Let me say that I never dreamed that one day I would be writing about Brian France announcing that NASCAR needs to get back to the basics. As we all know, since the third-generation France took over for his tour as the main man at NASCAR, all we have heard and seen is that change is definitely good for the sport.
Maybe France finally looked up in the stands on race day and found out that were only a few years ago you would have never found an empty seat, the reality of the present-day Cup series is that sold-out race dates are no longer a guarantee for most tracks. France might also have picked up the TV ratings and found that the sport no longer is enjoying the growth that it did just a few years ago. Truth is, the ratings have fallen some 21 percent over the last two seasons and could be headed in the same direction again if the on-track product doesn’t improve.
In France’s defense, he isn’t at the root of all of the sport’s problems, but when you sit in its highest office everyone looks to you for answers. Apparently, he has noticed the empty seats and dwindling TV ratings as he said during the recently completed NASCAR media tour that the sport has to get back to basics to bring back its core fans.
Now I don’t know who the core fan is that France is looking to lure back to the track or in front of a TV, but it can’t be what I call the “bandwagon” fans of the late ’90s who jumped into the sport thanks largely to the success of Jeff Gordon. The sport’s true core fans have to go back to ’70s and ’80s when the schedule still included stops at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and you knew that on Labor Day the sport would be unloading its haulers at Darlington.
Those days are gone, but those fans are still out there and now it is up to France and the sport to somehow try and bring those fans back to the track and in front of their TV sets. It will not be easy as the sport has very little resemblance to what lured them to it in the first place. You can make a case that the core fans left because of increased ticket and motel prices, but for a hard core race fan the reason is probably more in line with the product that is racing on the track each weekend.
It was taking more and more money to stay competitive in the sport during the ’80s and ’90s, and those teams that had the big-time sponsors soon began putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the field on race day. It hurt the sport as the money led to the multi-team approach that helped increase the advantage those teams were already having on the track. The rich kept getting richer and the rest of the sport suffered and with it a large section of the fan base.
The competition on the track came down to being among just a handful of teams with so many of those drivers content to ride in line and not really trade a little paint for the win. The winners became predictable and when that happened, the real core fan lost interest. It was no longer a sport driven by competition; it became a sport driven by the dollar. Maybe where NASCAR made its biggest mistake was to side more with the dollar side of the sport than with the competition side. It didn’t want the ol’ throwback driver that would get out of a car after a race and actually show a little emotion because he had lost or another driver had put his bumper to him. Instead, it wanted the “politically correct” driver that got out of the car and said exactly what NASCAR wanted him to say.
The sport we now have is the result of the blueprint that has been formulated by NASCAR, but as the 2008 season begins, France now realizes that all is not well. The blueprint took away much of the competitive nature of the sport and that is what needs to be brought back. The Car of Tomorrow may be the answer, but if the results of last year are any indication, it will just be another case of the rich getting richer in the sport.
Now is the time for France to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father when they were at the helm of the sport and put it back on the level playing field that ensured a great show at each stop on the schedule. If he can, the seats will fill back up and the TV ratings will soar!