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Is Anybody Listening?
by Sally Baker
March 21, 2004

It's been an interesting week in NASCAR news. First was the discussion about installation of SAFER barriers at Darlington, taking away over 2 feet of the racing groove in the middle of both turns. Will the cars be able to run 2 wide, and will it change the racing at the venerable track.

I think the question that should be asked is, why Darlington before SAFER walls were installed at Pocono, Michigan, Atlanta, or Charlotte? Those are high-speed tracks that regularly have frightening crashes with serious and even fatal injuries. Shouldn't this new, pro-active, safety minded NASCAR be installing the walls first at the tracks where injuries are more likely? Even if Bruton Smith owns the tracks? I hope that politics and a famous feud aren't skewing priorities here.

Even more interesting was the news that TV ratings are noticeably down for the last 3 broadcasts this year. The media is speculating why this is happening, while NASCAR says it's too early to see a trend. I have a few ideas of my own about what's going on. I have no inside info, but I do have the perspective of a fan sitting in front of my TV, and here's what I think.

Several members of the print and Internet media (nothing from the networks so far) speculate that boring races are the culprit. If you look back over the years of NASCAR, it used to be routine for races to be won by laps, not seconds. Some smart crew chief would find an advantage (this was before templates and aero matching) and whomp on the competition until everyone else caught up. Long time fans (read, wrong demographic) expected this. The addition of so many cookie cutter tracks has just made racing parades more likely again.

I think many of the things affecting the ratings started before a car ever put a tire on the track this year. The growth in popularity has changed NASCAR. The crush of fans on pit road made it necessary to close them to spectators while teams and drivers are working on the track. The famous accessibility of drivers to the fans that made NASCAR so unique had to be controlled. Appearances and sponsor demands cut even further into the time drivers have to spend with regular fans…the ones in the grandstand, not the suites.

Recently, thanks to a football half time show (this being the sport NASCAR regards as the holy grail), drivers are being docked points for expressing their emotions with "R" rated words. Yes, I realize this ultimately comes from the FCC, and no, I don't think bad words are OK, so put away the pitchforks and torches. What bothers me is that no one has suggested the people with the microphones share the responsibility. PRN radio has instituted a 7-second delay to protect themselves. Television claims they don't want to lose the "spontaneity" of live interviews. If you make drivers censor how they feel, aren't you already losing that? Since TV already makes extensive use of videotape interviews, a delay with the ability to 'bleep' offensive language shouldn't make a big difference. So far, NASCAR says team radios and scanners are exempt, since fans can choose not to listen. If having a choice makes the difference, does that mean that FOX will have to censor or curtail entirely, the frequent promos for 'R' rated programming? Many of those don't even need words to be inappropriate for an 8-year-old.

It didn't escape my notice that Daytona is the only race where ratings were up over last year. NBC covered Daytona, FOX the races since then. Each network has their own approach to racing. NBC (in my opinion) takes a low key, professional approach, focusing on the track action. FOX (again, my opinion) a noisier 'flash and trash' method, using graphics, gimmicks, and a verbal assault of commentary to "add to the excitement" on the track. All I know is that it's more exhausting for me to watch a race on FOX than to sit through 500 laps live at Bristol. Maybe I'm not the only one that feels that way.

Since signing a wireless phone company as the new series sponsor, NASCAR has been reinventing itself to 'grow the sport'. To accomplish this, they have moved races out of the southeast to more desirable markets, targeted a new demographic as the ideal audience (males ages 18-34), and rewritten the formula to win a championship, and making it more like "traditional" sports. Apparently forgetting that the sport began with moonshiners running each other for bragging rights, they recently told a Cup team they couldn't use Redneckjunk.com, a web site that lists used race parts, as a team sponsor. They didn't project the right image. Excuse me? I find this even more galling as I watch the NASCAR ads "celebrating our history", while they run from it as far and as fast as they can!

I have one final thought about why ratings are down, one that I haven't heard from anywhere else. Could race fans be expressing their excitement over the new "Chase for the Championship"? When NASCAR first floated the trial balloon for the new format, fans were underwhelmed by the idea. Online polls, letters, wherever fans could voice an opinion, reactions were negative. Brian France TOLD fans that once we were educated, we would LOVE IT! Telling us Richard Petty won his 7 titles using 4 or 5 different point systems doesn't wash. Every title he won went from the first race of the season to the last, with no contrived reset of the points. Fans could smell this stinker a mile away.

Just in case NASCAR is feeling smug that attendance is up, they should remember this. Most tracks require that you buy tickets for the next season almost before they throw the checkered flag for this year's race. Tickets for this season had to be purchased before the new championship format was revealed. The acid test of the "New NASCAR", after the falling TV ratings, will be in ticket sales for 2005. Maybe the old fans that Brian France finds so distasteful, and ignores, have finally found a way to make their voices heard in a way that's hard to ignore. Is anybody listening?

You can send Sally email right here.

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