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Random Lugnuts: NASCAR Isn't Broken

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR What is Random Lugnuts?  It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan.  The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop:  you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Random Lugnuts: NASCAR Isn't Broken

Bill Crittenden
December 28, 2009

Attendance is down, ratings are down.  Fans just aren't tuning in or turning out like they used to.  NASCAR looks like its in trouble.  They're acting like it, too, making midseason changes to restarts, allowing the drivers more latitude with their attitude, aligning the start times for the 2010 season and looking for still more ways to keep the fans happy.

It's all kind of pointless.

While I do appreciate the double-file restarts, that change alone didn't get me to turn on the race broadcasts any more than I did in the beginning of the season, and the new start times won't do much for me in 2010.  In my opinion, the changes strengthen NASCAR's position when the fans come back, but nobody I know who gave up on NASCAR by the end of 2009 is going to come back just for the restarts and convenient timing.

So what went wrong?  A couple of things, and as you'll see there's really nothing NASCAR can do about it but hunker down and wait for it to blow over.

The Economy

2009 was a dismal year for my bank account.  First my wife was cut to part time, then in August she was laid off.  The only racing event I attended all year was a Thursday night at a nearby dirt track, and only then because my wife's cousin was racing (go Bob Walczak!!!).  I tell people I can't even afford free tickets to a race, not when you count gas for driving and money for parking and a drink.

It's not like NASCAR's fans are being pulled away by a competing racing series, people simply have less money to spend these days, and entertainment (which, unless racing is your occupation, includes anything related to stock cars) is one of the first things to get cut out of a reduced budget.  Unless NASCAR can fix the economy by itself, they should lower their expectations (and possibly their ticket prices) for the 2010 season and be happy with what they get.

Of course fans in financial trouble who can no longer afford expensive tickets and $9 beers account for a drop in attendance, that much is obvious, but what about TV ratings?  Wonder why those who didn't show up at the track weren't planted in front of their televisions this summer?  I might have an idea...

I can personally attest to the fact that when your dwindling financial resources are constantly on your mind, it's hard to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy a race.  Some people enjoy a temporary diversion from their problems, but to me, it felt like time wasted when I could be working on my "second job" (my website, for what little money I get from it).  I bet I'm not the only fan who turned off his TV and spent his Sundays trying desperately to earn a few extra dollars, and I missed a lot of the truck season working Friday nights to try and pay the bills.  When you're trying to keep a roof over your family, NASCAR just doesn't seem as important, and that could account for a chunk of NASCAR's ratings drop this past year.  Some, of course, but not all of it, as there were other important factors working against NASCAR in 2009.

The Drivers

As I've said before, personality counts in racing.  Really, millions of fans don't turn on NASCAR to watch sheet-metal covered tube frames and carbureted V8s race around.  We could all see more interesting machines race in the ALMS, faster machines race in the IRL, or just plain cool cars standing still at a local cruise night.  It's the group of drivers that attract a following that watches week in and week out.  Well, some drivers do, and others...

Not to take anything away from a streak that has already earned him first-ballot Hall of Fame Inductee status in less than a decade of racing, but the championship Chases of the last couple years have not been seen the exciting down-to-the-wire finishes NASCAR had hoped for when it instituted the Chase format.  You can't really blame Jimmie for doing it, any other driver in his position would do the same thing:  try as hard as they can to win as much as they can.  But having a solid block of four years of championships won by NASCAR's blandest driver certainly isn't helping the overall ratings and ticket sales situation.  Anyone winning 4 titles in a row is going to wear on fans of other drivers, possibly even his own fans, but the problem is magnified in direct proportion to the driver's lack of likeability.

On the bright side, having a guy so disliked win so much is going to make it absolutely epic when someone beats him, and turn the driver who does into an instant hero in the eyes of the many fans who really don't want to see Jimmie win yet another Cup championship, but until then seeing the 48 in Victory Lane and JJ on the champion's podium is getting rather monotonous.  And monotony is not "must-see-TV."

The other side of this coin is Jimmie's teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  The most popular driver in NASCAR, a guy who inspires deep fan devotion, had what can be politely called "a bad year."  I know some fans turn off the TV when their favorite driver is out of contention, and the most popular driver in the sport was out of contention more than he was in it, so I can understand if more than a few fans changed the channel this season.

Again, without tampering in the races, there's nothing NASCAR can do about this one other than cross their fingers and hope Dale's new crew chief pulls that team together.  As a side note, this should prove to the "conspiracy theory" types that NASCAR isn't deciding with who wins and loses each week, otherwise Junior would have had a better year and Mark Martin would have won the championship.

Comparing stock car racing to other sports, Major League Baseball experienced a spike in World Series viewers attributed to the fact that the Yankees were in it.  On the NASCAR side, if Dale Jr. were to be the one to beat Jimmie for the championship this year, I don't think I'm going out on a limb in predicting ratings will go up, assuming fans can still pay their electric bills.

What Can Be Done?

So what does NASCAR do?  Well, there are things I'd like it to do, like change the rear wing and race the Cup Series at Milwaukee.  After all, nothing's perfect and there's always something that can be improved.  Nothing of that sort, however, is going to get a country dazed and distracted by a bad economy to tune in and watch Jimmie Johnson win championship #5.  As I said, I appreciate the changes, but there's nothing really wrong with the sport.  We were just a little too broke and a little too distracted to care about watching the same thing that happened the last three years.

As the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  I don't think there's really anything wrong with NASCAR, all they have to do is make sure the sport doesn't collapse somehow or change it too drastically in trying to win fans back, and I think it will bounce back when the rest of the economy does.  Or when a driver not named Johnson wins a championship.  Whichever comes first.

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