The Fastest Car Wins

The Indy Star published an article last year that offered five theories as to why attendance at NASCAR races is on the decline across the country. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can seat 250,000 people and they used to fill them all. At their last race there were 50,000 fans that came out. Still a lot of people, but 4 out of 5 seats were empty! Those in the business admit they are worried about the future of the sport.

“Like everyone else, I don’t want to get too far away from the racing because as time progresses, we’re trying to get new fans and still keep the old fans and we’ve still got to have the racing.”

Richard Petty

So, what’s the explanation for why people are not going to the track like they used to? Let’s take a look at the explanations given in the article:

  • The first explanation is getting a bit dated now. We had a recession in 2008 and gas prices were above $4 a gallon. (Nine years have passed and gas prices are back down. This argument is simply no longer relevant.)
  • The fan’s favorite drivers are retiring or getting close… i.e. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth. (I can’t imagine the sport without the above four could touch the absence of people like Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, or Bobby Allison, let alone the day Dale Earnhardt died. NASCAR survived the departure of them all without suffering from a decline in attendance.)
  • Technology makes keeping up with a race on a device preferable to buying a seat. (I would agree this is having an effect. To the extent that 80 percent of the seats at Indianapolis were empty at the last race, I doubt technology could account for it all.)
  • Souvenir haulers have been replaced with a merchandise tent area. (This is by far the weakest explanation given.)
  • The rule changes, points and playoff system of 2014. (Now we’re getting to the bottom of the problem.)

(It should be noted the explanations above are actually the results of a USA Today survey and not the opinion of the writer.)

NASCAR has made so many rule changes since the attendance began declining it’s impossible to keep up. Then, three years ago they changed the playoff system to favor a “final four” disrespecting the drivers and the fans of those drivers that consistently race well.

On top of everything comes Monday night’s press conference where NASCAR announced plans to change the whole thing again. Here is one published explanation of the newest change:

“The overhaul announced Monday assigns three stages to every race. The top 10 drivers at the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 will be awarded points on a 10-through-1 scale. The third portion of the race will be for the overall victory, and although traditional point scoring will be applied for that stage, the win will be worth 40 points. The rest of the field will be scored on a 35 to 2 scale, and positions 36th to 40 will only receive 1 point. All bonus points accumulated through the 26-race regular season can be used in the 10-race playoff, which will no longer be called ‘The Chase.’”

Granted the changes put the focus back on consistent performance throughout the season and not just the number of checkered flags toward the end, and granted the changes have the stamp of approval from many of the drivers.

It’s my humble opinion as a race fan having lived more than half a century in a racing town, this new system makes keeping up with a race more difficult than doing taxes.

No matter how you “cipher” the numbers, no matter how complicated you get, ultimately the fan that buys a ticket, drives to the track and commits the investment of time and expense to be entertained by a sport on 4-wheels running around in circles is interested in the experience of witnessing the power of fast cars competing to see who is the fastest. This complicated system that takes a computer and a statistician to keep track is a distraction and NASCAR can’t seem to come up with enough of them.

The new format begins with the February 26th season-opening Daytona 500.


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