Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 21, 2016

Fast Cars Can’t Stop NASCAR’s Slow Slide

Here’s a variation on the old philosophical thought question about a tree falling in the forest. If NASCAR stages a Sprint Cup race and there’s no one there to watch it, do the engines make any sound? Okay it wasn’t quite that bad at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon last weekend; but for stock car racing a season that began at Daytona in February with hope for an upward turn from the sport’s steady slide in popularity over the past several years has instead turned into more of the same – too many dull races in front of too few fans.

When it was built in 1989 the one mile oval was the first new major speedway in the country in two decades. Originally known as New Hampshire International Speedway, the track provided seating for more than 100,000. Once NASCAR started bringing its premier series to New England fans flocked from all around the region, producing a long string of sold out races. The recession of the last decade put an end to that, just about the time that Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motor Sports, Inc., purchased the facility from original owner Bob Bahre. But the occasional patch of empty grandstand still allowed the track to boast that it hosted the two largest sporting events in New England with the Sprint Cup races in July and September.

In a slowly recovering economy corporate sponsors didn’t rush back into racing, and the staggering cost of fielding a team at the sport’s highest level took a toll on many marginal operations. To make matters worse, the standardized chassis design known as the Car of Tomorrow, introduced full time for the 2008 season, produced boxy vehicles that looked identical except for their paint schemes and were particularly hard to handle. The result was cautious racing with less passing, an on-track product that gave fans little reason to spend their hard-earned dollars on a weekend at the track.

The Generation 6 car, introduced in 2013, was supposed to fix the problems brought on by the Car of Tomorrow, which NASCAR Chairman Brian France has acknowledged was a failure. There has been positive fan response to the appearance of the new vehicles, but NASCAR has been unable to settle on an aerodynamic and downforce package, repeatedly changing the setup of the chassis as it desperately attempts to produce more exciting racing. The boast is that the Gen-6 cars have shortened the average margin of victory to 1.267 seconds, the lowest in more than a decade. But at 150 miles per hour, a typical straightaway speed at a short track like New Hampshire, that translates into almost 280 feet, or just less than the length of a football field. Not exactly an edge of one’s seat thrilling finish.

Of course every race unfolds on its own. At the start of the season the Daytona 500 saw Denny Hamlin edge Martin Truex Jr. by no more than six inches, the closest finish in the history of the Great American Race. Unfortunately the far more typical result has been along the lines of last weekend’s New Hampshire 301, in which Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag while runner-up Tony Stewart was well up the front straight. Nor is the lack of close finishes the only problem. The lead on Sunday was shared among just six cars, and two of them led for but a single lap.

The sport is also suffering from a driver deficit. The two most popular Sprint Cup drivers are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick. Both garner huge cheers during driver introductions and sell lots of merchandise. Indeed the Earnhardt section took up almost half of the entire merchandise tent at Loudon last weekend. But he is currently just barely among the drivers who would qualify for the season-ending Chase for the Championship, and can earn no points while he is out of the car recovering from concussion symptoms; and Patrick sits 24th in the standings, well outside the sixteen Chase spots. The decision by Hendrick Motorsports to have Jeff Gordon come out of retirement to fill in for Earnhardt for the next two weeks has created some excitement; but no one should seriously expect Gordon to be competitive as a part-time driver. Meanwhile fan favorite Tony Stewart is scheduled to join Gordon on the sidelines at the end of this season.

Perhaps a new young driver will rise up to excite fans once again. Twenty year old Chase Elliott, now in his rookie Sprint Cup season in Gordon’s old number 24, is one possible candidate. In each of the last two seasons Elliot was voted by fans as the most popular driver in the developmental Xfinity Series. But the penchant of a handful of Sprint Cup drivers, notably Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, to do double duty and drive in Xfinity races most weekends undermines the very purpose of that series, namely to develop the next generation of NASCAR stars.

The result of all these issues was plain to see at Loudon. Two years ago Speedway Motorsports made a conscious decision to reduce seating capacity, removing several sections of the grandstand that used to wrap around Turn Three. Last year they eliminated still more seating by covering half of another section with an advertising banner. As a result New Hampshire Motor Speedway now lists its seating capacity as 88,000. It’s been a similar story at other tracks. Daytona dressed up its downsizing efforts as “Daytona Rising,” an effort to improve the overall fan experience. But one of the “improvements” was eliminating the grandstands on the back stretch, thus reducing seating from 167,000 to 101,000. Richmond International Raceway, which once seated 112,000, has slashed capacity to little more than half that number.

Despite those efforts, anyone tuning into a Sprint Cup race this season on either Fox or NBC has seen cars racing by empty seats. Sunday at Loudon was no different. The occasional patch of empty grandstand has now been replaced by swaths of vacant seats. What was once the home of the largest annual sporting events in the region must now stand behind any Patriots home game played at a jam-packed Gillette Stadium. Unfortunately for NASCAR, nothing that happened on the track last weekend gave one reason to think those empty seats will be filling up anytime soon.

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