It feels like NASCAR is stuck in a rut lately. Everyone is waiting for something to happen or someone to break out. Whatever that something is, people hope it will inject freshness and excitement and energy back into the sport.
But it occurred to me recently I’m not even sure what the something is. What development is going to come along and suddenly change the course of today’s NASCAR?
A string of epic races? A dramatic rivalry? The sale of NASCAR? I’m honestly not sure.
So maybe it’s not NASCAR that’s in a rut. Maybe it’s me.
Think about it: The races have been pretty good lately (except for Kentucky), even though the results are predictable. Aside from the trio of dominant drivers, it doesn’t feel that different from a typical NASCAR season.
Has NASCAR changed in the last few years? Not really, aside from the big-name drivers. And yet there’s something missing that’s not allowing me to enjoy each week as much as I’d expect.
I’ve asked myself recently what that could be. I don’t want to feel this way; it’s troubling, frustrating and discouraging to do so.
If I’m being honest, a large part of it stems from what’s been happening to NASCAR over the past few years, and for two reasons.
First, in case you somehow haven’t been paying attention, NASCAR is struggling these days. TV ratings have plummeted, tracks can’t tear out seats quickly enough and sponsors are leaving. It’s painful to watch something you love go through a decline like this.
But second — and this is where it gets particularly disheartening for me — is there’s a growing divide within the sport about even acknowledging the hard times are occurring.
One of the best things about NASCAR has always been the sense of community and the tight-knit family feel. These days, though, there are two distinct sides developing.
In one camp are the people who are extremely concerned about the future. These people, who view themselves as realists, believe NASCAR is headed in the wrong direction and something must be done.
In the other camp are people who believe that while NASCAR has challenges, they aren’t that different than any other sport right now and believe public hand-wringing over its health only does harm.
Increasingly, the two sides are having a hard time seeing eye to eye — even though they both deeply care about NASCAR. There’s extreme sensitivity over every public comment, which turns into a “with us or against us” environment.
This has manifested itself in several ways lately:
— Last week, Forbes wrote a story that declared NASCAR is “certainly not dead and far from dying,” but is merely in transition. This story was seized upon by the people who believe that’s the case — or want to believe it — and cited as proof things aren’t that bad.
— At Pocono, NASCAR’s chief operating officer Steve Phelps lamented the industry “tends to focus on the negative” and added, “I’m not really sure why.” Phelps’ comments were criticized as out of touch by those who felt the opposite way.
— After the Pocono TV ratings came out, some on Twitter trumpeted NASCAR was the No. 1 sporting event of the weekend; others lamented another race that flirted with all-time low ratings. And this was for the same event.
You’ve probably figured out I’m firmly in the “greatly alarmed about NASCAR” camp and thus frustrated and puzzled as to why others would not feel that way.
But those on the other side — including some of my very good friends — are equally as frustrated. They’re understandably weary of hearing bad news every week and just want to enjoy their racing in peace.
I get that and appreciate where they’re coming from. But to me, NASCAR is like a patient who went into the hospital with a simple fever but whose condition has deteriorated over time.
More and more symptoms keep popping up. Is it a terminal illness? Not yet. But if doctors don’t prescribe the right treatment — or any treatment at all — then yes, the patient will eventually die.
I promise you some people in the NASCAR industry will read that line and be angry about it, but it’s true. Just as in medicine, ignoring the reality doesn’t help anything. We wish it could be different, but it’s not.
Some within NASCAR prefer to focus on the positives: The patient is still breathing. A lot of patients in this hospital are also sick. Our patient isn’t as ill as some others.
Meanwhile, I want to jump up and down and scream: DO SOMETHING!
That’s part of why I’m feeling down these days. There are so many potential changes NASCAR could make to help slow or reverse the downward trend — all are well-known to fans at this point — but talking about them over and over feels a bit hopeless.
Something needs to change, because it’s not too late to save NASCAR. There’s still hope.
But you can’t start making major changes until acknowledging there’s a problem. And unfortunately, the NASCAR industry is still not at the point where everyone agrees there’s anything seriously wrong in the first place.