In 2003, NASCAR was flying high. The sport was rapidly becoming America's favorite pastime and had become the first serious challenger in years to the mighty NFL. Nearly all of the races sold out, and television ratings were soaring. The sport was raking in billions from network contracts and series sponsorships. It appeared that a sport once stereotypically known for a fan base of redneck-types was about to finally overtake football as America's favorite pastime.
Not ten years later, the very idea of NASCAR being a threat to the NFL is laughable.
NASCAR has spent the last five years scrambling to turn around steadily declining ratings by staggering their race start times, changing the points system every season, telling drivers to get into fights on camera if they want, asking reporters to stop saying negative things, and highlighting a swimsuit model with mediocre racing skills as the sport's newest star. Qualified minor league drivers rarely get a fair shot at the big time, because sponsorship is too difficult to come by, even for a surprise Daytona 500 winner. Grandstands are half full for a sport that was once recession-proof.
What happened? NASCAR, in a way that no other sport has, showed a disregard for tradition and history.
This was best exemplified with a playoff system called the Chase, which was extremely unpopular with fans since its inception in 2004 and still remains so, despite NASCAR's best efforts to convince fans of its merit. But NASCAR has also, over the years, moved races from historic, unique racetracks to 1 1/2-2 mile superspeedways, and in doing so removed a great deal of charm from the sport in the same way that baseball had done when it replaced classic venues like Forbes Field and Sportsman's Park with the cookie cutter, carpeted Three Rivers Stadium and Busch Stadium, respectively.
In 1982 there were five races in a 30-race schedule at 1.5-2 mile speedways. In 1992 there were six in a 29-race schedule. In 2002 there were 12 in 36 races, a full third of the schedule. In 2012, 14 races will be held at such tracks.
In this slow process, classic venues like Rockingham, Nashville and North Wilkesboro lost all of their scheduled races. Most egregious of all, in 2004, Darlington Speedway, a track labeled "Too Tough To Tame" for its way of biting the best of drivers, lost the race on Labor Day weekend that had been a tradition for over 50 years. This is still today a sticking point with longtime NASCAR fans, although now that the race is held in the southeast in Atlanta, it's less so than when the race was held at 2-mile California Speedway. If you're a baseball fan, imagine Wrigley Field being replaced with the Metrodome and you'll get an idea how NASCAR fans felt about that. My favorite quote about the affair came from Matt McLaughlin at the Frontstretch: "They took a race from the track Too Tough To Tame and gave it to the track Too Lame To Nickname".
The cookie-cutter speedways have been awarded races from NASCAR based on-wait for it-economics. They have more seats and thus the sport can sell more tickets. Many of them are newer and offer real seats as opposed to benches, ample bathrooms and at least more accessible parking than a short track. For some tracks, like Kansas, a selling point is an attached casino.
But there were similar merits to the cookie cutter baseball stadiums of the 1970s. They were built for efficiency and maximizing profit, not for a great experience. And like with the concrete doughnuts in baseball, little distinguishes the speedways from one another. Watching on television, if a fan was not informed, they would not be able to tell if the race they were watching was being held at Chicagoland, Kansas, Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami or Michigan.
NASCAR may have had no choice to move some races. The Darlington area was hit hard by the loss of its textile industry and couldn't sell out two races a year. But that NASCAR has gone to garden variety tracks and abandoned shorter tracks with much more character is a root cause of many of its problems today-even more so than in baseball, because the layout of a speedway affects every aspect of the racing much more than AstroTurf affected ground balls.
Ultimately, the television audience (which is much bigger than the live audience) grows weary of seeing race after race with little carnage, few on-track battles and the car with the best aerodynamic setup winning the day. With every speedway race, the reputation NASCAR was getting for the racing not being as exciting as it was in the Dale Earnhardt era becomes more cemented in reality.
Martinsville Speedway is a half-mile track, the shortest in NASCAR. The cars that qualify at the back of the field start the race a half a lap down. About ten laps into the race the field becomes like a conveyor belt, with little navigating space on the track no matter where a driver is. Throughout the race there is always a few fierce battles for position going on. Fender scrape. Cars push and shove. Tempers flare and occasionally boil over. Wins are unquestionably earned and finishes are always close. In other words, memorable races happen there.
By contrast, races at Kansas Speedway will rarely see more than four or five caution flags, drivers have plenty of space to run around and avoid each other, and before long there are wide gaps between racecars and little passing...to the point where NASCAR will famously throw a yellow flag for "debris"-another thorn in the side of fans-to bunch up the field in an attempt to create something exciting to watch. A half curiosity of seeing who finally wins the thing might keep fans interested, but rarely are stories told of the classic races at Kansas.
It goes beyond tracks producing exciting racing. Because of the space between cars, speedways tend to reward the big money teams. Aero package rules. Driver skill is far less of a factor in success-what is more necessary is that a car that can run in a pack and still pass other cars. Races are now won in the shop, money for engineering is more important than ever, so sponsorship becomes the key to success. Hendrick Motorsports and its satellite offshoots have won the last six NASCAR championships, not because they've hired great wheelmen (although Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson both are), but because of the sponsorship money brought in by marketable drivers like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and now Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick. You can't blame Rick Hendrick for this. He's simply playing the game the way it needs to be played.
Similarly, in the minor league Nationwide Series, up-and-coming drivers who have more than proven themselves, like Justin Allgaier, struggle to even be able to race in the series since sponsors can't be maintained. The reason? An overload of Sprint Cup series drivers in the minor league series, being put in the racecars because the sponsors won't risk money on an unknown. And teams need money for the car's aero package to win more than a talented driver.
As a result the most notable up-and-comer at the top level of NASCAR today is a former Indy Car driver who is better known for her swimsuit shots than for her driving skills. Some of the most hardcore NASCAR fans couldn't tell you who the last three rookies of the year were.
Because NASCAR has gotten away from fender-banging, bullring racing and moved to far less endearing venues, they're now putting all their eggs in the Danica basket and hoping she does well, but she isn't so far.
Talk to a disenchanted former NASCAR nut, they're not hard to find, and generally their complaints will revolve around the Chase, too many commercials in broadcasts and a lack of exciting racing. But you won't hear them say that the racing has gotten boring at places like Martinsville or Dover-two other classic tracks that inexplicably are frequently in NASCAR's sights for removal, at least to listen to the racing press.
The departure of the classic and unique tracks for garden variety speedways has over time created a reputation around NASCAR that the racing isn't as exciting as it used to be, and contrary to what NASCAR says there is real merit to the argument. And it's also created a reputation that the big money teams dominate the sport more than ever, and that belief has truth to it too.
NASCAR's problem right now is not that the racing stinks. It truly doesn't. It's just that it's not as good as it could be, and a return to unique or shorter tracks that produce memorable racing could fix many of their problems.
Kurt Smith is the founder and author of Ballpark E-Guides.