LLANO, Tex. — After a few weeks of living in Columbus, Ga., in the ‘70s, I found myself immersed in a culture jarringly different from my own background. Men talked of going to a NASCAR race in the afternoon and a cockfight that night.
Did I ever hear of dogfighting? No, but was I shocked by Michael Vick’s crime? Not so much. This was the real South, baby, and as we all know, it has its unsavory traditions.
Contrary to what I expected, I found that NASCAR was not one of the southern barbarisms, though it was broadly brushed as the sport of illiterates. That’s because its origin was bootlegging – rapid hauling of “moonshine” (homemade booze) – and drivers chewed tobacco and talked dumb, as in, “Ah blowed a tar.”
But as I toured the garages and mingled with the teams, I could see there was ingenuity and amazing resourcefulness in modifying and repairing these cars and doing whatever you have to do to restrictor plates.
NASCAR worked because it incorporated (literally) some wonderful American myths, with a few grains of truth. Men retooling 5-year-old Fairlanes into road-gobbling beasts. Fearless warriors tangling bumper to bumper, lives on the line.
I liked the way a support group, almost a cult, would grow around all the top 20 or so drivers. This was the one sport that knew how to connect its stars to their fans. Even before he was winning Sprint Cup races, I could wear a Martin Truex Jr. T-shirt at any NASCAR track and instantly make friends.
Ten years ago, NASCAR was booming, having busted through the Mason-Dixon Line. Jeff Gordon, a Californian/Indianan, became one of the sport’s greatest stars, turned it mainstream as he repeatedly hosted Saturday Night Live.
But the past ten years have seen an unimaginable reversal. As Sunday’s Daytona 500 approaches, NASCAR is perceived by those who know it best as being in a death spiral.
It’s losing its identity and alienating those who potentially could identify with it.
Daytona Speedway has 58,000 fewer seats than a decade ago. NASCAR no longer announces attendance, because it’s so embarrassing. But publicly owned racetracks, required by law to disclose their finances, report ticket revenues down 50 percent from 2006 levels.
A return to growth is unlikely because NASCAR is shunned by millennials. Its base is two decades older than the 18-34 demographic advertisers covet.
So where did it go off track?
At the top. NASCAR chairman Brian France lacks the vision of his ancestors. In 2006 he rolled out his Car of Tomorrow and dashed the myth of the garage entrepreneur. The standardized chassis brought more safety and parity of competition, but the teams and fans hated it because it took away individuality, creativity, pride of brand. No more Ford vs. Chevy.
The reality was that long before then, stock cars ceased being stock cars. The Malibu on the race track was as much like the one in your driveway as an F-16 resembles a Cessna. But the myth seemed real, and of course perception is more important than reality.
If all the cars must be the same, that’s communism. And nothing is less NASCAR than communism.
France has turned off The Base by endlessly tinkering with the championship format. He wanted “a series of Game 7s” – a tournament of elimination to make the season’s end more climactic than the Great American Race that begins it.
He doesn’t see that car-racing is not like basketball or tennis, where success in one week transfers to the next. Some popular stars inevitably stumble on the way to the main stage. One or two bad days wipe out eight months of brilliance. My distant cousin Martin was favored to win the 2016 Cup but was eliminated before the quarter-finals, as was fellow four-race winner Brad Keselowski.
Disgruntled fans like me say there’s too much change and confusion. In case you missed it: no more Sprint Cup, it’s now the Monster Energy Cup.
Another change this year: Races will be in three segments, with points awarded for rankings in each stage, and a commercial break between them. And then you start all over again. Lots of contrivance to manufacture a tight finish.
Ed Hinton, a colleague who may be the best-ever writer of NASCAR, says it “actually became what critics have long called it: just a bunch of cars going around in circles.” He told The Guardian: “I don’t think it can recover.”
Instead of trying to add to The Base, France pandered to it by endorsing Donald Trump for president a year ago. France seemed untroubled when Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty delivered a bizarre invocation at Texas Motor Speedway: “I pray, Father, that we put a Jesus-Man in the White House.”
Democrats were incensed because he ruled out Hillary Clinton, as a Jesus-Woman. It was the sort of chauvinistic, if stunningly honest, rhetoric that most of Corporate America abhors but Trump America wildly applauds.
I don’t applaud it, but considering all the other nonsense that’s out there, I can live with a duck commander thanking Jesus for giving us guns.
I can only pray that at the next race in Fort Worth he’s not thanking the Lord for nuclear bombs. As I see it, Cmdr. Robertson has paid a Brink’s truckload for his free speech, no matter how ill considered it may be. A man’s entitled to his heresies. If a race producer wants to go public with them, he earned the right.
Are liberals worried that multitudes will be swayed by him? Seriously? I’m more concerned about what’s happening on the track.
Keselowski sees the segmented format as natural evolution of the sport. He says shortening attention spans require “bursts of speed” and that “endurance sports are declining.”
But Brad, that’s what the Daytona 500 is all about: endurance.
I watch the early part to see how the various cars and crews are working to set up the finish. It’s always a dramatic story, one I preferred to cover to almost all others. To me it’s The Greatest Four Hours in Sports. But obviously that’s not how Brian France sees it. I expect that in another year or two the Daytona 500 will be The 400.