CP MOTORSPORTS: MONTE DUTTON – THE ROOTS ARE ON LIFE SUPPORT
NASCAR fans from Juneau to Key West, Hilo to Orchard Beach, howled when they discovered that the Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis wasn't on their local NBC affiliate. The Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard was on the NBC Sports channel, which many fans didn't have as part of their basic cable packages and some probably had and didn't know it.
This is nothing new where rich folks hoping to get richer are concerned. The idea isn't making it easier for you to see your favorite sport. It's seeing how much you'll pay to do so. ESPN played this game years ago when they added an ESPN2, an ESPN News, an ESPU, a Southeastern Conference channel, and even one dedicated to the Texas Longhorns.
Fox used NASCAR to boost Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Now NBC is shelling out big bucks based on the notion that, hey, we can use these NASCAR fans to make our cable channel work. This time, though, while hearing on the one hand that the Brickyard is NASCAR's second most prestigious race, millions of fans just assumed they'd be able to watch it on good old Channel 4. Not everyone follows TV listings as closely as do us in the business. It threw them for a loop. First they were perplexed. Then they were angry.
At least 20 years ago, I arrived at the view that, if a business bases 80 percent of its actions on the sole goal of making more money, it will probably succeed, but if it makes every single decision on that basis, it will come back to bite.
Every sport is making this mistake. NASCAR obviously wants to be the trendsetter. The Conniver of Record.
Take, for instance, the sport's chief investment, the tearing down of grandstands. The prevailing explanation is "rebuilding our brand." The English translation is, "If we reduce the capacity, it will increase the market value of the remaining seats."
I would take the opposite tack. I would note that young fans of NASCAR are an endangered species.
When I was a kid, my dad and I sat on the back straight at Darlington with thousands of Boy and Cub Scout troops. If I ran Charlotte Motor Speedway right now, I'd say, "All you scout troops, churches, civic clubs, honor students, etc., we'll charge you five bucks a pop and give you free parking. Load up the buses. Empty seats don’t buy hot dogs."
Ah, too late. That big grandstand over yonder is gone. Watch it on TV if you want. Listen to the radio. What hooks a kid on racing is being there. That was certainly true when I was seven years old, watching Ned Jarrett win the Volunteer 500 at Bristol. I've been going back to tracks ever since.
NASCAR officials act as if they're hunting buffaloes out west. Kill 'em and kill 'em and kill 'em some more till they're damn near gone. I went to the local dirt track Saturday night, and it was the same old story. Most of the 700 or so in the stands would've responded to questions about NASCAR with "to hell with 'em."
Less than a hundred times that many showed up at Indianapolis, but the dirt track's holding stable and the big one's listed in stable condition suffering from fan hemorrhages. The promoter here runs his programs whether or not NASCAR is holding a big night race, and he claims it doesn't make much difference.
Another factor is that the working class feels, correctly, that NASCAR doesn't seem to want them there anymore. They've been price-gouged, overlooked, sneered at, and at the very best, received lip service. They identify with the weekend warriors on the dirt tracks -- the 16-year-old kid whose mama works with your Aunt Susan, the guy who services your pickup, the one who quarterbacked the Bobcats when they made the second round of the playoffs in '85 -- and they've figured out that not one of them has a chance at getting to Cup because he doesn't have a rich daddy and braces on his teeth. This is going to date me -- check YouTube, by gosh -- but NASCAR acts like Charlie the Tuna. He thinks Starkist wants tuna with good taste, but what Starkist needs is tuna that taste good.
The NASCAR heroes of yesteryear were people common folks knew. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, the Allisons ... they all came up the hard way. They wouldn't have been able to pull it off today. They'd be short-track legends, drowned by a NASCAR that has become the sport its parents warned it about.
In that sense, NASCAR began to die the day Dale Earnhardt did.
He was the last driver who reminded a grimy mechanic of the guy working in the next bay.
It's not that the guys winning the races now aren't nice enough fellows. It's just that they might as well be ... golfers. It's the price of success. NASCAR grew too fast and out of control. It kept matting the throttle till it lapped the whole field. Of fans.
Those who are left are having a hell of a party. One of them's playing a violin. Everything is well-appointed. Champagne. Caviar. Celebrities. Crooked politicians.
No one has noticed that outside, Rome is burning.