The current state of NASCAR is a much-discussed topic. NASCAR race viewership has been in decline and written about for many, many years. What’s being done to reverse the decline – or at a minimum, stabilize it? And have the folks at the helm really made a positive impact with the changes they are putting forth in the sport?
Here are some insights from Will Spencer, owner of our museum.
TV ratings decline
Across all US sports, viewership numbers have been going down. Despite the fervor during college football playoffs, March Madness and the World Series, people don’t watch sports quite the way they used to. So perhaps NASCAR isn’t really that different when you consider the trends in other sporting events?
Will Spencer feels like the new TV deal implemented just under ten years ago hurt viewership when races were taken out of prime time. As Spencer shared, “My 91-year-old mother can’t find the races on TV anymore.”
Spencer and others who have been around NASCAR for decades feel that the TV deal put generating revenue above fan accessibility to view the sport.
Race affordability has taken a hit
After the phenomenal growth from the late 90s to 2008, the recession caused fans to change how they spent their entertainment dollars. Ultimately, many fans – who were newer to the sport and didn’t grow up with NASCAR – decided to spend money on other things. Spencer thinks that additionally, the cost of going to the races has made supporting NASCAR in person out of reach for many people. Hotels at many big race sites often require a three-night minimum stay. These changes from even just two decades ago have made attending NASCAR cost-prohibitive for many folks.
Losing fans due to race locations
Race locations and TV markets have also changed. The top TV markets are still located in the Southeast. Yet NASCAR is moving the final race of the year from Homestead to Phoenix this year….when the viewership in Phoenix has been less than Homestead.
“On the southern side of NASCAR country, you’ve still got generations of fans that grew up on NASCAR and keep turning up for the sport. It’s not the same in these new markets,” Spencer stated. Many fans prefer that NASCAR move races out of Indianapolis, Kansas, Chicago, Phoenix or even Las Vegas.
Suppressed driver personalities
Driver personalities have always been a big aspect of enjoying NASCAR racing – and what fueled the growth during NASCAR’s hay day was the unique “characters” driving the cars. In recent years, Spencer feels that NASCAR changes have “sterilized the sport” and taken away the personality of the drivers. Attempts to equalize competition, clean up the sport and even suspending drivers for exhibiting their “personality” have impacted fan support – especially through reduced access to drivers at the track.
“Drivers are no longer accessible to fans,” shared Spencer.
Meeting them, getting autographs signed at the track, taking photos doesn’t happen with the same frequency. These restrictions, meant to equalize the sport, aren’t prevalent at small race tracks like the local Bowman Gray track.
“Bowman Gray is packed every weekend,” said Spencer. “It’s in part because there are fewer restrictions at that level of racing. Races are affordable and fans can access the drivers.”
Car standardization by has removed creativity
Spencer bills himself as “a competitor, not a race fan.”
He believes the sport thrives when you have competition amongst the teams and creativity to build the best car for the race track. Spencer sees today’s environment, which has become increasingly standardized, as too regulated. By 2021, race cars will be almost completely standardized. Creativity – science, tech, art – is being minimized. NASCAR will have to inspect and apply its point system to every racing vehicle.
“I miss the Junior Johnson days of figuring out how to make a car go faster and bending the rules to the limit to create that car,” shared Spencer.
“Now, drivers have no flexibility. NASCAR excitement used to include finding the gritty driver who could compete with personality and would figure out how to build a car to win a race. Of course in those days, drivers used to build their own car. Drivers today don’t know how to build a car and have the ability to drive it at 200 miles an hour.”
Final thoughts from Will Spencer
Spencer feels blessed to have been able to do what he has done. The Winston Cup Museum will continue to celebrate 33 years of racing, with exhibits documenting NASCAR through 2003.
“I’m proud to have been a part of NASCAR all these years. I hate to say it, but I don’t know that those still in the sport have the same passion that they once did,” said Spencer.
The sport has changed (in all the ways mentioned), and as it did, lost its fan base. How NASCAR presents to the “new race fan”, with race locations, costs, accessibility, driver non-personalities and car standardization remains to be seen.
“With all the changes in the sport that seem to be in place to equalize the field, racing is less about who’s the best and more about who’s the luckiest.”