The debate rages across NASCAR Nation; has Sprint Cup racing become stagnant, dull, even boring? With caution flags down by approximately 30% this season, some point to a dearth of what NASCAR Chairman Brian France once called, “Game Seven moments;” high-energy events that bring fans to their feet and provide ESPN’s SportsCenter with highlight-reel material for years to come.
Perhaps that’s true. Or perhaps NASCAR, its tracks and media partners are simply guilty of over-promising.
In an effort to reverse sagging attendance and television ratings, NASCAR has turned more and more to the sensational. Promos for upcoming network television broadcasts have become little more than crash montages, with one bone-jarring wreck after another, sandwiched around small snippets of actual racing and a brief Victory Lane celebration. Many member speedways are now taking the same tact, attempting to sell tickets with 60-second ads that portray our sport as bare-knuckled, 200-mph demolition derbies.
In the lead-up to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, fans were promised a thrill-a-minute experience that was equal parts “Pass in the Grass,” Davey Allison pounding the wall at the checkered flag, and Darrell Waltrip encouraging Rusty Wallace to choke on a wad of cash. Never mind that those video clips are more than a decade old, NASCAR, SPEED and Charlotte Motor Speedway promised us all that, and more.
The race itself failed to live up to all the hype. In truth, no race could have.
This week, commercials began running in the Charlotte, NC market, enticing fans to purchase tickets to next month’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway. The commercials are a veritable smorgasbord of motorized mayhem, but amazingly, not one of the wrecks used to promote the race actually occurred at Kentucky Speedway. Last season, Kentucky’s inaugural Sprint Cup Series event featured 105 laps of uninterrupted green-flag racing and just six caution flags; none of which were for major crashes.
That’s a far cry from the nuclear cataclysm featured in the track’s advertising. There is a long tradition of accentuating the positive in marketing. Laundry detergent brands routinely prop-up their market share by declaring themselves “new and improved,” when in most cases, little or no actual changes have been made. Movie trailers generally include the funniest or most dramatic moments from a particular film, leaving theatregoers to discover for themselves that those were the only noteworthy scenes in the entire production. Is it any wonder that after a weeklong promotional bombardment of flipping, crashing, flaming racecars, NASCAR fans have come to expect exactly that on Sunday afternoon? And when it doesn’t happen, is it any surprise that they feel like victims of the old “bait and switch?”
When pitching potential sponsors, marketing experts routinely advise teams to “underpromise and over-deliver.” Sadly, in recent weeks, it appears we’ve done just the opposite.
By virtually every statistical yardstick, NASCAR is faster, safer and more competitive than at any point in its history. Two decades ago, there were perhaps a dozen teams with a realistic chance of visiting Victory Lane on any given Sunday afternoon. Today, that number has doubled. More drivers enjoy quality rides today than ever before, and the days of a team enjoying a multi-lap lead over the remainder of the field have long passed.
The product presented by NASCAR on speedways around the country is better today than it's ever been, but somehow, we've set the bar of expectation so ridiculously high that fans cannot seem to enjoy it.
There's more to NASCAR than fiery crashes and fistfights. Not every baseball game ends with a walkoff, grand slam home run. Not every Super Bowl ends with a 95-yard touchdown pass on the final play from scrimmage. And sadly, not every NASCAR race ends in a three-wide, upside-down fireball of a finish.
That's the simple truth, and it's time we started telling it.
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