Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 16, 2020

Going Nowhere Fast At Daytona

There is a point on Interstate 4, just as the road that most Floridians love to hate approaches its northern terminus at I-95, where the highway elevates to cross over the wide lanes of the road it’s about to join. A driver traveling north and looking straight ahead has a clear view, just before the sweeping left turn that will bring the two heavily traveled highways together, of the grandstand at Daytona International Speedway. It’s brief, assuming one is paying proper attention to the task at hand, but if one has never been to this most famous of all stock car racetracks, the sight conjures up images of NASCAR legends, from Petty and Allison to Yarborough and Earnhardt, on to more recent times with Waltrip and then Gordon, all accelerating around the huge tri-oval, the roar of dedicated fans packed into those stands drowned out only by the wall of deep guttural sound generated by the massive V-8 engines under the hoods of the race cars.

Summoning all that into one’s mind on the strength of a momentary view of the Speedway’s grandstand rearing up above the tree line in the distance requires imagination, which explains why the experience came to mind this weekend. As NASCAR began its 2020 season with Sunday’s scheduled 62nd running of the Daytona 500, fans of the world’s premier stock car racing circuit needed active imaginations to convince themselves that their sport is thriving.

There are, it must be said, millions of those fans, spread across all fifty states and many other countries. But the steady growth of the sport during a period when NASCAR expanded from a largely regional enterprise to one with broad national appeal that seemed poised to become a major national pastime is now a rapidly fading memory. The story in recent seasons has instead been one of retrenchment. Sponsors have fled the extremely expensive sport, costing drivers their rides and causing entire racing teams to fold. Danica Patrick, the only woman driver at NASCAR’s top level and one of its most popular figures, retired when Stewart Haas Racing was unable to find sponsorship for her to continue behind the wheel. Furniture Row Racing, always a shoestring operation but one that fielded a champion in 2017 when Martin Truex Jr. dominated the sport with eight wins, was shuttered just one year later. NASCAR is even forgoing a single title sponsor for its main series, which is now the generic NASCAR Cup, with multiple “premier partners.”

It hasn’t just been corporate dollars exiting the sport, as casual fans have also moved on to other entertainments. In advance of the Sunday afternoon start of this year’s 500, Fox Sports made sure to point out that the stands at Daytona were sold out for the big race for the fifth year in a row. What wasn’t mentioned was that the entirety of that string came after Daytona International Speedway drastically reduced its seating capacity. A grandstand along the back stretch was torn down, and seating in the main front stretch sections was reconfigured, resulting in the loss of nearly 50,000 seats. Similar demolition projects have taken place at numerous other tracks across the country, and NASCAR stopped announcing attendance figures for its races. But in the absence of official figures, the swaths of empty seats visible on the television coverage of every race in recent years has been silent evidence of the sport’s diminished standing.

And it’s not just fans in the stands who are missing. Last year’s Daytona 500 drew a television audience of 9 million. That sounds impressive until it’s set against last decade, when the race averaged 16 to 19 million viewers. As recently as 2013, when Patrick started on the pole, 16.5 million fans tuned in.

The retirement of many of stock car racing’s most recognizable names has only added to NASCAR’s problems. In addition to Patrick, Tony Stewart switched from driver to full-time team owner after the 2016 season. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were both at Daytona on Sunday, but Gordon was in the Fox Sports broadcast booth, and Junior’s role was limited to waving the green flag at the start of the race. The list of former greats will grow longer at the end of this season, when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson parks the #48 Chevrolet for the final time.

Change is constant in every sport, and diehard racing fans speak of a cadre of young drivers who represent the sport’s future. Twenty-four-year-old Chase Elliott has been named NASCAR’s most popular drive the last two years, though that likely has as much to do with his pedigree – he’s the son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott – as with his success on the track, where he finally scored his first victory in 2018, in his 99th race driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott’s record is representative, as no young driver has yet broken through to stake a claim as NASCAR’s next hero.

That all adds up to a sport in transition, even more so because multiple track sanctioning agreements end this year, opening the door to major schedule changes in 2021. In addition, NASCAR has already announced that next season will see the introduction of the Next Gen car, a new configuration with the stated aims of being cheaper to put on the track and closer in appearance to the street model nameplates that manufacturers will use to designate their racing vehicles. These steps could be positive, though they are a far cry from the grand plans for expanding into new markets and growing the sport’s fanbase that the France family who controls NASCAR dreamt of not that long ago. The focus on next year also diminishes the current season.

So the fates may have given NASCAR exactly what it deserved on Sunday. Although the radar was mostly clear around Daytona, rain showers kept popping up in the area of the Speedway. The field was on its final warmup lap, getting ready to go racing, when the first wave came through. That stopped the race before it even started, and the hour delay while the track was dried surely sent many television viewers looking for something else to watch. Then after just twenty laps the rains returned, eventually forcing the postponement of this year’s Daytona 500 until Monday. Perhaps NASCAR’s 2020 season will get off to a successful start a day late. But for now, such a happy outcome requires a lot of imagination.

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