Column: What the Heck Happened to NASCAR?

NASCAR is an all-American sport, but has been declining in recent years. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t particularly understand football. I’m not a fan of hockey, wrestling, or baseball. Sure, I watch them, but I’ve never been able to grasp exactly how the game is played. Maybe that’s because I grew up on nothing but NASCAR on television. 

Every Sunday was race day. Whether at my grandparent’s house or at home, I knew that I could count on the whirring of the cars around the track on the television from 2 p.m. on, right up until about a few years ago. That’s when NASCAR, or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, saw a massive decline in ticket sales, and the sport became outdated in the eyes of many fans. 

NASCAR originated in the Prohibition era, when “runners” would drive their cars to deliver moonshine, and deck out their vehicles to outrun the police. They would have informal races on Daytona Beach in Florida, with the first organized race on Feb. 15, 1948. The sport only grew from there, hosting the first Daytona 500 in 1959 not far from where the first race was located. Lee Petty won that race after 61 hours of careful scrutiny from the video footage. Richard Petty, Lee’s son, came back years later to win his own 500, marking the first generation of NASCAR drivers until Richard’s retirement in 1992. 

This brought in a new crop of drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, who all shared the same passion for the sport. There were some major races, and some that dragged on, but they were all watched fervently by the viewers in the stands and at home on television. Earnhardt claimed 76 career wins, including a few from the Daytona 500, so it was a shock to everyone when he was killed in a crash in 2001 on the Daytona Speedway. This brought about a whole new NASCAR, as they increased safety restraints and changed rules following Earnhardt’s passing. 

As the years have gone on, there have been many great racers on the Speedway and other tracks across America. My personal favorite has been Jimmie Johnson, who is a seven-time NASCAR cup series champion, sharing the title with Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Johnson was a household name in my family, same with Earnhardt, and I remember the excitement I got when he would win a race or get ahead in the Daytona 500. He was just a really good racer. Unfortunately, he has lost momentum in the past few years, not really contributing many wins or breaking records. 

NASCAR has seen its numbers drop exponentially in recent years. Last season, their top-level Cup series only had about 3.34 million viewers, a 17 percent decrease from 2017 according to Sports Business Daily. This also is less than half of the number of viewers that watched 10 years ago. Not only have the numbers dropped, but so have the sponsorships. Major companies such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target are no longer paying racers to sport their logos. 

Those same fans who cheered for Johnson, Earnhardt, or Gordon are no longer spending the money to go to races or buy merchandise. Is it because of the new rules? Is it the lack of popular racers? Or is it simply because people are just no longer interested in racing? 

The older generation is not going to be around forever, and without appealing to a younger generation, NASCAR will soon be a thing of the past. I don’t have a solution, but hopefully with new president Steve Forbes at the head, the sport of my childhood could be great once again.