As the present of the 2018 season of racing progresses, the advance of time and the drawing of the 2010s to a close is a topic that has flown under the radar in the narrative of the state of NASCAR. Unfortunately, the current decade will not be remembered kindly in the history of the sport, as it has been defined by a steady decline throughout the industry. With television ratings and at-track attendance, the most cited metrics of a sport’s strength or weakness, remaining in freefall, NASCAR continues to be raked across the coals by outside national observers. The most recent of these was Dave Caldwell of Forbes, who bemoaned the 28% drop in ratings from 2017 that NASCAR has experienced in the first races of 2018.
Whether all parties concerned like it or not, the 2010s will be sealed as a decade of decadence by the time the checkered flag flies on the 2019 season – Unlike the 1990s and 2000s, which are remembered kindly as decades of outstanding growth. The good news for NASCAR is that on the other side of the 2010s is a new decade in the 2020s, which presents a new opportunity to stop the bleeding of the past ten years and return to prosperity. Of course, this will require a new direction: One that is distinctly separate from the radical, constant changes of the 2010s and closer to what made NASCAR great in its best times.
One of the primary problems that NASCAR faces in re-captivating the disillusioned members of its audience (And those who have tuned the sport out) is that it has complicated itself to the point of absurdity. Suppose, for a moment, that you were introduced to a NASCAR fan who has just woken up from a coma that he or she has been in since 2003. To this individual, you would have to take the time to explain playoffs, stage racing, the franchising/”charter” model of ownership, the prevalence of downforce as the primary determiner of on-track success, among many other things. In addition, you would also have to explain what things led to the current condition of each of these, such as the original “Chase” and the Car of Tomorrow. Juxtaposed to the other professional sports that it considers itself to be in competition with, explaining how NASCAR racing works has become somewhat of a chore, relative to other sports that have evolved, but are unchanged at their core.
In the 2020s, a simplification of the sport will become a necessity in order to make things more familiar to the traditional fans that came about during the Winston Cup era. Although playoffs and the idea of distributing points during a race is a net positive for the sport, the playoff field should be made more exclusive (Contracted to, let’s say , ten drivers instead of sixteen), and the competition cautions that come at the end of each stage should be eliminated so as not to interrupt the natural “flow” of the race.
The playoff system and race format is not the only thing that should be simplified: Race teams, which have become prohibitively expensive corporate monoliths, must be simplified as well. In NASCAR’s era of growth, putting together a race team was not a Herculean task: Fundamentally, a team that wanted to compete in the Cup Series would build several racecars that could pass inspection, hire a crew and a driver, and also hire several employees to serve in the front office (Marketing, PR, etc.). Although NASCAR has adopted a franchising model for its race teams, this method of putting together a team should be what NASCAR strives for. Creating this sort of environment, however, will likely have to come by way of the sport implementing hard spending caps. While this concept has been long-resisted, the amount of cumbersome technology and Four-Dimensional engineering chess that has become the norm in NASCAR would be dramatically decreased if the sanctioning body were to limit each individual race team to an annual budget of, let’s say, ten million dollars.
The franchising model the sport adopted in 2016 should also be revised, as the current model prohibits the entry of new ownership which helps to keep car counts high and people around the industry employed. Having only four “open” positions for non-franchise teams, combined with most “charters” being owned by multi-car monoliths with as many as four race teams, is nonsensical and against the spirit of NASCAR’s longtime open competition model – In its current form, NASCAR’s “charter” model is essentially analogous to the NFL having the Dallas Cowboys being a franchise four times over. Granted, any revisions to the model would have to come with the approval of the “Race Team Alliance” – The cryptic, exclusive union that would likely resist any measures that disturb the harmony of their big club.
In making the case for simplification, the budding popularity of grassroots, traditional racing presents a strong example of how to captivate and endear race fans. As NASCAR has become something more alien, super late model racing has become more popular, particularly as it has gained more exposure through digital, non-traditional media. The ARCA Racing Series, which NASCAR has just purchased, also presents an example for the sport due to its cult following. One only needs to look to the #ARCANightinAmerica Twitter hashtag to see how anticipated and enjoyed ARCA races have become.
Overall, NASCAR will likely reach a point where, faced with the reality that its grand re-invention of itself has not led to wealth and prosperity, they will have to instead opt for simplicity and appeal more to the traditional, simplistic spirit that carried in from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon in the late-20th century. NASCAR has already taken steps towards this, turning Labor Day’s Southern 500 into its designated “Throwback Weekend” with great success. Based on how well-received the Southern 500 has been since its return to Labor Day weekend in 2015, NASCAR can derive a simple operating procedure from it: More like Darlington.
With the 2010s close to officially designated as a decade of decline, NASCAR can go in two directions in the 2020s: The unlikely direction of continuing down the same road, or a new, simpler direction that can make the 2020s a decade of renaissance.