NASCAR’s Missing Ingredient: Drama
Presentation is critical, in NASCAR, it’s lacking; fans are missing a driver to get behind
I’ve always viewed the NASCAR season as one long story book. Each race a chapter within the book. From the exciting exposition that sets the stage for our journey, all the way until the champion is crowned in the conclusion.
What tends to occur is a lot of chapters fill us in on inane details like, Jimmie Johnson is really good on 1.5 mile tracks. As the book heads toward the climax, we’re probably slotted into a couple different narratives like:
Is this the year so and so breaks through?
Which driver is fighting with Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski?
This young driver looks really good, which major team is going to pick him up?
Another year of Danica Patrick not consistently breaking into the top 20. Sigh.
The narrative of course depends on what happens on and off the track throughout the year. Growing up being a Jeff Gordon being fan, the constant narrative would be: Gordon’s Drive for 5, what is the cause of Gordon’s demise this year? Is it the new playoff system? Crew chief? Car trouble? Untimely wreck?
Looking at new millennium NASCAR as a whole, there were a couple drivers propelling the sport. Namely Dale Earnhardt Jr., followed by Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Junior: the All-American prodigal son
Gordon: the hot-shot Cali kid breaking the southern mold
Stewart: the brash bold driver of his generation
After the big three, everyone else always seemed to be on the fringe. Johnson, Kenseth, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Harvick, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano. These guys all have name value within NASCAR, but as far as shifting the culture and being a draw, there’s something missing.
As NASCAR attendance and viewership dives, there’s been a race (unintentional pun) to prescribe the best medicine for NASCAR to survive in frugal times. NASCAR has been throwing new rules and points systems at the wall every year hoping to find a formula that sticks. I remember when they announced the points rules for this year, I thought they had a good idea, but ideas aren’t always a sure thing when put into practice. Now that the new points system has been put into practice, I’ve been as confused as ever.
Confusion destroys championship narrative. NASCAR needs its champion to be the undisputed best driver that season who can perform when the pressure is at its highest. Which constitutes a strong playoff run. But NASCAR tinkered with its points and stages, turning the playoffs into its own set of stages, and has now overwhelmed its audience. There are fans who still scoff at the fact there is a 10-race playoff system in the first place and it’s been around for over a decade.
NASCAR has also been working at making the cars as similar as possible to promote a style of racing that keeps all races close. No matter what NASCAR tries, 1.5 mile tracks continue to turn into monotonous events that fans would rather stay home. We can find out who won via Twitter in 20 seconds.
NASCAR tracks have went all out to promote their events as they combat very low attendance numbers which spell gloom and doom for track revenue. Most tracks book concerts and other events to align with their race, but the ends aren’t justifying the means. Races don’t bring out mass audiences, and tracks aren’t sure what else they can make worthwhile to sell. Sure you can do a Jason Aldean concert at the track, but does that make the race any better?
When a sports quandary goes awry, the problem is typically linked to something systematic. Systems are complex with many varying branches.
In layman’s terms, NASCAR and its attendance and ratings drops aren’t all driven from one direct cause and effect. You can’t point to just the drivers, or just the rules, or just the racing quality. All are contributing factors, but while we like to look at the negative aspects, what NASCAR is missing is maxing out the positives.
The NFL is falling victim to the same three issues NASCAR is having. Quality, player individuality, rules. Add on scandals and political discourse that’s all over the place, football has its hands full.
The NBA is taking its moment in the spotlight because the players are eccentric with several lightning rod personalities, and the quality of the players is raising the quality of the game. Athletes like Giannis Antetokuonmpo and Kristraps Porzingis are changing the way basketball is played.
Meanwhile, I believe NASCAR’s problem isn’t the current crop of drivers whom I think have a lot of potential. The rules and racing quality are definite issues that need to be assessed and dealt with in a more sensible manner. But deficiencies in a sport will be overlooked if fan favorites succeed and/or fail in spectacular fashion.
If NASCAR wants to get its buzz again, it needs to look at its production and presentation. NASCAR is not a white hot sport where it’s going to draw NBA or NFL numbers each week, it’s a niche sport. Many sports are. Golf, hockey, tennis, MMA, professional wrestling. There’s a ceiling for niche sports because the interest will peak at a point.
NASCAR appeared to be in a pretty good place from the 80’s through the mid 2000’s. NASCAR had its audience, it’s marquis drivers, and grew substantially until it plateaued and has now found itself in the midst of the 21st century content wars.
It’s not that NASCAR doesn’t make quality video content. NASCAR has a YouTube presence, but it’s mostly recaps and boring people talking (one of my least favorite things). So despite the 222,000 subscribers which isn’t a high number anyway, view counts are at a dismal 2k-6k on most videos.
FOX produces a weekly NASCAR series called Radioactive which is about the best content I’ve ever seen come out of the oval circuit. In comparison, the view counts on these videos range from 60k to 100k. The video tells the story of each race from the perspective of the driver’s radio conversations with their crew chief and spotter. It’s beautiful. The title almost always involves a blank expletive. It’s all about emotion. It’s great content. People will watch 5 minutes of great content. If I could pay a couple bucks for an un-bleeped version, sign me up. I wanna hear Danica Patrick yell expletives as she tries to pass for 23rd position.
Recall what I said at the beginning. NASCAR needs to reopen the storybook. Put the pen back to the paper. Fans need an opportunity to rally behind a new driver. Video/audio content is the medium. Find a lane that works.
