Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: NASCAR hopes to recapture its pre-recession popularity

As late as Wednesday afternoon, the Web site for The Sporting News -- one of the finer national resources for racing coverage -- had the following headline as its top motorsports story: "NASCAR to debut new track dryer."

If that doesn't get you ready for some racin', what will?

In fairness, the NASCAR season has a way of sneaking up on a lot of us. And as the weekend approached, culminating with today's Daytona 500 qualifying, plenty of new headlines popped up to signal the start of another Sprint Cup campaign. Among them:

  • The new Gen-6 car, built to look more like the ones you see in showrooms, makes its anticipated debut.
  • Brad Keselowski opens the season as the young, swashbuckling defending champion.
  • Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. discuss their love connection and the issues it could create on the track for the two Cup rookies.

But the most important question entering 2013 is a familiar one: Can NASCAR recapture anything close to the popularity it had before the recession put the skids on years of unprecedented growth?

This is Year 3 of chairman Brian France's five-year plan to "fix" the sport, an endeavor that began after the powers that be finally realized their gravy train had some lumps. So far, so bad.

Attendance and ratings dropped sharply last year as NASCAR continued its tumble farther out of the mainstream. Empty seats at tracks across the country are troubling for NASCAR, but that isn't the biggest problem. After all, most sports these days are experiencing drops in attendance.

Money's tight. Home theater systems have made viewing events from home as good as or better than being there, especially given the cost and hassle of getting in and out of many racing venues.

No, the problem is that most people don't want to sample the product for free. The Sporting News -- see, I told you're they're a good racing resource -- reported in November that NASCAR viewership was down 10 percent from the previous year. That included a 25-percent drop in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic.

In a lot of ways, NASCAR has a problem similar to the one minor league hockey experienced in Roanoke. The popularity grew to a point that was unsustainable. Once the boom stopped, nobody knew what was realistic any more.

In NASCAR's case, what's realistic is bringing back people who enjoy watching cars go in circles but have been turned off by the sport's lust for luring casual fans and maximizing profits.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here is a post on my blog last August from a longtime NASCAR fan identifying himself "shaun": "I am one of the 2,000 fans on NASCAR's fan council focus group, and all they ever ask is marketing questions like, 'What driver makes you want to buy a product?' or 'Who has the best look of any new driver?' REALLY!!! Plain to me they don't care about the racing."

The Gen-6 car is an effort to change that. We've heard some positive reviews from drivers, but we won't know anything substantial until the third race of the season, when the series heads to Las Vegas. The 1.5-mile "cookie-cutter" tracks such as Vegas are plentiful. In the eyes of many fans, they're the bane of the sport, creating boring races without enough passing.

Perhaps the Gen-6 car will change that. Perhaps not.

"A car can't save the sport, much like a driver can't save the sport," Keselowski told reporters in Bristol on Tuesday. "All the pieces together can really help the sport. But all the pieces have to be together, and that's why it's so important for the sport to really unify at this time."

He's right. The best storylines in sports are organic. Lehigh didn't upset Duke last March because the NCAA tournament changed any rules. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper didn't captivate the baseball world last summer by using some new bat.

For NASCAR to recover from its recent swoon, it'll need help from the personalities and the machines. Nobody wants another season of watching tracks dry.

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