Going In Opposite Directions

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Last Friday was not a good day for those that have staked out a career in motor racing. NASCAR laid off roughly fifty of their in-house corporate employees in a cost-cutting move. Reportedly, there were a lot of long-term employees very good at their job that were let go. Considering my day job is heavily involved with Workforce Development, I consider last Friday a very dark day.

I will admit that I’m sometimes not the nicest of human beings. While I feel bad for those whose lives were affected by this; there is a mean side of me that doesn’t feel bad at all for NASCAR, as an organization. That side of me can’t help but think that karma has found its way to pay back NASCAR for its arrogance during the first few years of the beginning of this century. The rational side of me says that no racing fans benefit when another racing body has problems. But the shallow me can’t help but gloat just a little.

Most IndyCar fans will recall during the 2000s, it seemed that NASCAR did everything they could to crush IndyCar out of existence. In my personal opinion, it seemed that way because it was that way.

When Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR was in the midst of a giant upswing in popularity. Earnhardt’s death did nothing but accelerate that trend. Meanwhile, IndyCar was about to enter its sixth season of a nasty split that had confused the causal fan and angered hardcore fans on both sides. NASCAR seemed like a logical alternative for those causal fans that just wanted to see cars race without the political drama. NASCAR was certainly willing to welcome them with open arms.

Suddenly, it was a source of pride to say you were a NASCAR fan. People that had never even considered watching a race before were suddenly seen on Monday mornings gathered around the coffee pot at work to talk about Dale Jarrett and Jimmy Spencer. People who couldn’t name a single team beyond Petty Enterprises just three years earlier, were now debating who had the better engine program – Robert Yates or Rick Hendrick.

While attendance and TV ratings were going through the roof for NASCAR, numbers for IndyCar were plummeting. NASCAR and their new fans took great pride in pointing out that the Brickyard 400 had become the most popular event at IMS. While NASCAR had rising stars like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; CART was busy trying to emphasize the differences between their Michael Andretti and Airton Daré of the IRL.

These were tough times to be an IndyCar fan. I will admit that while I never missed an open-wheel race on television, I was watching more NASCAR at that time than any time before or after the early 2000s.

I reached my own personal low point in May of 2000. I was living in Charlotte, NC at the time. I decided to attend the Coca-Cola 600 that year. There was rain just before the start of the Indianapolis 500 and it was two or three hours delayed. Before the race was even half over, we left my house to go to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race that night. It was the only time since they started live broadcasts for the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 that I did not see the full telecast. That’s when it occurred to me that I might be subconsciously drifting toward NASCAR myself. It was at that point that I got my priorities in order and forced myself to refocus on the racing I loved, instead of what was becoming popular.

As the IRL slogged through the first few years of the century, it was tough to be a fan. Personally, I sided with CART when The Split first took place. But my love of the Indianapolis 500 eventually won out as I saw CART morph into Champ Car and something I didn’t care for as much. With many CART teams migrating to IndyCar, my allegiance had fully shifted to IndyCar by 2003 and I attended the “500” that year for the first time since 1995.

But by this time, open-wheel had certainly taken a back seat to NASCAR. The term “NASCAR” had become interchangeable with the word “racing” in American culture. When I spoke of the Indianapolis 500 with co-workers, they just assumed it was another NASCAR race. They looked at me like I had two heads when I corrected them and talked about IndyCar.

NASCAR did everything they could to brainwash their new fans that their style of racing was the only kind. Any innovation that took place in the realms of safety, technology or broadcasting; NASCAR took credit for it – even though the innovations originated with IndyCar.

Their arrogance reached the pinnacle when Darrell Waltrip credited Dario Franchitti’s success in IndyCar from 2009 to 2012, for the partial season Franchitti spent in NASCAR in 2008. After winning three IndyCar titles and two Indianapolis 500 wins after his short stint in NASCAR, Waltrip claimed that it was Franchitti’s NASCAR experience that made him a better driver. I guess Ol’ DW forgot that Franchitti had just won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and the 2007 IndyCar championship before his venture into NASCAR.

But Waltrip was just one member of the NASCAR propaganda machine. They all thought and talked this way. Many sources pointed out during the week surrounding the 2008 Daytona 500 that NASCAR’s premier race could possibly have more Indianapolis 500 former winners (Three – Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Juan Montoya) than that year’s Indianapolis 500. That would have been true had Buddy Rice and Buddy Lazier not made the race as one-offs to join Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon.

We IndyCar fans knew better, but the perception was that NASCAR provided fans the best and most difficult level of racing on the planet.

