At the highest levels of stock car racing, it’s a question asked constantly these days. What’s wrong with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?
A little more than a decade ago, NASCAR was everywhere. TV ratings were booming, sponsors were flocking and fans were jamming racetracks across the country. There were TV networks fighting over broadcast rights and waiting lists for tickets to events.
And over the last five years the meteor has burned ever dimmer in the sky.
Ratings are down, TV networks are looking to get out of contracts rather than fight to extend them and overall the placement of top level NASCAR racing in the greater landscape of sports in America has become greatly diminished.
And it begs the questions from those around the sport. Why?
Overkill? The economy? Saturation? Bad racing?
Read the Huffington Post and it’s a political party issue.
One can point to any plethora of reasons for the downfall that is taking place, but one that often goes unspoken by many at the upper levels is the full-on disconnect that continually grows wider and wider between grassroots short track racing and the top levels of the sport.
It’s the dirty little secret that NASCAR doesn’t talk about because they’ve essentially walked away from a group that should be the easiest one for them to market their product to.
It doesn’t take much to figure out that many of the fans of short track racing across the country have turned their backs on the Sprint Cup Series.
Fifteen years ago when one walked around a short track you couldn’t go 10 feet with seeing the marketing apparel being worn of some big name driver. Going to the short track to display your allegiance for the nationally known driver you cheered for was just what fans did.
Walk around a short track today and yes, you’re still going to see the Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart shirts and hats and jackets, but you’re going to have to look a lot harder to find them.
Changes in NASCAR, or what some of their executives would call “growth”, has essentially cut out of the sport what used to make short track fans Sprint Cup fans.
There was a time when the direct connection to short track fans ensured that NASCAR was growing its Sprint Cup Series fan base constantly.
When short track race fans went to their local tracks, they went there with the knowledge that the guys they were cheering for on Friday or Saturday nights had a legitimate chance of someday racing on Sunday’s in the Sprint Cup Series.
It wasn’t a far-fetched dream, but rather true reality, because they could see it in the short track drivers that populated the Sprint Cup Series. They could see the guys they once shook hands with in the pits at their local track racing on TV.
That’s not a reality of the sport today. NASCAR’s marketing execs would like to convince people it’s a reality, but fans know better than that.
NASCAR can put out all the commercials they want about the local racer climbing the ladder, but the reality of today’s NASCAR world is that tomorrow’s Sprint Cup Series driver most likely was never a regular at any short track.
Tomorrow’s Sprint Cup driver most likely went from a Quarter Midget, or a Kart or Legend car and a short buy-a-ride stint in a minor stock car touring division, to a developmental deal with a NASCAR organization.
And NASCAR can feed fans the lines of Kyle Larson and Joey Logano competing in the K&N Pro Series East at short tracks around the country, but it’s not the same – not even close to the same – of drivers who climbed the ladder after spending time competing weekly at a short track where regular fans got to know who they were.
When Steve Park left the Whelen Modified Tour to go drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc. he was a known commodity to race fans across Southern New England who had seen him race regularly at the short tracks they attended.
NASCAR might promote the fact that Logano is from Connecticut, but the reality is, Greg Biffle or Kevin Harvick have about as much connection to short track racing in New England as Logano.
Part of the appeal of minor league baseball is that you’re watching the guys that could be in the major leagues someday. For the most part that doesn’t exist at the short track level today.
In addition, the everyman factor is gone in the sport, which was a huge part of the connection between the grassroots and the highest level. Once the appeal of the Sprint Cup Series was that they were regular guys who made it to the big stage. Fans clung to that because they were the same fans who were having beers with their favorite drivers just a few years before they made it.
That doesn’t exist today and fans know that. To short track fans, reading about private jets, million dollar Manhattan apartments and the lavish trappings of today’s biggest NASCAR stars doesn’t help them connect. There are no faces they recognize from the bottom and few they can even relate to.
It wasn’t that long ago that local tracks in New England would shut down for the weekend when the Sprint Cup Series arrived in Loudon to race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. Local track operators knew they were going to take a hit on attendance because so many fans were making the trip to Loudon.
Local tracks don’t do that any more because there’s little or no attendance drop off for the locals tracks when the Sprint Cup Series is in town. Their fans aren’t the same fans that want to be at Sprint Cup events.
Somehow, it shouldn’t be that way.
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