NASCAR has a problem on its hands. The races seem dull, and TV ratings are down. But the worst part is that the experience of seeing a race in person isn’t enough to draw in new fans anymore.
I experienced that last part first-hand this past weekend.
I made my annual pilgrimage down to Dover’s Chase race with my dad. We’ve been going to Dover at least once a year since 1997. It’s our favorite track. It’s our Disney World. We try to share it with as many people as possible. This year we brought my cousin to experience his first race.
He’s a fan of the traditional stick-and-ball sports. He’ll watch anything that ESPN shows, but he’ll flip off ESPN when NASCAR comes on. He’s never been interested in sitting down and watching a race on TV, but if the opportunity arose, he’d love to go see a race in person. After many years of saying this, he finally got the opportunity when my girlfriend wasn’t able to make the race. He had a free ticket to come with us to Dover International Speedway for the AAA 400. And he took it.
We picked him up Saturday morning in New Jersey and drove on down to Dover. We got our tickets for the Nationwide Series’ One Main Financial 200 and then walked onto the steeply-banked front straightaway of the Monster Mile. We walked around, took group pictures, and signed the inside pit-wall.
We walked off the track and got ready for NNS qualifying. We stayed near the fence so that he could hear and feel NASCAR. When that first car went roaring by his eyes lit up and a huge smile went across his face. I thought to myself “We’ve hooked another one.” I said the same thing in 2009 when I brought my girlfriend to Dover for the first time. I was right then, and figured I was right again this time.
We went to the Fan Zone outside of turn four and browsed all the vendors. My cousin, my brother, my friend Eric, and I raced the simulator in the Sprint display and wagered five dollars on the race. I had the lead for the last two and a half laps until we got to turn three. I’m ashamed to say that I lost. My cousin, the NASCAR-newbie, got by me entering turn three on the last lap and went on to win. He walked out of the simulator with an additional 15 bucks in his wallet and a smile on his face.
Joey Logano dominated the NNS race. He led 184 of 200 laps. Anytime someone looked like they had anything for Logano, something happened to them. Justin Allgaier was closing in on Logano but broke the track-bar. Sam Hornish Jr. was closing in on Logano but had a tire go flat and had to pit.
When I asked my cousin what he thought of the race he said, “That kind of domination has to be respected, but it wasn’t very exciting.”
We arrived at the track the next morning with beautiful weather above us and a fun day ahead of us.
We hung around the large statue of Miles the Monster and talked with a friend from nascar.com for a good 40 minutes. While chatting, my cousin saw something he wouldn’t normally see at a football game. A man walked by wearing pajama pants that had patches of every race track he’s ever been to sewn onto them. He had a Dale Earnhardt Jr. work shirt on, and a ridiculous hat. The hat was Junior’s car with figurines of Earnhardt Sr.’s pit crew members as well as about five mini-American flags. He walked around with a megaphone yelling to anyone who would listen that “We need to get Obama out of office to save NASCAR.” My cousin laughed really hard while trying to figure out how Mitt Romney would save NASCAR.
We went up to our seats high in turn four and listened to Kenny Wallace do the funniest driver introductions of all time. “He drives the number 39 ARMY Chevrolet. I call him ‘No Neck’, Ryan Newman!”
The Sprint Cup race was honestly one of the worst races I’ve ever seen at Dover. Midway through the race my cousin got up to go get food. I turned to my dad and said, “I bet he’s saying to himself ‘I can’t believe I gave up watching football at home for this.” My dad said, “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
The race just wasn’t good. There was almost no passing, barely any side-by-side racing, and it came down to fuel mileage. It didn’t help that a caution came out in the middle of green-flag pit stops and messed up the whole dynamic of the race.
On the bus back to our car at the Blue Hen Corporate Center I asked my cousin if the two races this weekend were enough to make him want to watch the next race on TV this Sunday. I told him to be brutally honest. He said, “Honestly, no. It wasn’t. It was hard to follow. There didn’t seem to be much action, and I don’t like that the fastest car didn’t win.”
I then asked if the experience of the weekend was fun enough to make him come to another race. He said, “It was certainly a different experience. It was a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I’ll be at another race in the near future. Maybe I’ll come again in a few years, but I’m not sure. There’s nothing like the sound of those cars and the feeling when they rush by you, but I don’t know if I’ll be back.”
That is a problem for NASCAR. For years people would say to me that they don’t “get” NASCAR. I’d say to them, “You won’t get it until you go”, and in most cases I’m right. My girlfriend hated NASCAR for the longest time, but when I finally got her to go in 2009 she was hooked. But it certainly helped that she saw a good race. But this season the product hasn’t been good. Or even decent. It’s been mediocre at best. I can count the amount of good races in 2012 on one hand. But normally the experience of seeing a race in person is good enough to keep people interested and attract new viewers. Taking in a NASCAR race in person is unlike any other sporting event. But when a going to a race isn’t enough for someone, especially someone who is open-minded towards the experience, there’s a big problem.
With TV ratings down, NASCAR needs it’s product to deliver for those people that are in the grandstands. When it doesn’t deliver, something needs to be done.
Hopefully for NASCAR, the 2013 cars will fix many of the problems plaguing the competition. If it doesn’t, NASCAR is in serious trouble.