So I've got the TV on yesterday afternoon (Stanley Cup playoffs! Yes, please!) and I'm rummaging through the channels, and up pops the boys (and girl) from NASCAR, whom I'd sort of forgotten about since Daytona but vaguely realized were still out there driving in circles every week.
What I noticed right off was they were at Bristol, long one of NASCAR's most popular sites. And it was an absolutely gorgeous spring afternoon down in Tennessee, as it was here and pretty much everywhere.
What I also noticed was how empty the place looked.
Perfect spring afternoon at Bristol, and it looked like a qualifying session, a third or more of the seating vacant by my eyeball calculations. At Bristol. For a Sprint Cup event. On, again, a beautiful day.
The wane of NASCAR from its mighty crest has been an ongoing story now for close to a decade, but there are times it gob-smacks you more than others. To see a joint that once was one of NASCAR's most coveted destinations so empty was one of those times. And it provoked a conversation on Twitter (a civil conversation, go figure) about how NASCAR got to this place.
Some blamed the number of races, though that's remained static for a number of years. Some blamed the degree to which sponsors have taken over the sport, which was unavoidable once the sport became so outlandishly popular and sponsors started lining up to get a piece of that popularity. Others decried the circus atmosphere that has taken over the sport, the contrived WWE feel of some of the "feuds" and the overblown hype surrounding every event.
All of it gets at the central point: That a sport that was never supposed to be more than niche (and, originally, regional) suddenly blew up in the '90s into a national phenomenon, overreached in reaction to that, and then came back to reality when the economy cratered in 2008.
As a business entity, NASCAR got hit harder than most by that, because it hit the sport's target demographic harder than most. Its working class fans, who used to hit several venues a season suddenly were hitting one, or none. The Tiregate fiasco in 2008, plus the ongoing revelation that the venue simply isn't suited to decent stock car racing, crippled one of the sport's signature events, the Brickyard 400. And it all played out against all that outrageous success in the '90s and early 2000s.
That success -- at one point there were people who seriously believed a sport whose appeal was still largely provincial had become big enough to challenge the NFL -- led to everything that came after, as NASCAR tried to sustain the unsustainable. And so we got the Chase and all its various tweaks and revisions, and the closing of beloved venues now deemed too small-time, and expansion into non-traditional markets and non-traditional revenue streams.
The height of which might have been Dale Earnhardt Jr. hawking Drakkar Noir cologne. Um, I'm sorry, what?
All of it alienated the very fan base who fueled the boom to start with. And then came the crash. And all that unrealistic success began to work against NASCAR, creating the perception -- even with those running the sport -- that it's somehow struggling.
It's not, really. It remains the most successful motorsports series in American history, by miles and miles. If the stands at Bristol are a third empty on a perfect spring afternoon, that's still more people than Bristol drew there back in the Petty/Pearson/Yarborough days. And if the crowds at Indy have been halved or more since the salad days of the '90s ... well, what's half of 250,000? Who wouldn't have considered 80,000 or 100,000 (the eyeball estimate from last year's Brickyard) an outrageous number, back in the day?
Everyone would have been popping champagne corks over that (or popping the tops on a few Budweisers). But when you've played packed stands at Indy and Bristol and elsewhere, half-packed makes for some jarring visuals.
And so NASCAR soldiers on, chasing the uncatchable. And the rest of us wonder what went wrong, instead of acknowledging the obvious.
It went too right. That's what went wrong.