Fandom is organic to an extent. Media plays an obvious role by painting the picture. Fans will cheer for a driver they can relate to or get behind. It doesn’t take a complex personality, typically a driver that’s competitive yet amiable. Junior, Gordon, and Stewart all fall into that mold. But once fans go all in on a driver, it’s peaches from then on out. NASCAR needs fans to invest in a driver the way golf fans invest in Tiger.
NASCAR has drivers with potential. In fact, NASCAR already has its villains. But Joker needs Batman just as Batman needs Joker. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are unchallenged thus far. They have the ire of the fans, but Dale Jr. is retiring and not competitive. Jimmie Johnson is a separate case study altogether, and the rest of the field is un-established or beyond their prime.
NASCAR needs to keep creating content until you get an idea of who the stars are. Humanize the drivers. NASCAR needs its next force of personality, the driver who is going to move the needle and reinvest fans who are mum on the sport much like myself.
If I had a guess at who could be NASCAR’s next breakout star, it would be Ryan Blaney. He checks off the essentials. He’s competitive, amiable, good media presence, has his own podcast, and is likely going to be competing for championships year in and year out.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Austin Dillon are all in that conversation as well. But it all comes back to if they’re presented in a way that drives the narrative week to week. Bubba Wallace also has potential if he gets on the right team, but we might be a few years away on that front. Daniel Suarez is another wait and see.
No matter who it is, NASCAR’s popularity could climb if a new nation of fans develop in the next year or two. The major driver fan bases will all be disbanded when the 2017 season ends, which makes 2018 is the year to strike. NASCAR can’t rest on its laurels and present its product by promoting parity and an overhauled points system. NASCAR needs to fire up the production crews and present its drivers in a way that’ll give fans a chance to decide who’s their new guy.
Once the driver is there, the focus from NASCAR’s perspective shifts to marketing that driver in conjunction with the field. Junior, Gordon, and Stewart were main characters, and every other driver filled in the supporting cast. Johnson has been the main character for the last decade, but has never been compelling enough to draw hysteria from the public. The new generation of stars are now in a mad scramble to take lead roles, not only on the track, but within the legions of lost fans.
So far, no driver has been presented in a way that is compelling enough to really get fans excited. The recent Martinsville debacle with Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin was fantastic for Chase who is just about a lock to have some sort of foothold in the next decade.
The drama comes from racing and driver to driver interactions. In some way or another, the drama is heightened when Hamlin wrecks Elliott and Elliott is pissed. It’s not a weekly occurrence, but it’s a special moment each year when a fight breaks out. Conflict is the root of dramatic affairs.
To create massive conflict, you need transcendent stars. In order to have transcendent stars, you need to give shine to your generational talent. When that’s accomplished, NASCAR should see an upswing in influence. The numbers aren’t as easy to predict, I’ll leave that to the internet Nostradamus's. What I care about is the conversation that’s had within NASCAR fans, those who are still watching today and those whom are looking for a reason to come back.
TV broadcast and driver radio
NASCAR broadcasts are similar to baseball broadcasts where there’s many lulls in the action so the commentary team needs a dynamic that’ll hold your attention. Good commentary often mixes analysis and anecdote seamlessly. The desired tone is conversational, fun, and informative.
The FOX team is solid comprised of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon, though I’ll say it’s about time to move on from Waltrip. Gordon provides the informative aspect, and Waltrip is the fun, while Joy is the leader of the conversation. I think Waltrip was good in his day, but FOX does really need a new voice, because fans now see Waltrip as a shtick.
Where the FOX broadcast is going to really miss out is not having a Gordon-Dale Jr. booth combo. Instead NBC picked up Dale Jr. to pair him up with Jeff Burton on a broadcast that’s OK. The lead announcer Rick Allen is solid, but I wouldn’t say Jeff Burton or Steve Letarte are anybody to get excited about. Junior is a great addition but it won’t turn an ok broadcast into a great one overnight. Each broadcast is missing that one guy to really tie the show together.
I’m fascinated by driver to team communication. It goes without saying that Radioactive is the best NASCAR related content on the internet. The views speak for themselves. Can it be expanded upon? Can I watch a race and have access to all 40 driver radios? What if there was a separate broadcast with a special announcer that focused on the race NFL Sunday Ticket style where one driver was the focus for X amount of laps before moving to the next one?
Far Out Idea: Midseason Tournament
I say far out, but I really mean in a perfect world. Well, at least that’s what my ego tells me.
Every sport has an oversaturation problem. Too many games, too long a season, not enough attention. The world moves too fast to be able to slow down for three to four hours a day.
NASCAR’s schedule is about 8–10 races too long. The offseason is about two months long and is no more than a mini vacation before Daytona rolls right back around.
But I’ll sympathize with the suits, I know the idea of cutting down on a season means gloom and doom for your payday. So I’ll do you one better. The Premiere League knows how to play the game of season-long intrigue. The Premiere League has teams compete in several different cup tournaments, separate but during its season. So if your team hasn’t performed well in league play, maybe a deep cup run keeps your supporters morale up. The Premiere League gives just about every team something to be concerned with by the use of its league table in conjunction with in-season tournaments.
How about getting rid of the playoffs and implementing a separate 4-race tournament to break up the middle of the season. You start with 40 drivers, each race is a 200-mile sprint, the bottom five drivers of each race are cut. Starting position for the first race is based off points. For the next three races it’s based off of finish position from the previous race which means no qualifying. The four tracks feature the different types of tracks on the NASCAR circuit. Superspeedway, Road Course, Speedway, Short Track. In that order. The winner gets a trophy, money, and glory. Then we go back into the regular season. Good times.
For an idea that I just came with five minutes ago, I think it’s genius. Poke holes in it in the comments section. OR, modify and add to it to make it better, I’m always open to constructive suggestion.