NASCAR thoughts while awaiting Texas race

The Monster Cup field heads to Texas after a week off, with Kevin Harvick looking for his fourth win of the season. Harvick has been a headline-maker, posting four top-five finishes through the month of March, but stands in just seventh place overall.

The stage format for races, instituted last season is still on trial, with Harvick’s early success and standing well outside the overall lead making the case for the prosecution.

With lots of points to earn through multiple stages per race, the format is supposed to keep our interest and add excitement to a sport that has suffered declining ratings over the last decade. But if fan message boards are any indication, the new format is not living up to its intentions.

n NASCAR fans commented on a Sports Media Watch report of the lowest ratings for the Daytona 500 in years, citing the “too-long” pre-race coverage, while ironically, the series fragments its races in an effort to retain the interest of fans.

On NASCAR’s official Fan Facebook page, some faithful followers lament over the fact that they see the same drivers in victory lane all the time; others issue reminders of the “good old days,” which also featured dominating names like Petty, Earnhardt (Sr.) and Gordon.

NASCAR could learn something by watching its own social media, where fans miss the backstretch seats at Daytona, and complain that tickets prices have gotten out of hand.

n When NASCAR was enjoying its rocket-like rise in the 1990s, it was through accessibility. You could go to a track and shake hands with Dale Jarrett or Darrell Waltrip, and fans related to the likes of Dale Earnhardt, the Labonte brothers and Mark Martin. Families could afford to camp out at the racetrack and get tickets to multiple events in a season.

As racing became America’s fastest-growing sport there seemed no end to the possibilities; but as the money poured in, the drivers became less and less like the hometown heroes that got their start on local dirt tracks on Friday nights. And fan access gave way to VIPs and high-rolling sponsors.

Then NASCAR lost Earnhardt in a tragic crash; a few years later the economy crashed as well, and it’s been an uphill battle ever since.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer, as NASCAR has found out through a series of modifications to in the point systems in recent years.

But rather than change the rules, maybe NASCAR should get back to what worked: providing fans with connections to the drivers and their stories. Teams are trying through social media, but just like in real life, personal connections could make a difference.

n Racing is undoubtedly hoping for a bump when Dale Earnhardt Junior joins the NBC broadcast team mid-season, but it will take more than that to get NASCAR back on track with the fans.

Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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