How will NASCAR get its groove back? Opinion

Thursday, May. 23, 2013

I don’t like racing the way I like the sports with which I grew up such as football, basketball and boxing. I admit it.

But I respect racing. I’ve met fantastic people in NASCAR who are smart, creative and fun to be around. I spent time with one of them Thursday. Along with being interesting, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is, despite the attention he receives, as unaffected as any athlete I know.

I can name 10 drivers, and Jeff Burton would be the first, that I’d love to drink a beer with.

Of course NASCAR would benefit if some of them were more outrageous. But outrageous works, at least for awhile, in every sport.

If John Daly drove a race car instead of a golf ball he would have songs written about him instead of having to write them himself. But if he could hit a fairway or a green, he’d still be a star on the PGA Tour.

Whether you’re a fan or not, everybody who lives in or around Charlotte ought to pull for NASCAR. The more money it makes, the more money we make.

I miss the days when drivers and mechanics came to town the way musicians come to Nashville. Instead of slinging a guitar over their backs, they came with a toolbox and a dream. If they were as good as they thought they were, they could prove it here.

But we have no room for them. NASCAR is shrinking, not growing. Race tracks struggle to sell tickets and racing struggles to – and I hate this phrase – be relevant.

When you go to a bar, restaurant, pool hall, pool or your buddy’s porch, how often do your friends talk about racing?

Which subject is more likely to come up: drafting at Daytona International Speedway or the NBA draft, Red Bull Racing or the Boston Red Sox, cam shaft or Cam Newton?

NASCAR is up against it. The money the top track operators generate through ticket sales fell for the fifth straight year. Ticket sales have dropped a staggering 44 percent since 2007.

If you go to races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you don’t need to see the numbers. You know.

You know that you no longer have to leave five hours before a race to beat traffic. You know that you no longer have to hang around two hours after the race to wait for traffic to clear.

There will be more cars on I-485 at 4:30 p.m. Friday than there were on N.C. 29 after Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race.

Bank of America Stadium could have accommodated the fans who showed up at Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday. Not trying to be mean, but Time Warner Cable Arena might have.

How does NASCAR stop the slide?

“I think the race itself is only a piece of the puzzle,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I think you’ve got to make this environment almost like the fair came to town. You’ve got to…provide a lot more activity for fans and give them things that get them involved prior to the race and even after the race.

“I think if you look back over the years, it was almost a carnival kind of atmosphere and there was all kinds of stuff going on all over the race track for people to do and go see and get involved in. I know that stuff costs money. It’s not cheap. But it’s what brings people to the race track.”

Obviously I don’t know racing the way Earnhardt does. But I know this.

NASCAR appealed to new fans because it was sleek and fast and because there was never going to be a lockout or a work stoppage. It was too big for the South, and it spread to Chicago and Kansas City and Las Vegas.

To make room for the new the sport abandoned the old. It abandoned speedways in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham.

But those tracks, and the fans who filled those grandstands, helped keep the sport afloat. They, too, were abandoned. So they walked, and they have yet to return.

What if NASCAR went back to them? What if it returned to the towns it dismissed? What if it rebuilt the tracks in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham – retro meets current.

The concept is ridiculous, I know.

It would be like the Packers playing in Green Bay, Wis.