Contrary to popular belief, there was a time when NASCAR racing was one of the most popular sports in the United States. Sunday was the automobile Sabbath and fathers would take their children to the track to watch the famous drivers of the day. That didn’t last for too long.
As problems arose from its safety and culture, the sport has become increasingly distant from mainstream American sporting culture. NASCAR fell off the viewing pedestal for a good chunk of Americans, as we turned on the Super Bowl and World Series instead of the Daytona 500.
But all is not lost for the sport where cars drive around in a circle for a few hours. Here are some elements of the sport which need to be fixed before NASCAR moves back up to the upper American sports echelon.
Saturday’s horrific accident speaks volumes about how dangerous auto racing is. On the last lap in the DRIVE4COPD, the opening race of the Nationwide Series (NASCAR’s Triple A affiliate) at Daytona International Speedway, there was a crash which involved at least 12 cars and injured 33 spectators, some as far away as the upper deck. In the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega Motor Speedway in Alabama, Bobby Allison had an accident which at the time was seen as the worst accident in NASCAR history. Saturday’s accident takes the cake. Kyle Larson’s 32 car went airborne and broke the catch fence that separates the cars from the grandstand. The engine of his car ended up in the stands.
There are dangers to drivers in auto racing but this illustrates the danger of being a spectator at a race. If NASCAR wants to prevent these types of accidents, then it needs to install stronger catch fences around its tracks or move fans farther away from the action. An example of this method is seen in Japanese baseball stadiums, where there are fences along the stands to prevent hard hit balls and thrown bats from reaching the spectators. While these measures may detract from the experience of being close to a race (or game), it will keep fans safer and prevent incidents like Saturday’s from happening often.
Another issue in terms of the racing is the track selection. There are only two road courses (courses that contain more turns, both left and right) on NASCAR’s schedule. Many Americans do not like watching cars make left turns for three hours. Road courses cause much more drama and intrigue. NASCAR could add more road races to their schedule to breakup the left-hand turn monopoly.
NASCAR only appeals to a certain demographic. The vast majority of drivers across all NASCAR series are from America. If NASCAR would like to have a broader appeal, then it should have a more diverse driver pool. There are no minority drivers on NASCAR’s top two circuits (Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series). The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (third tier) will have Darrell Wallace Jr. as the fourth black driver in NASCAR history. If Wallace Jr. succeeds, then he would be essential to engendering connections with minorities. If he does not succeed, then NASCAR needs to reevaluate its strategy in terms of branching out to these communities. According to NASCAR Fan Base Demographics from 2010, NASCAR’s largest fan base is in the South at 41%, which has a high white population. That’s not a strategy for success anymore.
In an effort to reach a broader appeal, NASCAR should focus on reaching the corners of the country or maybe going beyond. NASCAR could hold races outside of the United States in places like Montreal (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) or Mexico City (Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez) in order to promote the sport to a different audience.
Also, auto racing faces a serious battle with being energy efficient. Cars need gas to run. Eco-friendly people do not feel an alliance to a sport which they claim is killing their earth. NASCAR is distancing itself from a wave of fans who care about the environment. What NASCAR could do, which would be revolutionary, is try to develop a car which runs on hybrid power or entirely on battery. It would make for some interesting changes in pit strategy, car shape and possibly the type of racing but it would generate more avenues to reach fans.
The sponsorship deals it currently has in place with Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota could lead to innovative science in alternative forms of auto racing. NASCAR could also add a fourth major branch to its series in which cars need to be entirely independent of gas. This would cause positive publicity for the sport in its effort to go green.
Everything has its flaws. NASCAR is seen as the dominant racing league in the United States. However, it is falling far behind other sports, in terms of national recognition and popularity. And, while it is not too far behind, the sport does not want to keep drifting backwards before it is out of the race. It just needs to catch up with the times first.