Tough Times Ahead for NASCAR
February is a weird time of year for sports fans like myself who, at least partially, tend to build the rhythm of life around sporting events (I know I’m not alone; if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of me). The NFL schedule is over (don’t talk to me about the pro bowl) and major league baseball doesn’t begin in earnest until March when the spring training games begin. Of course, I love college basketball, but even with all the games available on TV, there still seems to be a void at this time of the winter.
Personally, that void was always filled by NASCAR. Don’t ask me why; people who know me will tell you that I’m not a “car guy”. I have an idea what ‘a round of wedge’ means, but I couldn’t tell you specifically how it works. If I had to venture a guess regarding my fascination with stock car racing, I would say it’s probably because the NASCAR season tends to extend at the pace of professional football, with the weekend events being appointment viewing. I believe it’s also because the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s Super Bowl if you will, fits into this ‘February window’.
My favorite race of the season, though, was always the first one; one that didn’t even count in the points standings. The Budweiser Shootout. A full-out sprint to the finish reserved for the prior year’s pole winners (and selected others). The idea of a win at all costs mentality in a short race without (much) regard for pit stategy or (even worse!) gas mileage, and none at all for points standings, appealed to me. For me, having come late to the game, the face of the sport was always Dale Earnhardt. I watched him grow up in the sport, developing from the reckless, determined driver to the savvy veteran champion; often respected, sometimes loathed, but always feared. His style was reflected in The Shootout and I think that’s why I liked both of them.
The point of all this is because I didn’t even realize The Shootout was held last night until I read a blurb in the MJS racing blog this morning. (My time last night was spent watching the UWGB/UWM basketball game which, as usual, went down to the wire.) The last few years I could sense my interest in the sport waning. It began with the premature death of Earnhardt, of course. Most of the drivers who survived him (with the exception of Tony Stewart) have largely filled the corporate image NASCAR increasingly wants to project. It continued last year with the introduction of the so-called ‘Car of Tomorrow’, further homogenizing the series. NASCAR’s meteoric rise to prominence occurred because of it’s ability to attract lucrative corporate sponsorship at the expense of much of it’s personality. Now, ironically, with the economy in the tank, that partnership will likely affect NASCAR more than other sports. And to their detriment, they will no longer have the characters to draw casual fans like myself back into the fold.