial terms, NASCAR has been the 2nd most profitable sports business of the 21st century. In 2011 alone, NASCAR brokered a 2 billion dollar television deal that would’ve made Roger Goodell cream a wad all over the front of his $70,000 slacks. The money is everywhere. NASCAR drivers are millionaires, and most of its magnates are billionaires.
Whether you’ve seen a lap on track or not, you’ve heard of NASCAR and understand its fandom of….more “traditional” Americans living in the rural areas. But if you’ve been paying attention for the last few years, you’ll have no doubt noticed that NASCAR is in the midst of a crisis. Attendance is dropping like a rock at the track and viewership on TV is also down, often having less viewers than an hour-long advertisement for the Ninja food processor. Sponsors are leaving, and the CEO of NASCAR just stepped down after an embarrassing legal issue. Thankfully, your best friend Matt is here to break down all of the problems, and offer up an obvious solution that’s sitting right in front of us. But first, let’s start by discussing the bad…
Crisis Factor #1: The Fans
NASCAR’s loudest and most attention grabbing fans are miserable, pessimistic losers who neg every piece of racing action they see and proclaim it’s not like the “good ol’ days.” You know, those fuzzy memories to the FANTASTIC days of yore that never actually existed. While certainly not a problem exclusive to NASCAR, old and bitter baby boomers blasting vitriol into Facebook comment sections to relate every story to NASCAR having an Asian-based manufacturer or worse, a MEXICAN DRIVER! Forums that are full of this garbage are killing the mojo of new fans and keeping some sponsorship prospects leery.
Going to the track to see a live race is an even worse experience. You can find more scholarly works on the issues of the Confederate Flag, or how political candidates on all sides have abused NASCAR and its fans into a smooth political paste for countless talking points. However for me, an experience from 2016 sums it up nicely. Personal anecdote time: part of my bachelor party was going to a NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway in September of 2016. In the car on this trip were of course my best friends, two of which had virtually no racing experience, and certainly didn’t fit the profile of a traditional race fan. This was a Saturday “minor league” event, so none of NASCAR’s polish or 21st century brand management was on display outside the main facility. Quite frankly, I think they would’ve been more comfortable at a Klan rally, where there would have been no pretense of inclusion.
Politics and sports never mix well, but NASCAR has done nothing to help the fan experience at the racetrack. It’s not that it’s even an issue of hatred or racism, but more of an issue of refusing to confront anything as a “problem.” Whether it’s the “Fans Against Gordon” drunks conducting their “tits for tires” campaign, or the countless pieces of radical right wing apparel for sale at bargain prices, there was very little that made NASCAR look prepared for the next generation of fans. NASCAR is dying a slow and horrible death, but at the same time, so are the patrons that pay their bills.
Crisis Factor #2: The Business
The bottom line financial numbers have been impressive, but the business of NASCAR no longer has the memorable personalities behind the scenes that drive the spirit of the sport. The CEO is apparently a pill-popping drunk, and hates speaking publicly. Track attendance is in the toilet. The defending championship team of the sport is all of the sudden shutting down for good, citing unstoppable financial troubles. The playoff format keeps getting tweaked each season to search for some unreachable perfection. Much like the NFL, there’s plenty of dollar bills flying all over the place, and yet everyone is screaming poverty. To me, that’s always the clear sign of a sport that’s being run exclusively for the benefit of its shareholders. The business model is wrong.
Over the last 20 years NASCAR has made a transition to having race events at multi-million dollar, soulless facilities that fail to capture what most race fans enjoy about its grassroots image. In the 1990’s, 100,000 fans would cram into whatever track NASCAR would choose to race for the weekend, but those days are long gone. Of the 23 tracks that the premier series holds races each year, all but 3 of them are owned by two publicly traded companies. We could further explore the many subtle issues that prevent NASCAR from having races at more “traditional” tracks, but let’s just say that the fans, drivers, owners, and media all passionately bemuse the current crop of race tracks, and all want more of what’s “right” (whatever that might mean). The schedule is wrong.
