Much has been made in recent years of NASCAR’s struggles at the ticket window and in television viewership. Reasons flung about for this usually center on the loss of major stars due to recent retirement -Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards – with precious little save Chase Elliott for replacement as far as fan affection goes. Others point to deterioration in racing quality, with ever fewer on-track lead battles being the norm rather than the exception. Still others cite NASCAR losing site of its main fan base in vain pursuit of pop culture pseudo-glory. It’s a mix of all of the above, but the latter is the main culprit.
NASCAR expended tremendous energy in the 2000s and to a lesser degree the 2010s chasing after the sporting equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime extravaganza in lieu of focusing on its core strengths, which far more align with a backyard barbecue and some blues than shimmering bodysuits and stripper poles. At the risk of touching on the political (not that I object to discussing such matters, but I’d rather soft-pedal the topic in favor of others), it’s quite like how the Washington DC/New York City politicos and media – pardon the redundancy – love nothing more than to look down on most everyone living anywhere else in the country and then being genuinely astonished when someone comes along and wins a national election on the primary platform of being with said looked down upon people instead of demanding the people being with them. Certainly the departure of NASCAR’s brightest stars plus a failure to strengthen and/or rectify the sport’s actual core, most commonly known as auto racing and all this entails, have contributed to NASCAR’s decline in the public eye. But it is trying to appeal to those who wish nothing to do with the commoners that make up the sport’s fan base that is the primary culprit. When you ignore Cars and hype Talladega Nights, you’re doing it wrong.
Refer back to the aforementioned backyard barbecue and blues. NASCAR should embrace that embodied by the late Rory Gallagher, an Irish blues guitarist without peer who for decades bubbled underneath the general public consciousness as too unfashionable for the pop charts yet was wholly embraced by the knowledgable few for his authentic, gritty, bare roots music. Gallagher passed away at age forty-seven from complications following a liver transplant necessitated by years of excessive drinking fueled by personal heartache and professional frustration over never receiving the acclaim this most modest among men deserved. His brother Dónal has kept Rory’s memory alive through maintenance of his recorded catalog plus mining live recordings for previously unreleased material.
NASCAR, like Rory Gallagher, was never meant to be fifteen minute candy for the easily bored self-satiated. It is successful solely when it is auto racing from and for the heart; a sport celebrating oneness with its fans. There have been encouraging signs in this direction. Hopefully they will continue.
In the meantime, listen to Rory Gallagher.