The view from my couch

Why Racing?
by Sally Baker
October 4, 2004

The latest Hot Topic for debate in NASCAR has been the “soft” ratings of the race broadcasts over the past few weeks. After the Richmond race (the final “race for the race for the…oh, whatever) NASCAR went on a media blitzkrieg, parading the Chosen 10 around LA and New York City (a fashion show?) to sell potential viewers on how exciting and dramatic their new gimmick to crown a mini champion was going to be. (OK, I confess, I'm not thrilled with the new point thing, in case you hadn't guessed.) NASCAR has smugly related how many more media passes they are issuing for each race as the measure of how much coverage the new format is getting. Brian France assured everyone last January that his new, almost a playoff would attract “casual fans” in droves. Judging by ratings so far, no matter how shrilly NASCAR and the media are selling, the fans, casual or otherwise, aren't buying. I imagine Talladega will show better numbers, taking into account the Disaster Potential and heavy emphasis in TV promotions of The Big One.

I've heard more spin and rationalization for this phenomenon than any political campaign can boast. I've heard the lack of heavy betting on racing affects the numbers. Wait until it plays out. Hurricane Ivan is to blame. I can almost buy the Hurricane Defense, since it created massive power outages and flooding in the southeast. BUT, NASCAR has been telling fans how “oversaturated” that market is (no pun intended). That's why they took race dates from Rockingham and Darlington and moved them to the “underserved' areas of the country starved for Cup racing. Shouldn't those high population major markets be taking up the slack in the ratings by now? Isn't that why many of these changes were made in the first place? Areas outside the southeast are supposed to be the future of NASCAR, taking it to that now infamous NEXT LEVEL!

Perhaps the question the bean counters in Daytona should be asking themselves is what drew people to watch racing in the first place? Why do they follow a 36 race NASCAR season instead of football or baseball? Was the only important thing for all those years of growth was who would win the championship, rather than each individual race?

I obviously can't speak for everyone, but I can tell you how I got my best friend hooked on NASCAR. About 6 years ago she agreed to give me a home perm. It worked out that she had the time to do it as I was watching the race at Charlotte. To keep her attention from wandering (thus preventing, I hoped, a major hair malfunction), I started telling her about racing. I didn't try to explain points or rules, I talked about the people. I told her about 4 generations of racing Pettys, the brothers Labonte, Wallace, Waltrip and Burton, Parrots and Pembertons, the people that are the lifeblood of the sport. I told her about the famous fistfight at Daytona, the personalities and characters that built the sport. The tradition. The history. She stayed to watch the end of the race with me, and has been a fan ever since, schlepping 1300 miles to Bristol with me twice a year.

As NASCAR carpets the media and reinvents itself to attract the “casual” fans, have they lost sight of why people chose NASCAR over football or baseball in the first place? In becoming politically correct to appeal to everyone, have they sacrificed the difference, the color, the personalities, the vaguely “outlaw” feel that it carried over from its roots in running moonshine? More importantly, without that difference, is there any reason to watch racing instead of football? So far, the TV numbers would indicate they have lost something, and haven't a clue what it is.

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