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The fans speak:

 Can't say Carl Edwards doesn't dive right into the meet-and-greets....but some of his fellow drivers may need some lessons, according to some fans (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

   By Mike Mulhern


   Readers have been quick to follow up on the question of why Dover International Speedway didn't draw a better crowd for the May 15th Sprint Cup event, and why some other key NASCAR tracks are also struggling to fill the stands.
   And here is a strong, clear-cut response from Jim R, who points out what he says the real issues are for NASCAR executives, and this sport's drivers, and major sponsors, all to consider:

   "Mike..... I'll keep this as short as I can but you hit the nail on the head with your big questions in the wake of Dover.  But I'd like to add a few things from a fan's view. 
   "First of all, I believe we're friends on Facebook, but here's a little bit about me so you put into perspective:  I'm 44, been a NASCAR fan for 38yrs.  Been going to Cup races for 20 years.  Mainly Dover since 91, but also Loudon, Richmond, Charlotte and Pocono.
   "Petty was my man before he retired; then it was J. Gordon.  Now....since Jeff is pretty unattainable, Clint seems to be the driver of choice. 
   "Ok, so back to your article on Dover....so so many good points..... but I don't think its "jobs" like Denis McGlynn says. 
   "Here' are my views: Fans are tired of being price-gouged.
    "NASCAR and everyone else associated with the races take advantage of a fan's loyalty to the brink. 
    "For example: FIRST, when I checked out of the hotel on Sunday morning at Dover.... $975 for 3 nights. Go to the trailers and you'll find $65 die-casts.  My tickets were $95 each. 
    "I used to do 6-8 races a year, and now it's 2, sometimes 3.  With these prices, I can't do it anymore.  And I make in the mid $100's. 
    "SECOND, look at the dates; the first Dover race used to be the first week in June.  Now it's early May; last year when it was mid-May, the track sent a letter out saying that it was just for the one year.  Now this year, it's still in early-mid May.
    "THIRD, like you, I believe Sprint isn't doing the job Winston did. 
    "FOURTH, the racing isn't what it used to be.  Richmond, Darlington and Dover....tons of green flag pit stops????  It's getting like the NBA -- all you do is have to catch the last 20-30 laps and you see the best part. 
     "FIFTH, look at the drivers; as you mentioned, they are getting whisked off onto their jets before most of us aren't even out of the parking lot yet. 
     "I have hot passes (for the garage), and it's not easy to even get them to sign anything. Or if you do, they don't say a word to you in fear of starting a conversation. 
    "Jeff and Jimmie, they walk as fast as they can from the garage to their haulers. 
    "Junior, he goes out the side of the hauler and jumps the fence to get to his motorcoach. 
     "Kyle.....enough said. 
     "And if you do get a quick second with them, they give the impression that they are being bothered. 
     "Let me ask you, Mike, what did you do on Saturday during the rain delay before the start of the Nationwide (still wish it was Busch) race? 
     "I'm not sure if you noticed, but Morgan Shepherd and Kevin Swindell were up in the stands on the frontstretch signing autographs. 
     "Where were the others? My guess, in their coaches. 
     "The fans were as bored as the drivers were, but we still hung around to see them race.  I think the drivers forget that. 
      "Like you said "Drivers just seem too distant from their fans."  That's why I gave up on Jeff being my favorite driver.  I wanted a fav driver who I could meet and talk to.  Jeff and a few others are nearly untouchable. 
   "If you think about it, before, when the drivers were at their local tracks trying to make it big, didn't they want the fame and fortune?  Now they seem to just want the fortune."
    Right on the mark, Jim, IMHO. But is anyone listening?


