Different Worlds: Disconnect Between NASCAR Short Tracks And Sprint Cup Series Major Issue For Sport

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?

Sprint Cup Series LogoA meteoric rises through the 1990’s saw Sprint Cup Series racing peaking at levels motorsports had never seen before in North America.

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.

And why?

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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  1. racefan... says

    ..Very good article..How true………….NASCAR has become the old Indy Car forum, where once great drivers drove there way through the rank from sprint and dirt track racing to the top, but now it’s either the lucky semen club or international drivers who buy their way in…you mean to tell me that drivers like Childress’s grand kids, or Lagana are better, more naturaly talented drivers then local talent like Rocco or Pitkat..I don’t think so……..

  2. Paul Wager says

    Well done.
    I can even remember Sprint Cup drivers racing at smaller tracks around the country.
    Now there are a handful at best that do and most of them only when they get big appearance money.

    I used to watch every race every Sunday from start to finish, now I just watch a handful of laps here and there. I’d much rather go to a local track than to spend the money required to get a decent seat at a Sprint Cup race.

  3. The nail in the coffin was the relentless push of Danica Patrick. I can recall a race Jimmy Johnson crashed and before he hit he took his hands off the wheel. Waltrip commented he must have learned that from Danica Patrick. Ya think that is where he picked that up? Then they have the drivers act like fools in TV commercials. The opening segments of a race have those stupid promo’s of the drivers posing. Lastly as you clearly write, no one comes up through the ranks. I absolutely prefer Waterford or going to the Grand Am series races over NASCAR.

  4. Great article Shawn speaks truth!

  5. I enjoyed the article but…I remember my first foray into “Local” track racing. Moose Hewitt’s wife, Jane, asked my Mom if I could “babysit” her kids. I was 14 at the time. I was mad my Mom offered my services. It was my first “Job”. I was upstairs doing my homework, I heard a lot of noise coming from the basement garage. Moose came upstairs and introduced himself. Long story short, he invited me downstairs. As I walked through his Motorcycle/Racecar trophy room, then into the garage, I was in awe as I looked at his Modified race car. Jane brought me to the “Bowl that weekend and I’ve been a fan ever since. Moose would let me paint the bumpers, nerf bars and wheels on his “many” race cars. There was the 11, 19, 111, M & 119. He and his crew were constantly building something “NEW”. Back then these guys raced their own creations. Nowadays the cars are too “equal” which makes for a boring race IMO. I still love my local tracks though.

  6. Mike Kalasnik says

    Very solid write up and very true. I was a regular at Stafford Speedway growing up, as well as going to New Hampshire 3-4 times a year. It was fun seeing guys go from racing at Stafford to running a Busch North/South car at New Hampshire… Ted Christopher, Andy Santerre, Ricky Craven etc…. Throughout the 90s, you knew when you saw good talent, and they were going to atleast get a Busch North or South ride.

    I feel like once the economy sank in the early 2000’s, most teams only wanted drivers with a known last name, or money. Guys werent getting a fair shake. I remember Sean Caisse getting a shot with Kevin Harvick at Dover, but he crashed 2 cars and never got another shot with him. Guys were getting one or 2 tries and thats it. If they didnt win or finish in the top 5, they were tossed aside. Heck, even Dale Jr dumped Brad K because he wasnt winning enough… oops. Once they ditched the Busch North and turned it into the K&N East series, it lost its mystique. Gone were the Staffords, Waterford and Thompsons…. in were tracks in the south. Gone was the 20-25 race schedules, in was 12 race schedules. Gone were the combined races at the big tracks where cup guys watched from their trailers. It was now a series made up of cup teams who have extra cash, a few family teams that got money, and guys who are barely able to race.

    Its even worse in the modified tour. The last time a guy got a shot there was Donnie Lia. Despite decent results in the trucks and 1 win, he was let go. Now we have 1 or 2 drivers who MIGHT get a shot at a Nationwide ride from the mods. Its sad to see the car counts get lower and lower because no longer are guys feeding through this series.

