Another boring NASCAR season came to an end last Sunday. Jimmie Johnson (yawn) won the championship for a record-setting fourth straight time.
NASCAR finished its latest season with declining TV ratings, declining attendance and declining interest in a sport that once claimed it would challenge the NFL for prime-time dominance.
Some blame the bland Johnson for the sport’s problems. Others blame the economy. While both may be contributing factors, NASCAR’s real problem lies within itself: the sport forgot its roots in an unrelenting quest for money.
The sport born in the moonshining hills of of the South got uppity and thought it was better than its past. It saw its future in corporate sponsors, private jets, polished, TV-ready cookie cutter drivers with no personalities and a cleaned-up image.
That’s not the NASCAR we grew up with and not the NASCAR that built the most loyal fan base in sports — a fan base that is deserting stock car racing in droves because NASCAR decided it didn’t need them any more.
When NASCAR made the decision to yank the traditional Labor Day race from Darlington and move it California, it was a slap in the face to the fans who built the sport. Attendance at the California track has declined to a point where some high school football games outdraw the races there.
NASCAR pinned its hopes on the bankability of Dale Earnhardt’s namesake son, but Dale Jr. appears to be buckling under the pressure. After complaining he couldn’t win at his father’s old racing organization, he moved to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports where he hasn’t won in 57 races. Junior didn’t make the chase. Hendrick’s other three cars finished the season first, second and third in the standings.
If NASCAR wants to survive it needs to abandon its pretentiousness and return to its roots but it may be too late. Southerners have a long memory.