   Nice crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the All-Star race. But not every track is so successful (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Response To Jim R

Reading Jim R's epistle, he makes some good points but is also flat wrong on others. As a 44-year-old who has been a regular at Pocono for at least once race per year since 1989 and a regular at NHIS since it opened in 1990, a response -

1 - "Fans are tired of being price-gouged." The economic ignorance of a lot of people remains mystifying. The fact is there is no such thing as price gouging. Prices are set by what the market (supply/demand) dictates. When hotel prices skyrocket it's because demand has outstripped supply. $65 diecasts? I'm not sure where he's looking but I just bought a Richard Petty 1974 Dodge Charger diecast (never opened box) for $60 at Stafford (CT) Speedway - and I remember when that and The King's '77 Olds Cutlass diecast were in the hundreds of dollars. If anything the diecast industry has plummetted since 2000. And $95 tickets - I got Pocono tix for both races for $80, in the Terrace stands. And the hotel I'm staying in has been in the $110-140 range the last five or six years I've gone. It's the market, Jim.

2 - "Look at the dates." I'm puzzled as to what Jim R is upset with, as Dover's Mason-Dixon 400 has been reasonably consistent. The May date is a return to the 1974-86 period before the All-Star Race kicked Dover to early June.

3 - Sprint has overpromoted the brand. This is where NASCAR has made a huge mistake in its promotional efforts - it has been pushing NASCAR The Brand since the late 1990s instead of the racing. The NASCAR brand is now widely seen as a joke precisely because it is pushed as a brand instead of as a sport. Sprint's efforts to promote the racing have been ham-handed at worst.

4 - The racing is not what it used to be - on this score Jim R is correct, but if he is bemoaning a lack of cautions, he's being foolish given the continuing controversy over how NASCAR handles cautions as well as their frequency.

5 - Driver accessibility - there is no disputing him here, as drivers have devolved into prima-donnas avoiding interaction with non-participants in the sport. There is also the angle that short track racers such as at Stafford, CT or Concord, NC have been all but officially shut out of any upward mobility in racing, replaced more and more by F1 rejects with the inaccessible personality the sport is seeing as the rule now already in place with them.


Some more angles to add to the issue -

1 - The racing is not what it used to be - Talladega has broken 80 lead changes, a number thought unreachable, three straight times now, yet it has been since 2000 that a non-plate race (the 2000 National 500 at Charlotte) has broken 40 lead changes; not since 2005's World 600 demolition derby has a race even flirted with 40 lead changes; if a race even hits 30 nowadays it is cause for competitive celebration.

The reasons are myriad -

* Where the draft means everything at Talladega and meant something on intermediate tracks as late as the mid-1990s (with Ernie Irvan prominently saying, "Man I can't believe what the draft's doing" at Charlotte in 1995) it is now death to passing on non-plate tracks as dirty air changes from a vacuum to a wall pushing back cars from closing up to pass (the surge of drafting at Pocono's Truck race in 2010 is the exception proving the rule).

* Next we have the technology arms race that has made the cars absurdly fast, has created the aeropush, has crippled ability to race side by side for any sustained period (if not at all), and has inflated the sport's costs and budgets while degrading parts availabiluty and reliability, to where engineers have become virtually the only way to set up the cars or to win races (this notwithstanding the Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith upsets of late) and parts are apparantly becoming even harder to come by.

Part of the technology arms race is the lack of tire competition, which has led to perennial bouts of unreliable tires at race weekends (with the cliches "aggressive setups" and such being trotted out) and a lack of new revenue streams for the sport as well as to teams. Ocassionally they got it right (2001-2 had a tire package that worked as far as winners - 26 - and winning teams - 14 - went) but overall they haven't. Having more tire companies is needed.

* Then there is the points-racing ethos of the sport - it has all but killed dead any desire to actually win races. Long past are the days of drivers talking about "I'm going for the win, period" with "I want a top-five finish" the philosophy of the sport. Winning doesn't pay - literally; points are not sufficient to get anywhere in the title chase and money winnings are too biased in the points fund as opposed to race purses.

2 - So why isn't the racing what it used to be and needs to be? It's the lack of aggressive thinking and refusal to stand up for the betterment of the sport by its present leadership. Restricting team spending is necessary; reigning in technology is necessary, yet NASCAR is doing neither.

It ultimately has to change.

