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NASCAR: A Once Hot Sport Tries to Restart Its Engine

11 minute read
Sean Gregory/Bristol

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is sitting in his motor home, which is parked beside the Bristol Motor Speedway, a 160,000-seat auto-racing shrine in Tennessee, right in the heart of NASCAR’s Southeastern birthplace. Stewart’s pad looks out onto a campground. It’s a Friday evening in March, two days away from the big race.

Bristol is a place of pilgrimage for NASCAR gearheads. It’s normally packed with RVs and beer-drinking, hot-dog-grilling fans by now. Not so this year. Bristol has become symbolic of how NASCAR has stalled. “I mean, this is a perfect example of it,” Stewart says, pointing out his window as his two cats, Wylie and Wyatt, purr around his shiny RV. There’s room for hundreds more haulers. “Three years ago, right now, all you’d see is motor homes on that whole hillside,” Stewart says, staring at acres of empty space. “You wouldn’t see a speck of grass.”

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After enjoying years of explosive growth and transforming itself into the first sports-business phenomenon of the 21st century, NASCAR is trying to restart its engine. Last season, attendance fell some 10%, and empty seats have pockmarked this year’s races in Atlanta; Fontana, Calif.; and even venerable Bristol, which saw its 55-race sellout streak, dating to 1982, end in March. Since 2005, average viewership of Sprint Cup races on network television has fallen a remarkable 25%, according to Nielsen Sports; this year’s Feb. 14 Fox broadcast of the Daytona 500 was the lowest-rated Great American Race since 1991. Most sports would love to have NASCAR’s problems — it still routinely draws more than 100,000 fans for races. But the economic slowdown has hit hard: corporate sponsorship, the lifeblood of every race team, has tailed off, car manufacturers have pared support, and a chunk of NASCAR’s blue collar fan base can no longer afford a weekend at the track.

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Perhaps worse than the bad economy, NASCAR has managed to make auto racing a little boring. The feuding, aggressive drivers who gave NASCAR its personality seem to have lost their edge, blanded by their loyalty to corporate sponsors and by NASCAR’s not unreasonable focus on safety. The sport’s star driver, Jimmie Johnson, has won four straight Sprint Cup championships but has yet to forge a strong connection with either hard-core race fans or the casual public. By contrast, the irascible Stewart, a two-time champion, was once fined $50,000 for duking it out with a rival driver. But that was six years ago.

Even NASCAR’s attempt to rekindle some of its fire went awry. Before the current season, NASCAR encouraged its drivers to “have at it” and amp up the aggression. So what happened? In March, during a race in Atlanta, Carl Edwards, furious that driver Brad Keselowski had bumped him earlier, steered his 3,400-lb. (1,500 kg) stock car into Keselowski’s ride while both drivers were going about 180 m.p.h. (290 km/h). Keselowski’s car flipped up in the air and landed hood-first against the ground. He walked away unscathed, but many fans were horrified.

NASCAR grew up lawless and positively redneck — the sport traces its heritage to moonshiners outrunning the law — but it’s wrestling with an identity crisis. Can a sport appeal to both the chardonnay corporate crowd whose trackside condos at fancy new circuits fueled NASCAR’s recent growth and the diehards whose unabashed passion for racin’ and wreckin’ built stock-car racing in the first place? As Darrell Waltrip, a Fox NASCAR analyst and a three-time Cup winner in his own right, puts it, “We’re all so desperate to get this sport back to where it used to be.”

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The Bristol Blues
The downturn in Bristol, long known as the toughest ticket in racing, is a disturbing signal. Just ask Lisa Hennessee, who ran a souvenir stand outside the speedway on race weekend, about NASCAR’s changing fortunes. During a Saturday race in the Nationwide Series, which serves as NASCAR’s top minor-league circuit, I asked her to compare Bristol sales now with those, say, four years ago. Her eyes practically popped out of her head. “They’re horrendous,” she responded. Or drive off the Volunteer Parkway, a road flanked by countless churches on the way to the Bristol track, and talk to ticket scalpers. One of them, Dave Luter, 50, used to cruise into town in a $40,000 Dodge, rent an office and grab a hotel room during race week. But with his profits down 80% over the past three years, Luter is working out of his $1,100 used Volvo. “This was considered the toughest ticket in the sport,” he says. “And now I’m sleeping in my Volvo.” Track owners around the circuit have cut prices to lure fans. Still, Bristol tickets start at $93.

Several forces combusted NASCAR’s engine, and they can all be traced to one of the darkest days in its history: the day the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at the 2001 Daytona 500. The Intimidator’s larger-than-life legacy brought unprecedented exposure to the sport (his death was on TIME’s cover that week), and with the economic tailwinds, corporate money flowed into NASCAR’s coffers.

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It also brought a paradox. The Fortune 500 companies spending at least $15 million a year sponsoring race cars saw them as 200-m.p.h. ad campaigns and didn’t want their drivers tarnishing their brands in postrace altercations — a NASCAR tradition as old as the checkered flag itself. “I’ve got Cheerios for a sponsor. I have children at home who are buying our products in the stores and watching us race,” says driver Clint Bowyer, a four-year Sprint Cup veteran. “I can’t go out and act like an idiot on the racetrack.”

Fans, though, love the good-ole-boy play. “The sport lost its personality,” concedes Doug Randolph, crew chief for Bobby Labonte, winner of the 2000 Cup title. “When it was growing, it was all about passion, and we’ve mellowed that down. We probably shouldn’t have.”

