Story by Paul Blaufuss. Photo by Jeff Siner.
- I heard the words that NASCAR has feared the most: “Dale Jr. announces his retirement.” I have many mixed emotions and thoughts:
- On one hand, first and foremost, best wishes to Dale and for being so secure in making this decision; personally, financially, and with his family. Godspeed and best wishes Dale for a happy life.
- Thanks and appreciation to Dale for all the memories, and for having so bravely and publicly brought attention to head injuries. Dale led by example, and showed that a ‘tough guy’ does not need to be forced to compete, when medical evidence and experience prove it prudent not to.
- I saw Dale race in person for the first time in a Busch car at the Glen many years ago. He drove a great race, finishing second, I believe. Since then he has had to endure more public scrutiny than any driver or athlete should be expected to, and always acted with class.
- However to be honest I never considered Dale a ‘great’ natural talent. Disappointments seemed more frequent than successes, given the level of sponsorship and equipment, especially in recent years. He always seemed conflicted regarding racing. Given all that he has had to deal with over the last 20 years, that is no surprise.
- All sports transition their star athletes over time, and that process in racing is slower than most. There is a long line of talented drivers ready willing and able to move up. The on track competition will be just fine, if not improve, as the old guard retires.
- I think the larger macro concern is developing enough competitive teams (and sponsors), apart from the big four, to accommodate all the young up and coming drivers. This is critical to keep any racing series viable. Having three or four car owners dominate any series is not a healthy situation.
- NASCAR needs to publicize the up and coming youngsters, and get them to the forefront of the race fan and general public consciousness as soon as possible. Right now, Chase Elliott is the only real marquee name among the young crop of drivers. Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Hemric, Bubba Wallace and others need to become household names on FOX and ESPN, and fast. Frankly, with all the recent retirements, I am surprised that the NASCAR marketing machine finds itself caught in this situation. (A touch too fat and complacent perhaps?)
- The recent retirements of Nico Rosberg in Formula 1, Jeff, Tony, Carl, and now Dale upset me to a degree. In younger days, all I ever wanted to be was a race car driver. While sitting in my cubicle today, I wondered how so many drivers, in the prime of their careers, while holding the golden ticket, ready to inherit the Wonka Empire, having attained what most racing enthusiasts would give anything to taste even for just a moment, can be so content to just walk away. Does the younger generation of drivers still hold the passion for racing? Why are so many walking away seemingly before their time?
- The ludicrous salaries paid by the top teams provide the opportunity, and fear of injury the likely motive. Both issues need to be continually addressed.
- Having said all that, if we found ourselves in a similar position, sitting on those drivers’ wallets, and with a secure financial future; how many of us would choose differently?
- The announcement is dire news for NASCAR, no matter how you slice it. Losing Jeff, Carl, Tony and Dale in two years is a major blow. Any sport is, at least in part, is built on the new generations competing with, and inheriting the legacy created by the personalities and accomplishments of the past. We have quickly lost the opportunity to watch talented young drivers match themselves against and learn from the legends. The torch of competition and personality must pass. In turn concert fan interest must also transfer. The question for NASCAR is whether this is happening? A quick eyeball scan of the empty aluminum at most any NASCAR race says no. The current crop of young rising drivers is as talented and as strong as ever, yet interest is waning. My daughter and I had entire sections to ourselves at the All Star Race and 600 last year. Fans are not connecting with the sport as they once were. At most NASCAR races I see few fans under 30, unless they are accompanied by older parents. Is it the tracks? The rules? The competition? The driver personalities? The cars? The sport itself?
- That question must be answered for NASCAR, and every racing series for that matter, and fast. What to do about the current state of affairs? I do not get the sense right now there is much of a clue. The regular response seems to simply throw ideas against the nearest wall to see if anything sticks. Segment racing? Push to pass? Endless rules changes? It all seems to be having little effect.
- I have always been a traditionalist and held fast to consistency in the way things have always been done. I am against spec cars, endless rule changes/ additions, re start zones, segment racing and so on. However it is obvious that the old way is no longer working. Shotgun fixes are having no effect. And American stock car/ oval track racing is dying a not so slow death in the process.
- For example, the Charlotte Motor Speedway removed another 10,000 seats in turn four over the winter. The spin was the announcement of a turn four ‘Sun Deck’, where there will be room to play corn hole and listen to concerts. Other that giving kudos for a nice spin on the alarming decrease in attendance, one can only highly suspect that this idea will have any impact on attendance. If people are not coming to the races, I highly doubt a place to play corn hole in turn four will attract new fans.
- Is NASCAR a ‘dead sport walking’? I am not ready to say that either. I am an optimist. I believe in the speed, drama, excitement, history, and potential that was and still is racing. One door closing is another opening, giving rise to new opportunities. This is a critical tipping point in time. As the glory of stock car’s past and the traditional way of doing things fade to memory, perhaps now is the time to somehow totally reinvent the sport, and along with it the race weekend culture.
- Race fans, sanctioning bodies, promoters, teams all need to work together and brainstorm. Any idea to broaden racing’s potential should be considered. I suggest some modest proposals/ goals of my own: Increase fan access to drivers and teams. Remove all the seats at every track necessary to balance demand. Consider fundamental competition changes. Work to create rabid, enthusiastic, vocal, if perhaps smaller, core of modern race fans. Market to high schools, trade schools and colleges. Give away unused tickets to schools and youth groups. Increase internships at tracks, race teams, media outlets and other rave related vendors. Consider any idea to separate the younger generations from their phones and doodle-pods and get them out to the races. Add a UFC Title fight to the weekend lineup? Bring Warped Tour to the infield? Coordinate races with X games competitions? Schedule Drone races as supporting events? Hold gaming competitions on the track video screens? Add dirt races, cart races, legends races to race weekend activities? Add chicanes/ jumps to the front stretch, ala Rallycross? Why not? Racing needs to identify anything that may catch on and attract the younger demographic. I have no idea what that may be, but at this stage I would not rule anything out. Racing needs to open discussion and be creative in finding ways to connect with future generations, while at the same time preserving core racing competition and the traditional fan place in the sport.
Time is running short, and there are no Jeffs, Tonys and Dales to spare.