The most popular racing series in North America is bleeding viewers both in person and on television. Speedway Motorsports, International Speedway Corporation and Dover Motorsports, the three companies that own the majority of the tracks NASCAR races at, reported last year that admissions revenue was down between 19 and 51 percent for the period of 2000-2015. Last year saw a multitude of races set record lows for TV ratings in this century. The season finale at Homestead in November saw viewership down 25 percent from 2015.
But fear not, NASCAR fans. The governing body has come up with an easy-to-understand revamped points system and race format for 2017.
Instead of one race, there will be three “stages” to a race, each of which will award points. After each segment, the caution will come out, cars will pit and give television and radio the opportunity to interview drivers.
In a positive, bonus points will be awarded that carry over into the playoffs, making the regular season slightly more important. But the majority of the changes reek of desperation by a racing series experiencing an inexorable downward slide in popularity.
Blame the retirement of popular drivers. Blame the lack of on-track action. Blame the length of the season. Heck, blame Trump. That seems to be all the rage these days.
Whatever the reasons, NASCAR is struggling to not only hang on to its current fan base, but also to recruit new fans.
Let’s make one thing clear here. NASCAR is in no way in danger of losing its auto racing supremacy in North America to IndyCar or F1. Open-wheel racing’s heyday is gone, likely never to return. While IndyCar’s popularity is inching up, it’s still light years away from NASCAR’s popularity.
But if current trends continue, no manner of desperate adjustments to its racing format will return NASCAR to its glory days of the late 90s and early 2000s.
For whenever NASCAR head honcho Brian France calls me for my thoughts, I have compiled a list of changes that might pique my interest in stock car racing again…maybe.
1) Cut 12 cars from the field
Seriously, why do we need 40 cars in a race? Why do we need Gray Gaulding, Timmy Hill and Dylan Lupton (don’t lie, you didn’t even know these were NASCAR drivers) starting races to run in the back and be nothing more than moving chicanes?
Sure, some fans like how the good drivers have to come from the back after a pre-race engine change or an untimely flat tire puts them at the rear of the field, but drivers hate being back with the goobers who have absolutely no chance at winning a race.
Trim the field to 28 drivers, most of whom have a legit chance at competing up front with the right setup.
Cut the fat NASCAR.
2) Cut out 10 races
Of course, this would never happen because of cash money, but does NASCAR really have to race twice at Dover? Or Kansas? Or New Hampshire?
Those long, drawn-out races are an insomniac’s dream while continuing to drive away viewers. Less and less people are willing to sit in front of the television for four hours to watch a race with a minimal amount of passing at cookie-cutter tracks. The ratings and fan attendance is a testament to that.
Have 26 races. Two races at Daytona, Talladega and Bristol. One race everywhere else. Add two more road courses (Road America and Mosport) for increased diversity.
3) Ditch the annual Brickyard
Yeah, I said it.
Iconic venue? Of course.
Conducive to stock cars? No.
Attendance last year was an absolute embarrassment for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR and NBC. It’s a boring race on a track that will NEVER make the adjustments to its layout to make stock cars racier there. Why should it? Racing in its premier event in May remains sensational
Perhaps NASCAR could go there periodically. Make it a huge event on the schedule every third or fourth year. It will never get 300,000 people like the 500 does, but perhaps 100,000 would turn out for an event that utilizes an Olympics-style schedule.
4) Trim the length of races
A race length of 500 miles used to be sacred. Indy. Darlington. Daytona.
In 2016, NASCAR had nine races of lengths 500 miles or more, including at iconic venues (sarcasm) such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
Even IndyCar unwisely dabbles in 500-mile lengths elsewhere on its schedule (Pocono).
Not many people have the time to sit and watch four-plus hour races weekend after weekend. Even when they do, more and more people are deciding there are better things to do with their time.
Daytona and Charlotte should be the only races 500 miles or more. All others should be 400 or below.
5) Find the next superstars…quickly
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are gone.
Soon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and others will join them.
The unfortunate thing about being NASCAR a massive moneymaker for the last few decades is that its drivers do not need to race deep into middle age to secure their futures. Expect more and more drivers to opt to retire early and race on the local circuits to feed their fix while not dealing with the rigors of a NASCAR season that runs nearly 10 months long.
The young crop of drivers barely moves the needle in the personality department. Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott are good behind the wheel, but do not drum up the excitement of an Earnhardt or a Petty.
NASCAR is hoping that Daniel Suarez out of Mexico could emerge as a star and help tap into the massive auto racing crowd south of the border. But unless you’re a hard-core fan, this is the first you have ever heard of Mr. Suarez.
The disconnect between fans and the next crop of NASCAR stars is a big problem.
These changes might work, they may not. But they are more sensible ideas than the recent ones just implemented. Until drastic changes to the NASCAR product are made, I will continue to have many a summer Sunday open to do other things.
I’m not the only one.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Justin Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org.