    I long for the days when drivers were starting in a mini stock, then a late model or modified, and would eventually catch someones eye, go to Busch North and proved himself there until he was ready to go to Trucks or Busch South. Heck, Joey Logano atleast ran Busch North for 1.5 years at the local tracks before moving up. Watch a busch series race and look at the names…. most are there because of their parents money. Kenny Wallace clearly stated Alex Bowman took his ride because Alex’s father pays the bills. Atleast a kid like Kyle Larson still runs every type of car imaginable all over the country and sticks to his roots.

    Its all about how much money you can bring to a car, and how marketable you are. You can be a great driver and have won 100 short track races, it wont mean a thing w/o money. When I go to Bowman Gray im 99% sure none of those drivers will ever make it out of there. When I go to my local dirt track, I know most wont ever race a stock car and atleast some of them can move to the WOO someday. The top 3 series is 100% based on how much money you got and how marketable you are. Gone are the days when a sponsor wanted on a car so bad, they didnt care who drove or what they looked like. Teams will run a plain black car just to show sponsors they can run up front.

    Look at the entry lists…. only 29 trucks entered in the Las Vegas Truck Race… Cup has only had 43 cars for 43 spots in the past 3 weeks. Nationwide is hot and cold, but the stand alone races that dont pay dont even get 40 cars, and NASCAR has to ask start & park cars to field additional entries to make up the field. Its even worse in the lower divisions.

    I hardly go to asphalt short track racing now, and mainly follow dirt track stuff. Atleast some of those guys have a shot of making it somewhere.

  7. Kenny stuart says

    Great article but I would add one thing to it. How about the biggest fact that Nascar could careless about short track racing. Every year you hear about a few tracks closing down that were historic tracks, take riverside speedway and this year Canaan speedway for example. Great local tracks are being closed left and right. You hear stories about Waterford and other tracks in financial troubles or tracks like Thompson not doing weekly racing next year to switch into a road course. Ten years ago or so I would go down to Florida for speed weeks and watch Daytona during the day and go to new Smyrna speedway every night, but now Nascar is trying to do their own races which will take races or drivers away from new Smyrna. Instead of trying to make as much money as possible, they should try to help the local tracks to make sure the “minor leagues” of racing aren’t wiped out.

  8. Don Pontarelli says

    Awsome story Shawn. It couldn’t be more true. I go back a long way with “local” racing and can tell you i was hooked from the 1st time I went to Seekonk in 1965. My interest in the cup series only began when some of our locals like Bodine, Bouchard, Sacks, ect made it to the big stage. Same can be said for what used to be called the Sportsman ranks or what is today Nationwide series, it was a step up to the big time. I simply cannot watch or have any interest in that series today. The only time a regular in that series has a chance to win is when a conflict keeps the cup drivers away. I went to NH every summer for years and like most people agree the best racing was the mods. Cup racing is boring today and I resent the fact that so many of the drivers have not earned their way into that series. I also resent the fact that the NASCAR dictatorship is not equal to all in enforcing rules and doling out punishments for infractions.I’ll take a Saturday night at the “Bowl” the “Konk” or Stafford over it anytime.

  9. Amen…can’t call your comments negative can’t call them positive….sadly…can call them accurate. Well written Shawn…..

  10. Good article Shawn. That is the truth. One of my biggest things I hate about the sprint cup is how it’s okay for sprint cup drivers to invade other series. This year 21 out of 28 race wins in the Nationwide were made by a Sprint Cup driver. I don’t bother watching nationwide anymore. Trucks are barley watchable.

    Another thing is that they need to change is the schedule. Remove races. Add races. Add a few short tracks or road courses. I’m sick of the 1.5 mile long tracks. Get rid of the freaking chase go back to the old points and reward the drivers that SHOULD have been Sprint Cup Champs.

    More stuff I can pick at but why bother. NASCAR is not going to do a d*** thing.

  11. When I was in middle school, I started to follow the “Cup” series. Why? Because one of my friends at the time came to school wearing a Kenny Schrader t-shirt. At that time, I was racing karts at, the now closed, Whip City Speedway. Never really paid any attention to NASCAR at that time, but became a dedicated fan. My obsession with NASCAR at the time could be compared to some of the biggest Justin Bieber fans of today. I would sit in front of the tv and my eyes would be glued to it. I even made charts to know who was in which car and who owned them and gave them to my parents so they wouldn’t distract me from the race.

