As a high school Psychology teacher, I have often read and heard that some believe that in order for recovery to occur among those who have serious problems the sufferer must first hit rock bottom. One must first experience the lowest of lows before making a turnaround that will lead to an upward climb that will eventually bring about full recovery according to this theory.
If this line of thinking is in fact true for addicts or those afflicted with other types of disorders then one has to wonder if the same can be true of a sport as well. If so, perhaps NASCAR has reached the point that a turnaround may be coming in relatively short order because rock bottom can’t be much further down.
This past season saw 26 of the 36 races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule hit all-time low numbers in terms of television ratings. Empty pockets of seats could be seen in almost every grandstand throughout 2018. Further, sponsorship woes have gone from being occasional to commonplace.
For example, the team that won the MENCS title in 2017 was forced to close its doors at the end of this most recent campaign due to lack of sponsorship. The reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series(now Gander Outdoors Truck Series) lost his ride with Hattori Racing because of sponsorship issues following a storybook campaign in 2018.
More recently, two NASCAR Xfinity Series teams tied to MENCS organizations were phased out due to lack of sponsorship. Chip Ganassi Racing was forced to shutter the Xfinity team meant for driver Ross Chastain after backer DC Solar encountered legal issues. Roush Fenway Racing closed down its longstanding No. 16 Xfinity operation due to a lack of funding.
But simply saying that changes are needed isn’t enough. After all, the facts mentioned above make that obvious.
However, this is a sport that many would argue is “changing” itself into oblivion. Constant tinkering with the points system, race dates moved from traditional locations to places seen as more favorable to major sponsors, and multiple generations worth of adaptations to the race cars have not served NASCAR well over the past two decades.
Many sports would see an event such as the arrest of its leading figure for a DUI as a devastating moment in that sport’s history. However, when that very thing happened to NASCAR Chairman Brian France, many viewed that incident as an opportunity for a positive change at the top.
It’s not a closely guarded secret that France was far less involved in the running of the sport than his father and grandfather had been during their time at NASCAR’s helm. Even competitors voiced concern regarding the third generation leader’s frequent absence.
And more, the changes implemented by France during his reign often seemed reactionary rather than revolutionary as he sought to artificially create “Game 7 Moments” through a playoff system that features round-by-round eliminations such as those seen on reality television shows that, if ratings and attendance are considered, have not resonated with fans.
In the piece linked above, new NASCAR president Steve Phelps declared that everything is on the table for consideration in terms of possible changes that would be designed to bring fans back, and thus, boost ratings and attendance. According to the sport’s current leader, a tightened schedule, shorter races, midweek races, and even double-header events could be in consideration for implementation as soon as 2020.
However, change has seemingly become the norm for NASCAR in recent years. Some disgruntled fans have cited excessive adjustments to formats, the cars, points, and other transformations have been responsible for pushing them away so any modifications must be carried out in such a way as to not further alienate an already dwindling fan base.
One change already set for the upcoming season will be that of a new set of rules meant to create more pack type racing, as is the case at Talladega Super Speedway and Daytona International Speedway. A similar set of standards was used for the 2018 NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That new aerodynamic and engine package meant to slow speeds could prove to be France’s parting shot for the sport he so often tinkered with.
A great deal regarding the future of the sport may be hanging in the balance over the next two seasons.
With the 2019 campaign looming, what will NASCAR’s fate be going forward? The moves made by the sport’s current leadership in the coming months and years will be critical.
As the question in the title of this piece asks, has NASCAR hit rock bottom yet or is there further still to go? Only time will tell that tale.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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