Speaking of, the media does not get nearly enough blame for the current crisis either. As of 2018, all the NASCAR races are broadcast either by FOX or NBC, and both networks suck. The broadcast is the most important part of the event if you’re not watching live, and it’s simply not as good as it was during the golden age of CBS/ESPN/TNN in the heyday of the 80’s-90’s. While the picture definition has improved, almost everything else is in a state of decline. The announcing teams are seemingly generated via algorithm: network guy, old school NASCAR guy, modern-era-newly-retired-superstar. Much as with the NFL’s new announcing teams, there’s no meritocracy for new color commentators to pay their dues or improve their craft.
Jeff Gordon started out serviceable, but has no reason to improve since Darrell Waltrip is slowly decaying into the Crypt Keeper to his left. Dale Earnhardt Jr is trying his best, but is already approaching catch phrase machine status with his “SLIDE JOB” remark from a few weeks ago. Michael Waltrip is everywhere, and is more invasive than most forms of cancer. Without entertaining commentary, all we have left is an over the top graphics package trying too hard to combine fresh marketing with down-home style into a confusing, irksome, insulting race day experience. The media is wrong.
Crisis Factor #3: The Drivers
Part of what makes NASCAR great are the identifiable and unique personalities that drive the cars. While NASCAR drivers and crew members certainly ARE athletes, that’s almost a counter to what most NASCAR fans enjoy seeing. When given the choice, almost all fans side with the beer-bellied fat body asshole driver over the nicely trimmed 6-pack ab-ed good boy that follows all the rules. Unfortunately, NASCAR is now seeing more of the latter than the former.
For better or worse, NASCAR is experiencing a youth movement in their driver lineup not seen since the turn of the 21st century after the death of Dale Earnhardt. The new “young gun” lineup consists of pretty boys, appropriately diverse pretty boys, and of course rich kids. Not to be misunderstood, there are some great drivers taking shape in front of us. Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott are showing amazing promise….but they all look like they came out of a box. No, seriously, they look like action figures that came out of a fucking box.
It’s very tempting to get upset at the lack of identifiable talent coming up in NASCAR. As a symptom of the disease of big business, seemingly talented prospects are stashed aside for less impressive, financially-stable milquetoast racers.
While most of the NASCAR roster in 2018 is soft and cuddly, there is one major exception.
Solution, thy name is Kyle
Kyle Busch broke into the racing world in 2005 becoming an immediate success, and was a smug little shit about doing it the whole time. Piggy-backing on the young bad-boy success of his older brother Kurt, the Busch bros were the most hated duo in NASCAR and became a WWE style heel angle that generated the antithesis to the more clean cut superstars coming up at the same time. Unfortunately, Kurt Busch’s antagonism was apparently not an act, and increasing legal problems required the eldest bad boy to change his persona to a more agreeable “hardened veteran” role. This left Kyle, one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR, to be the one serious antagonist to millions of fans aching for someone to hate….and he’s been perfect. Kyle talks shit incessantly about other drivers, fans, the governing body…all of it and more. He criticizes what needs criticizing…he calls the fans, business, and drivers out on their flaws, even while acting like a sniveling piece of shit in the process. Whether you know it or not, dear reader, Kyle Busch is saving NASCAR, one mocking insult at a time (while wearing a Skittles jumpsuit).
Let’s think back to a time when many of NASCAR’s detractors say the sport lost its way. To many of the baby boomers that plague NASCAR with its current problems, the golden age of the sport (1980s-2000s) contained wall-to-wall assholes, a teeming cesspool of antagonistic bullies with a low-level death wish. There were so many options, you could shop for your preferred style of bad guy. Like a rough and reckless driver? Dale Earnhardt is your man. More of a Young Whipper Snapper guy? Tim Richmond. Mouthy fuckboi? Then it’s the mouth from the South Darrell Waltrip. Soft spoken racist? Well…..let’s just not go there.
Anyway, there were always plenty of antagonists to go around. As fans, we need the bad guys to make us feel more in line with our heroes, and those roles need to be able to change as eras and generations flip over. By not accepting drivers like Kyle Busch for what they are, the next generation will be afraid to show any character, any raw passion. Without a few new assholes coming up the ranks, we’ll soon be left without balance, without fun. If more drivers and fans don’t wake up and smell the Monster Energy spiked coffee, NASCAR will revert back to the poverty and popularity of the moonshine era, and maybe that’s what we deserve.
Matt knows his sports inside and out, and has been known to easily fix any billion dollar industry on a whim. Follow him on Twitter to get into his brain, and to gang up on all those douchebags in the Bills Mafia.