But somewhere along the way, NASCAR leadership got too cute. They decided they could take over the motorsports world by tweaking their model, which had brought them much success. First, they decided that they needed to forsake their longtime fans and do away with races at venues that had been a part of their makeup. The Southern 500 at Darlington was done away with in order to have a night race at Fontana over Labor Day weekend. Other traditional tracks like Rockingham were shuttered in favor of sterile tracks like Kansas that had no personality or history.

In the meantime, NASCAR’s subsidiary, International Speedway Corp (ISC), seemed to be dropping their tracks from the IndyCar schedule at an alarming rate. In 2009, there were five ISC tracks on the IndyCar schedule – Homestead, Chicagoland, Kansas, Watkins Glen and Richmond. By 2011, there were none. I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard to look at those numbers and come away with any other impression than NASCAR was trying to squeeze out IndyCar.

In order to spice up the last part of their season, NASCAR went away from the proven concept of whoever has the most points at the end of a season wins the championship. Instead, they created The Chase for the Championship. Only the Top-Ten drivers would be eligible to win the title, and their points would all be reset with ten races to go. After a few years, they expanded it to twelve and wins in the season added points to your beginning total. Then they expanded it again to (I think) sixteen drivers and they re-branded The Chase as The Playoffs, a term that always makes me shudder.

To confuse things further, they introduced stage racing and a new convoluted points system. It all got too confusing. It seemed that with every tweak they made, the worse things got. NASCAR TV ratings were in a tailspin and attendance was becoming a visible embarrassment. Overhead shots showed large sections of unused aluminum seating, which had been crammed full just a few years earlier. The bloom of 2001 was definitely off of the rose.

From time to time, I’ve referred to my friend Randy on this site, who has always been a die-hard NASCAR fan. Over time, I’ve at least turned him into a casual IndyCar fan to the point that he now watches most of the races and knows who most of the teams and drivers are. Five years ago, he was about the most hard-core NASCAR fan I knew. He and I had lunch this week, and he made a point to tell me how disinterested he had become in NASCAR. He confirmed what I had long suspected – that The Playoffs, the segment racing and all of the gimmicks had really turned him off. He said that today’s NASCAR is not the NASCAR he grew up following and he was no longer interested in following it.

Make no mistake – NASCAR still pulls TV ratings that the NTT IndyCar Series can only dream about currently. But NASCAR is now finding themselves where IndyCar was twenty years ago. On a much smaller scale, IndyCar is experiencing what NASCAR did back in 2001. IndyCar isn’t suddenly becoming mainstream like NASCAR was back then, but things are certainly on the upswing for IndyCar.

IndyCar TV ratings are increasing, which is a rarity for any sports entity these days. Attendance at most events is on the rise. I was an eye-witness to the crowds at Indianapolis, Road America and Gateway last season. They were excellent crowds and they all seemed happy to be there – meaning that they are likely to come back.

Although attendance at most ovals is still not where it needs to be; Texas, Pocono and Iowa all appeared to have increases this past season. IndyCar grids are increasing as more new teams are showing up. The team that won the NASCAR Cup title in 2017, closed it’s doors at the end of 2018.

IndyCar just picked up a strong title sponsor in NTT Corp. NASCAR is about to lose Monster Energy as its title sponsor after only three years. They have decided to seek several title sponsors instead of one big one.

In a nutshell, after being in the doldrums for years – the NTT IndyCar Series is on a definite upswing. NASCAR became a bloated organization after its surge in popularity almost two decades ago. IndyCar remains a very lean organization. Now, there are rumors that NASCAR is interested in sharing a track with IndyCar at some point in the future. Ten years ago, that would have never been entertained by NASCAR. Now that their popularity is waning, they suddenly seem cooperative. I’m not quite sure how that would work and there would have to be a lot of compromise on both sides. But as a racing fan, I’m intrigued with the idea.

So while I truly feel for those that lost their jobs last week, there is a side of me that thinks NASCAR is getting their payback for showing such arrogance when they were the hottest new thing. Hopefully they learned that when your fan base grows that fast, it is likely to fall just as fast. Those that jump around to the latest trend are fickle. Your hardcore fans are the ones that will stick with you. The problem for NASCAR is they alienated my friend Randy and the rest of their fan base that had been with them for years. They are now paying the price. That price was the career for about fifty individuals. Here’s hoping NASCAR learned from this.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Going In Opposite Directions”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Former NASCAR fan myself, I still watch the majority of the races but it’s more like watching for the “train wreck” effect than for entertaining motorsports. It’s closer to professional wrestling than professional racing, and the talking heads in the booth (especially on the Fox side) spend more time rambling about how great NASCAR is than actually calling the race. And of course any change NASCAR makes, the talking heads always declare it to be a great thing for the sport.

