NASCAR is going through an identity crisis. Can it be fixed?

NASCAR is one of those sports that you either really love or really hate.

It’s true that the sport did derive, in some part, from the moonshining industry. When Prohibition was over, there had to be some sort of way to use these souped-up vehicles and driving know-how. The sport is proudly Southern in its roots. It’s honestly inevitable that pride would show up in the sport’s growth.

The France family first established NASCAR in the 1940’s, filling a void that was much-needed in the region, which up to that point, suffered from lack of centralization. NASCAR quickly gained fame in the Southeast for racing at exotic venues, such as the beachfront of Daytona.

There are a lot of great names and personalities associated with NASCAR’s growth from regional curiosity to national sport, including Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Richard Petty… the list is endless.

The moment that brought NASCAR to the map, coincidentally, was the first Daytona 500 to ever be broadcast on TV. On the last lap, Cale Yarborough and Donny Allison were competing for the pole position and managed to crash one another in the backstretch. Richard Petty took advantage and won the race, but no one really remembers that.

They remember this (around the 3:30 mark, though you’ll definitely want to watch the lead up for a great race call):

For the first time, much of the country was introduced to the fiery personalities behind the drivers and the intensity of driving 500 miles at breakneck speeds. The danger is rather a part of the appeal and if you can package it in a little “down home fun,” that’s all the better.

But somewhere along the way, NASCAR lost itself. It could have a lot to do with the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt was the last of his era, an old-school driver that literally invented a new way of racing that was revolutionary at the time and is taken a lot for granted today. His death shattered the sport and its fanbase for the entire season and then some. It forced the sport to find its way, to find a way to decide where to go next.

But at the same time, this sudden transition brought about a new opportunity.

The series had been building a steady audience for a while and in the early 2000’s, sports media and popular media outlets were known to take chances on finding “extreme” sports to exploit. The X Games started in the late-1990’s and had brilliant success. AND-1 was on TV. SNowboarding was added as an Olympic sport.

EA Sports BIG started producing the NFL Street and NBA Street franchises. The Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchise competed with Madden (yes, MADDEN) for cultural relevancy.It was hip to be off-mainstream.

NASCAR, with an already strong and loyal base, had a simple philosophy (drive hard and win) that could attract a new generation of fans and enough personalities and narratives that could be expressed to an audience to make it the perfect vessel for broadcast television.

NASCAR hit a zenith in its national popularity as soon as the Frances signed their contracts with FOX, TNT and ESPN. People could not get enough of it.T-shirts, hats, and die-cast cars flew off the shelves just as quickly as they could go up.

NASCAR expanded into areas that previously did not have tracks, including Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri.They added more dates in places like Michigan and New Hampshire. Finally, after 50 years as a fringe regional sport, NASCAR had it all.

Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and the Busch brothers came up and carried the mantle for the new generation as ambassadors for the sports and the brands they represented.

Movies like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Cars” either directly or indirectly involved elements of NASCAR.

But ultimately, the sport simply could not sustain its success; television was precisely what became its undoing.

This isn’t to say it should never have been televised. There most certainly is a market for it. That being said, the sport itself is a victim to the media market as a whole. Not many people are willing to sit through three to four hours to watch a race anymore on a television, especially not in a market that offers you (multiple) sporting events that last half as long at your fingertips.

TL;DR version: NASCAR is in a bad spot and it’s there because they tried to manufacture the stakes, a mistake that thus far, baseball (which serves as a great analog to NASCAR) has not made.

Let me take you through all the changes. It’s important to understand just how far away the sport has departed form its original “drive and survive” format.

In 2004, a couple of years into their new contract, they shifted the championship structure so that there would be a “Chase” for the trophy. This worked out well enough for a year or two; 10 drivers raced the last 10 or so races and the one with the most points at the end won. But, drivers were still finding ways to clinch before the end of the year or drivers outside the top 10 would wind up dominating the races.

So NASCAR changed the Chase format. Now, 12 drivers could qualify and they would start with an even amount of points. For every regular season win, they got 10 additional points to start. Drive as normal, a champion would be crowned. Still, there were problems.

NASCAR bent to the pressure again. The Chase was still 12 drivers, you could still get bonus points for regular season wins. Except now, they introduced eliminations. If your driver did really well the last eight races of the playoffs but was eliminated, too bad so sad, you had no chance. Even this was not to the sport’s liking. The fans wanted wins.

NASCAR again went to the drawing board. Now, if a driver won a race in the season, they were guaranteed a playoff spot. Each additional win after that, more bonus points to start. If there were not enough drivers with wins, points would be the determining factor for the last however many spots. Eliminations were still a thing.

Well, throw that out the window now.

This year, NASCAR introduced sweeping changes. They’re rather hard to describe, but I’ll try: essentially, every race is a playoff race. Each race is divided into three stages. Drivers get additional points for being in the top 10 during a stage. Winners get 10 points, second gets 9 points, etc. The stage three winner gets additional points for winning both the stage and the race. The more “stage points” you have, the higher your probability of making the Playoffs. When you make the 12-person Playoffs, it’s time for eliminations once again, with the previous changes now added to the formula.

Essentially, through the last 13 years, NASCAR has gone from a simple point structure that awarded 1st through 43rd a set amount of points to… whatever the last one was. There’s a reddit page dedicated exclusively to trying to figure out how the new scoring system works.

The confusing changes to the scoring system, combined with the abandonment of the “race on Sunday, buy on Monday” look to the cars and the overall sterilization of the sport’s biggest personalities and it makes for a sport that has lost its way. Changing that structure also eliminated some of the history of the sport: no longer could anyone claim “most points accumulated in a career.”

ESPN and TNT saw this decline coming and left. Fan numbers have declined dramatically; Bristol’s once-proud waiting list has been reduced to rubble. This past week, they advertised a “kids get in free” special. That’s noble, but it’s certainly not a good sign. Texas Motor Speedway, one of the biggest and fastest tracks in the world was recently advertising buy one, get one free tickts for its race in April.

NASCAR has also recently announced the addition of a second race in Las Vegas, has left or reduced races at traditional tracks such as Darlington, Rockingham and New Hampshire, and there is even the potential that the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s premiere races, could be turned into a road course. There was also a kerfuffle about a proposal to make the cars less noisy and oh, and they changed their logo for the first time in 70 years.

The changes have isolated fans both young and old. They feel ignored or feel as if the sport isn’t the same as it used to be. I myself, even having grown up within these changes, even grew weary of it last year and took a season off to reassess things.

The sport has tried to change to be loved so much, that perhaps, it has made itself irrelevant. And that is the truly sad thing about all of this. NASCAR is a proud institution. It will not look at its problems realistically. It will blame other circumstances.

“Those people just don’t understand.”

“We’re trying our best.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, everyone’s telling me it’s fine.”

I don’t know what the solution is. I’m not going to pretend I do. Maybe it’s too late to save things. Maybe I’m being too much of a pessimist.

But something has to be done. NASCAR worked for a reason once upon a time. Going around in familiar circles won’t solve this problem. Only moving forward will.

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