FIRST: Couldn't agree more

FIRST: Couldn't agree more with that point. NASCAR has price gouged fans for many, many years. It only feeds the greed of the NASCAR execs, the owners, and the drivers. The tickets for the only Cup race I've ever been to were $40 for the 4th row in Turn 2 at Richmond. I wasn't real comfortable sitting that close to the track, either, especially not for that price. The good seats for that race were $80, and that was in 1998. Concessions are overpriced at most every track, not to mention the way hotels jack up their rates during race week. Brian France thinks high gas prices are the main reason that fans are not showing up right now. He needs a reality check, but somebody will have to pry him out of his private jet to give him one. I learned from one race that Cup races are much more enjoyable from the couch than they are at the track. HD TV with surround sound has made them even much more enjoyable, and you can buy a 52" LED TV with a surround sound system for about what a Cup weekend for two will cost nowadays. Now which sounds like the better deal?
SECOND: I don't see the date swapping as that big of a deal if it's within a few weeks of where the race was in previous seasons. Unless the new date falls on your anniversary or some other special event that would keep you from getting to the race otherwise, why does the race have to be on the exact same weekend every year. Once NASCAR removed the sacred Labor Day weekend date from Darlington you knew that any race was subject to be changed. Daytona 500, World 600, Firecracker 400, and the Bristol night race are about the only dates that are the same as they were 15 years ago. The others are continually changing.
THIRD: I don't think Sprint is the only one to blame. It's NASCAR more than Sprint. They're entire marketing approach has changed since they got the megabuck TV package. They used to run a lot of print media to advertise events when Winston was running the campaign, but now almost all of their marketing is done via television with a small amount done on the internet. Winston would have gone this route somewhat also, but they could not due to advertising restrictions for cigarrettes. So they exhausted the only marketing avenue they had. NASCAR no longer promotes local racing. Sure they run the token commercial with some Cup driver touting "home tracks", but when was the last time you heard/saw NASCAR promote a big short track race? They have basically cast their feeder systems aside, and the owners all look for drivers who can satisfy a sponsor versus someone that they think will win. NASCAR cares only about their TV ratings now, and it's not going to change so long as the big bucks keep coming in via that avenue.
FOURTH: Racing not what it used to be? Are you referring to the 60's when the winner often lapped the field, and sometimes several times because of high etrition? Are you referring to the 70's when there were about 4 cars in the field with a realistic chance of winning? Are you referring to the 80's and 90's where there were about 8 cars with a realistic chance to win each week? Cup racing now is almost as competitive as it ever has been. There are 14 drivers in the field each week currently that have 10+ career wins. That doesn't include Bowyer or McMurray, who have also been definite threats to win the last couple of seasons. As for the green flag pit stops: so what? I would rather see the race run its course than NASCAR throw phantom debris cautions or grant cautions for drivers to check their tires. Green flag pit stops are the best cue to fans that the race isn't being manipulated, which NASCAR has certainly been known to do and accused of doing many more times. You don't see the NFL calling extra timeouts for a team late in the game to give them a better chance to win. NASCAR needs to quit throwing cautions to bunch up the field. Let it be what it is. I don't want to see manipulation from the sanctioning body.
FIFTH: The drivers were made out to be rock stars years ago, and now they enter the sport that way. You didn't used to have 150,000 people at the track back in the old days, and people seeking an autograph every minute you were at the track. Dale Sr. started the exit express with his helicoptor and jet in the 90's. If he wasn't in victory lane, he was in a huge hurry to get the heck out of there before he had to answer any questions. That trend has been followed by most of the drivers since then. Very few of them have to earn their stripes any more. The owners pull them out of go carts to sign them to lucrative developmental deals now instead of waiting to see if they can win a track championship or a series championship at a lower level. When you treat them like celebrities before they earn it, that's exactly how they are going to act. The drivers need to set aside some time for the people paying their ridiculous salaries, but the other side of that is crazed fans badgering them every moment they're at the track. That would get on my nerves too when I'm trying to focus on the race and what I was there to do. And let's be real for a second; Morgan Shepard going in the stands to sign autographs faces nowhere near the mob that Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards would face should they ever try to do that. As long as fans continue to pay the crazy ticket prices and watch on TV, they are only fueling the ability for drivers to buy million dollar motorhomes and for NASCAR execs to live extravagantly in their perch. The only way to stop it is to not go and not watch.

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