The Hot Corner: NASCAR must return to its roots

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Rain ravaged Sunday’s scheduled starting time at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The whims of the weather ensured that everyone’s dreaded the-sky-is-falling symptom — empty seats by the tens of thousands – dominated the margins on national television when NASCAR officials finally waved the green flag over the weekend’s 301-lap main event.

New Hampshire was a test case for racing’s rapid growth when it was built upon Bob Bahre’s entrepreneurial speculation in the late 1980s. Now it is perhaps the poster property for a sport that is struggling mightily for air only three decades down the asphalt.

Some of us in the backslidden choir remember when more than 60,000 like-minded souls rushed those newly opened Loudon gates for Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) and Indy Car races on the sprawling lands of the old Bryar Motorsports Park.

There were a smattering of celebrity names in each field, but ultimately we knew the ticket price was a good-faith investment and a means to an end. We wanted to earn a glimpse of NASCAR’s top series, then called Winston Cup and in the infancy of a growth cycle rivaled only by the National Football League.

Sellouts were the rule once the sanctioning body awarded that elite July date in 1993. Even after an annual September encore was added four years later, the waiting list for a chance to sit anywhere in those metal grandstands was several zeroes long.

Today, the track is under new, corporate management, and the sport has come full circle. Loudon is back to a one-and-only date in midsummer, its second installment now shifted to that hockey hotbed of Las Vegas. And it doesn’t take a racing expert with a marketing degree to understand that fan loyalty over the next three or four years will decide whether or not major league racing maintains a presence in New England at all.

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What in the name of Bill France Sr. happened to this sport, anyway?

Every honest, well-meaning stakeholder has a theory, and it’s usually a partial truth. Dale Earnhardt’s death. Social media. Society’s flickering attention span. Diminished driver personalities. Makes of car that are indistinguishable from one another unless you squint hard at the symbol on the front of the grill. New tracks, built for non-traditional markets, that mostly look and race identically. Safety modifications that made those machines and their pilots almost bulletproof but turned the actual competition into ideal background noise for a Sunday afternoon snooze in your recliner. That is, if you can even find what channel the race is on, thanks to a splintered TV contract.

All those variables are part of the equation, and when multiplied they convey the scope of the rebuilding project NASCAR faces. The past quarter-century has been fully devoted to enlarging the sport’s territory, even at the expense of alienating the tracks and ticket-buyers who built racing in the first place.

The major challenge of trying to retrofit the product to where it was when it was a made-for-cable enterprise is that those viewers are now dead or disenfranchised. Let’s not forget NASCAR kicked a time-honored haunt in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to the curb in its zeal to make room for second dates at Texas and New Hampshire. Maybe it made sense to the sanctioning body to make hay while the sun shone, but now the fields — and large bleacher sections at most of the facilities built in that nouveau-riche era — are bare.

Contradictory and counterintuitive as it may seem, there is hope for NHMS to benefit from the needed restructuring of this sport and become a valued piece of the puzzle, simply because of its size and its relatively tight competition.

One outcry from us remaining fans to anyone who will listen is that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (add the recent revolving-door status of title sponsors to that earlier list of grievances) needs fewer “cookie cutter” tracks with tri-ovals and more joints a mile and under.

In theory and in practice, given the current configuration of Cup’s purpose-built cars, those places simply produce better racing. I can only speak from experience after attending last Wednesday’s Camping World Truck Series race at the half-mile, dirt-surfaced Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio. If you missed the finish, it featured two hungry, young drivers, door-to-door, smacking the wall and sliding across the finish line in tandem.

Try to think of the last time you saw a big-league finish like that one and you’ll probably have to dig back to Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003 at Darlington, South Carolina – another traditional, smaller facility NASCAR scaled back to once a year in its quest for sexier markets.

Eldora, owned by Tony Stewart, has hosted a truck race every year since 2013, all of them fun, frantic nailbiters. More than 25,000 spectators have attended each one, some sitting in their own lawn chairs, squeezing into a space roughly equivalent to Oxford Plains Speedway.

The level of excitement has been perceptibly higher than at any given Cup race for eons, inspiring many of us to ask, how about Eldora? What about North Wilkesboro? Why not Hickory, Myrtle Beach, or gadzooks, Oxford, all places that hosted Cup-equivalent events before the sport outgrew its britches?

Pessimists will rattle off a hundred logistical reasons why it can’t or won’t happen. I would ask them where they honestly think NASCAR will be five years now if it doesn’t return to its grass roots. Because whenever a sport loses half its attendance in the blink of an eye, the hemorrhaging of sponsor money can’t be far behind.

You’d better believe that will shut off the engines more quickly and permanently than a few raindrops.

* Kalle Oakes spent 27 years with the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor at the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Stay in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.

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