By Kyle Stephens
The date is August 9, 2006. It’s a bright and sunny Wednesday morning in upstate New York. A young, 15-year-old kid is excitedly packing all of his Jeff Gordon attire, preparing to experience his first ever NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen International.
I helped my father pack the camper and meet with our group of local firefighters to set out for the two-and-a-half hour journey to New York’s Finger Lakes region.
I had two goals for that weekend: meet Jeff Gordon and get on TV at the SPEED Stage.
The SPEED Stage
Those of us who were fans in those days all remember shows like Trackside Live, NASCAR Smarts, and NASCAR Victory Lane. The majority of these shows were broadcast from the racetrack during the race weekend from the SPEED Stage, where fans could watch and be a part of these shows.
This became part of the fan and race weekend experience, with shows throughout the race weekend. The SPEED Stage shows were always interactive with the fans and made the experience enjoyable, and honestly could rank as a highlight of the weekend for some fans.
Whether it was getting on television, making signs for friends and family to see, getting free SPEED gear (hats, shirts, koozies), or getting to see and meet your favorite drivers and other NASCAR personalities, there was always something that the SPEED Stage offered – and it was entertaining for those watching at home as well.
Whether you were a fan of NASCAR or not, if you were watching one of the shows at the SPEED Stage the big crowd of people cheering and having a good time would inevitably lead you to think to yourself, “hey, I want to do that!”
Today these shows are broadcast in studios with zero fan interaction. Quite honestly it could be a huge part in why NASCAR has seen a decline in fan attendance.
A NASCAR race back in the 2000s was an entire weekend event. At Watkins Glen, for example, on Wednesday the camping gates would open to set up your home for the next four days.
Thursday saw no on track activity, however the haulers carrying the weekend’s high-octane chariots would arrive and settle into the garage and fans would gather to watch the hauler parade. Friday was the first day of on track activity, with practice and qualifying for the Xfinity and Cup Series, with the old Rolex Sports Car Series racing that evening.
Saturday would have the Cup Series’ practice sessions and the Xfinity race, with Sunday having the main event: the Cup Series race. Fans could camp all week and enjoy every moment of the race weekend experience.
Now, most race weekends are condensed into two or three days maximum with fewer can’t-miss fan experiences – and the ones that remain often conflict with each other within these compact weekend schedules. The result is fans having fewer moments to look forward to and enjoy on a race weekend and, with murmurs that more single-day shows are on tap in 2021, it appears that isn’t changing any time soon.
Now to the racing aspect. NASCAR has constantly attempted to produce a “better” on-track product to attempt to draw fans back to the sport. In reality, these efforts have served to only further push them away.
There’s no sensation quite like watching a racecar with the engine screaming at full song, barreling into a turn at over 200 miles per hour, with the driver pushing the car to the edge of its limits. In its quest to create “better” racing, NASCAR has reduced the engine’s horsepower – from 850 to 550 on tracks larger than 1 mile in length and 750 on short tracks – to try to bring the cars closer together.
These days, when running by themselves, a car might hit 185 miles per hour with drivers keeping the car wide open throughout the entire lap. In person, the speed and sound difference is noticeable to say the least, and not in a good way.
With the slower speeds, the mechanical wear on parts and pieces is reduced, which for teams is great financially, but for fans can hurt the overall racing. You don’t have to go far into NASCAR’s past to find the days when mechanical failures were part of almost every race.
Whether that was an engine blowing or a transmission failing, it would always keep fans on their toes about what the next lap had in store.
There has also been a significant reduction of crashes. Obviously, no one wants to see a driver crash and get hurt, however car-to-car contact and the subsequent crumpled sheet metal is part of the spectacle of stock car racing.
The days where a car would wind up in an accident, go behind the wall, have the entire front end removed and sent back out on the track are gone, a casualty of NASCAR’s “Damaged Vehicle Policy”, which gives teams only a few brief minutes to fix a battered car before showing them the exit.
Again, it wasn’t long ago that short track races would feature a wounded car making laps with an exposed engine and chassis tubing, looking like a mix between something from the movie “Mad Max” and a weekly modified, trying to salvage as many points out of the day as possible.
Some believe nothing has been lost with the absence of these busted and bent machines, but I would argue their loss is one of the many changes that have taken away from the character of the phenomenon that once won over the intrigue of millions.
In an attempt to draw fans back and try to do “damage control,” the powers at be in NASCAR have only continued to push fans away. Said powers seem to be trying too hard and overthinking every aspect to try to get these fans back. NASCAR needs to take a deep breath, relax and stop trying too hard.
The formula to rejuvenating the NASCAR race weekend, broken down to its core, is simple. Off the track, restore the fan experience; that means the entire race weekend and the can’t-miss elements they once had. On the track, restore the purity of the racing and with it the spectacular sights and drama that used to define stock car racing.
If, however, the powers that be continue to overthink what makes NASCAR exciting, and try too hard to manufacture it into something else, it will only push the fan base further away.