    Part of me wants to be against the idea of IndyCar and NASCAR sharing a weekend. But part of me thinks maybe some of those NASCAR fans will tune into the open-wheel action and decide that’s a better place to spend their Sunday afternoons than the Darrell and Larry show. We can only hope. Unfortunate for those who lost their jobs, but with the growth IndyCar is seeing maybe some of them can find a new home here.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I didn’t watch Nascrap back in the early 2000’s and never will. To me it is the World Wrestling Federation on wheels and will never have any interest for me.

  3. NASCAR became a fad. What are you left with when the fad wears off? Real racing fans. And real racing fans know what real racing looks like. It doesn’t include lucky dogs, stage wins, and races to the chase! They screwed themselves. No sympathy for nascar from this end!

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      And what of the sponsors?

      Wonder what they think of staged (aka rigged racing) entertainment ………. ?

      …. and a staged championship ? ?

      I cannot imagine a sponsor not being sufficiently intelligent not to realize that they do not have a reasonable chance to publicize a WIN based upon whatever the rules might be today…..For the rules will likely change tomorrow.

      But then that is the purpose of computers to keep an eye on race day on incoming weather and for each team engineer to know the current/flexible racing rules of the hour as pertains during only that race day………

  4. billytheskink Says:

    NASCAR is getting what they deserve, in some ways, because they have made several missteps that have frustrated or outright driven away fans in recent years. They are also facing many of the same challenges that all of motorsports is facing: media fragmentation, the apparent decline of car culture, aging demographics, replacing aging and retiring star drivers, etc. Whether they “deserve” these challenges can be debated, but that is not ultimately relevant. The challenges are there and they are affecting everyone in racing. Indianapolis 500 ratings have fallen several years straight now, does Indycar “deserve” that?

    Is this worth gloating over? Hardly, I think. I don’t begrudge NASCAR for striking when such opportunity presented itself and I take no pleasure in their struggles, even their self-inflicted ones. I hope they can figure out how to succeed again, though I certainly hope more that Indycar does the same.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Suggestion on the road to success…………. Let Indy car drivers race.

      Eliminate fuel rations.

      Does anyone have the reason or reasons that fuel rationing per car was mandated? ?

  5. Bravo. Well said sir.

  6. I’m 100% in adreement with you George. During the 2000’s I watched ISC Corp. come in and buy Pikes Peak International Raceway with the sole purpose of eliminating competition specifically from IndyCar. The plan was to build a track closer to metropolitan Denver and monopolize the market, turning would be potential IndtCar fans into NASCAR fans instead. Example # 2 Phoenix International Raceway- bought, reconfigured by ISC to suit Cup Cars thus ruining the racing for IndyCars resulting in no one showing up because there was no passing. That is just 2 racetracks. Imagine how many others suffered similar circumstances. Maybe karma does come around.

    • Right. And what about Nazareth? It’s my understanding that once ISC shuttered it and put it up for sale they would only sell to an investor looking to redevelop the property. In other words, they wouldn’t allow IndyCar to return. It was a good oval for Indycars. NASCAR was well aware of that!

  7. as posted before:
    “…the same challenges that all of motorsports is facing: media fragmentation, the apparent decline of car culture, aging demographics, replacing aging and retiring star drivers, etc.”

    if NASCAR gets a cold, the rest get pneumonia.

  8. elmondohummus Says:

    Didn’t either ISC or NASCAR itself try to introduce bills in some states that banned non-specific built race tracks? Or in other words, banned street courses?

    I don’t know if I remember that correctly, but I do recall remembering something from the past that miffed me as a power play attempting to force fans to go to their tracks. I don’t recall it as specifically aiming at Indycar (well, back then, CART before they became Champ Car), but I did recall it as feeling like a dirty thing disguised as a public good.

    But even with that memory, I find it hard to engage in schadenfreude over these developments. For one, it just makes me feel a little dirty (not saying anyone else should feel that way, just saying I do). For two, currents can change at any time. And for three, I do agree with the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, it’s just that IRL/Cart was too stubborn back then to patch the holes in it’s hull. Yes, I was aggravated at the arrogance I felt, but I also felt that many fans of NASCAR really did appreciate it for itself, and not as a counter to or middle finger towards Indycar. I just can’t find it in myself to criticize someone for genuinely loving something. I *can* bust on them for ripping on anything else (my God, I see that in so many other sports that it hurts), but I have trouble going beyond scolding the self-centeredness and arrogance. Those I’ll criticize all day long. But not the racing form itself. It has some genuine fans who do deserve the best they can get.

  9. To be fair, I do believe Dario’s NASCAR experiment was a factor in his successful return to IndyCar. He and Montoya learned things in stock cars that were helpful when they came back home (such as tolerating an ill-handling car), which is true for drivers who try any other racing discipline. Also, the most important part of 2008 for Dario is that he realised that he loves IndyCar racing, and wasn’t ready to retire like he thought he was in 2007.

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