At the same time, after Earnhardt’s death at Daytona (he crashed straight into the wall on the last turn), NASCAR officials put a premium on safety. Energy-absorbing walls were installed on the tracks, and new head and neck restraints were introduced for the drivers. Harsher penalties for tough on-track tactics in a motor sport in which “trading paint” was the norm contributed to more conservative driving. Admits NASCAR chairman Brian France: “Frankly, we probably overregulated.”

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In 2007, NASCAR introduced a new car design, dubbed the Car of Tomorrow. Its standardized blueprint offered drivers more protection while also attempting to level the playing field so that neither Chevy, Ford, Toyota nor Dodge could gain any real competitive advantage through mechanical trickery. The drivers instantly grumbled that the Car of Tomorrow limited their ability to drive aggressively. “We shot ourselves in the foot by complaining about the car when it was introduced,” says Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which backs an all-star lineup of drivers, including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. “The drivers bashed it, so the media bashed it, so the fans bashed it.”

The look of the car also turned off NASCAR loyalists, who root for carmakers as well as drivers. “It’s a cookie-cutter car,” says Chuck Nagy, a metal-fabrication specialist from Niagara Falls, Ont., who drove to Bristol for the race. “It’s hard to get too excited rooting for a decal.”

With six laps to go at the Bristol race, Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s car slipped past Tony Stewart’s Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy, giving Johnson a lead he would not relinquish and his first career title at the venerable track. NASCAR suits weren’t chugging any bubbly. The circuit is clearly suffering from Johnson fatigue. The sport’s ratings slide has directly coincided with his dominant run of four straight driving titles. “I’m sick of hearing about him,” says Shaunna Monahan, a finance student at Bradley University, while waiting for autographs after the Bristol race. “Let someone else shine.”

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Fixing What’s Broke
That sentiment isn’t uncommon. NASCAR fans have a perverse relationship with winners, particularly nice guys with smooth corporate relationships. Guilty as charged, says Johnson, who isn’t about to apologize for it. “I am who I am,” he says. “I’ve always chosen to be friends to people and not try to be a jerk.” Fans think of him as privileged, even though his dad worked in construction and his mother drove a school bus. As for being the buttoned-up company man, Johnson points out that in modern-day NASCAR, the only way he could finance his racing dream was to heighten his appeal. “I didn’t have any family money,” he says. “My only opportunity was to play the corporate game, and I did it at the top level.”

The fans’ failure to appreciate his work clearly irks Johnson. After his postvictory press conference, Johnson pulled me aside. “After you walked away, I thought about it,” he says. “Was it bad for basketball that Michael Jordan did what he did? Or Lance Armstrong with cycling?” Of course not. But Johnson is currently the Yankees of NASCAR, not necessarily ideal for a Southern sport.

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Something needs to be done. In what has to be one of the great corporate-culture turnarounds, NASCAR’s ruling France family, now headed by Brian France, has actively solicited ideas from fans, owners, drivers and other players with a stake in the game. “I never dreamed 10 or 15 years ago that a France would say, ‘Let’s get together and have a fireside chat,’ ” says Hendrick. “Hell, you were scared to say anything.”

The big change has been to try to make the racing racier. For example, last season the circuit instituted double-file restarts. Now, the drivers line their cars up side by side instead of single-file while waiting for the race to resume after a caution flag. The policy encourages more passing. NASCAR also eliminated the rear wing from the Car of Tomorrow, a futuristic wrinkle that always looked out of place in stock-car racing, and brought back the more familiar, bladelike rear spoiler. The idea: keep more downforce on the car, which improves its balance and thus encourages drivers to take more chances.

NASCAR also has to deal with shorter attention spans — its races can last upwards of four hours, even longer. Says ESPN NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty, a former NBA All-Star who owns part of a Sprint Cup race team, JTG Daugherty Racing: “I mean, I’ve got a car running, but I’ll put the race on, watch the first part and go walk away and do something else. I’ll go screw around with my car or something like that, go to the store, and when I come back, the race is still on!”

(See pictures of NASCAR’s nation of fans.)

According to France, NASCAR is considering changing its points system, which currently rewards sustained excellence over the 36-race season rather than giving huge bonuses to drivers who win races. Give drivers more incentive to take the checkered flag, and you’ll likely see more bumping and grinding on the track. “If we think we can make winning more important and the racing more exciting, that’s what we’ll do,” says France.

Another thing NASCAR desperately needs is a shot of diversity. Only a few African Americans, for example, roamed the Bristol grounds on race day. Hispanics were equally absent. “Let’s face it. It’s a redneck sport,” says Monica Spencer, an African-American fan from Elizabethtown, Ky., at the Bristol race. “I just happen to be from a redneck state.” Daugherty, who is black, insists the sport will need a Tiger Woods to expand its appeal. “Until we get a face of color onto the big stage,” he says, “we’re not going to see faces of color in the stands.” Is any such driver close to the starting line? Says Daugherty: “I don’t see him out there.”

NASCAR has started a diversity program that aims to identify and train women and minority drivers. France calls diversity one of the sport’s two major strategic goals — the other being to capitalize on a green economy — over the next decade. “We’re going to have a breakthrough,” France insists. “We just will.”

And he may be right. NASCAR has proved it can get things done — as the Car of Tomorrow, unloved though it may be, has demonstrated. Maybe NASCAR can’t make Jimmie Johnson throw a punch in anger. But as long as its cars are designed for maximum safety, the sport can figure out a way to return to have-at-it racing. And then the wreck-loving fans will blot out the green spaces in the campgrounds of Bristol once again.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com