    Nowadays? It’s a totally different story. I probably watch about 100 laps all year long. My level of driving cars has increased to a Sportsman modified at Monadnock Speedway, as well as a Sunoco modified at Thompson(ran there in 2012, and will again in 2014). I can see the decline in NASCAR even at the “Saturday night” tracks too. It’s sad really. I think the local track racers put on the best shows. We race as hard as we can because our races are typically no longer than 30 or 40 laps. That short of a time doesn’t leave much for taking your time to move to the front. We rub, bump, and sometimes wreck others to get to the front.

    The worst part of it all is that when our local fans stop coming to watch us race, the tracks lose money. Then they cut back their schedules or close altogether. NASCAR has lost the formula for racing altogether. The health of our sport is not great, it’s probably not even good. It still has a heartbeat, but it’s a slowing beat at best. I don’t have the answers, and to be honest, I’m not sure anyone does. I just hope that someone can figure it out before it’s way too late.

    The article was great, nothing can be said about it. Just wish it didn’t have to be written.

  12. I sadly agree. I got my start at Seekonk in 1971. My dad died that year and racing became a second family. There some great times both drunk and later sober. Watching Richie with the golf karts at Thompson. Following Moe Tweedie to the Lee Tri Oval. Being in the pits with Bugs,Leo and Freddy. Meeting Joe Nemechek and a young Steve Grissom at Oxford. Trying to keep up with Rev Pat as we headed to a northern track and watching the haze rise off a quiet Speedway 95..

    My grand nephew is a hot young driver at the Little T. I wonder if the sport we loved will be there for him.

  13. Wait a sec. What’s wrong with quarter midgets? It’s the Little League of racing! A lot of drivers start in quarter midgets and then move on to mini stocks or pro 4s or sprint cars.

  14. Well done, Shawn.

  15. Al Breunig says

    Sadly this is an article ,written of truth, that depicts reality. I am a “race fan ” since the age of 8 ,when I was exposed to West Haven Speedway. I’ve visited speedways from coast to coast (nearly 100 different ones , my estimate). the “evolution” of racing through my lifetime has been awesome . Imagine a racecar with wooden spoked wheels! yeah I’ve seen a lot of changes , some good and a lot bad . Our economy has driven the “sport” to unachievable heights .I liked being able to go to the local junk yard on fri ,buy 5 tires for $10 . But those memories are just that , and they are mine .NASCAR -once a hero is now a bully. Your article is “spot – on” Shawn.

  16. I could care less whether or not our local drivers get a shot at the “big time”. I go to the local tracks to see great weekly racing and cheer for the drivers. Stafford and Waterford put on great shows and for a reasonable price . Cup racing is boring to watch and Nascar has turned the modified tour into the same boring racing, long and boring races with the modifieds just running in a line wow this is what I waited all week to see its a joke. No modified tour race should be more then 100 laps long and enough of these mandatory pit stops that’s another joke, if they need to make adjustments to the cars let them pit for tires and make adjustments under green like real race teams do. And get rid of time trials they suck and no fan want to see them, let them qualify thru heats and consis and if you don’t qualify to bad then do your homework and work harder there is always next week. I started watching the modifieds in the late 60’s and this is the way is was back then and the races were exciting to watch, that’s why your weekly tracks are a much better place to see racing because this is how they do it.

  17. I would like to see NASCAR promote a contest and invite all Drivers/car builders from all types of racing to participate in a ultimate race challenge: Where as individuals are chosen to build a race car and engine from provided parts, from start to finsh, setup and ultimately compete in a race. Maybe even use 60-70 80 model identifiable bodies. Im certain the 18 and 20 year old punks they now promote wouldnt be in the running but it would draw a crowd and most likely one of the local short track backyard racers would end up on top. To the winner goes a one year ride in Sprint Cup.

  18. Tony Leckey says

    Mint. Spot on and possibly one of your best columns ever. Well done Shawn!

  19. I totally agree. Concord motorsports park has shut down the half mile track. Not many years ago when the cup race was in town at Charlotte. A lot of the out of towners would come over to watch the latemodel racers go at it . Chad Mullis,Clay Rodgers,Kevin Love,Shane Bradford,Ricky Hendrick .It kinda sucks, I’m a late model racer my self with two jobs. Must be nice to have deep pockets. Ofcourse if my nickname was Bubba,maybe Joe Gibbs would groom me too

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