No Pettys. No Waltrips. No Jeff Gordon. No Tony Stewart.
And soon, no more Dales.
With Tuesday’s retirement announcement of its most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR slips another step closer to oblivion.
A sport already dying at the turnstiles and the TV ratings is losing the personalities that linked it to its popular renegade past. Having already changed its rules and changed its markets to the point that it changed everything that once made it such a driving force in sports culture, the changing of its name recognition may be the last step in stock car racing’s demise.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more than just the most popular driver among NASCAR’s fans for 14 consecutive years. He is the legacy of a racing icon who bravely soldiered on after his father’s death in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Sr., who still shares the record of seven Cup series titles with Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson, epitomized what people loved about stock-car racing. The Intimidator’s aggressive style either thrilled or infuriated, but it was always entertaining.
Earnhardt Jr. has never won a Cup series title, but he won over fans with his accessibility and his sheer willingness to continue in a sport that killed his father. It’s impossible to imagine Dale Sr. ever connecting with his fans on Twitter, but Dale Jr.’s profile speaks to why he was so beloved: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster. Beer!”
The season-ending departure of Earnhardt Jr. – a season after Stewart retired and two years behindGordon – expands a void at a time when NASCAR is desperately trying to stem its decline.
NASCAR stopped making crowd estimates about five years ago when it became obvious that its following was dwindling rapidly. The sport that a decade ago was breathlessly expanding to new tracks in new markets and adding seats in old ones has been tearing out swaths of empty bleachers in once passionate footholds from Daytona to Atlanta to Talladega to Charlotte to Richmond.
They dubbed it all “right-sizing” – a classic corporate euphemism because the accurate term “downsizing” sounds too negative.
Last fall, 157,000 fans packed Bristol Motor Speedway on the Tennessee-Virginia border to see a college football game – in excess of 50 percent more than showed up for a wildly popular NASCAR event that once sold out 55 consecutive races at the high-banked oval.
Earnhardt Jr.’s most recent race on Monday in the rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol came in front of mostly empty grandstands. Considerably more fans showed up to see Georgia’s spring football scrimmage on Saturday. Speedway Motorsports, which owns Bristol and seven other tracks including Atlanta and Charlotte, has suffered attendance drops every single year since 2008.
Last summer, only about 50,000 fans attended NASCAR’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just two months after a sellout crowd of about 350,000 watched the Indianapolis 500.
A lot of the lost enthusiasm is because of new rules and safety regulations that have made for blander racing as well as confusing formulas to determine champions. But a lot has to do with betraying its roots and losing that connection to its bootlegging days in which the sport was born.
NASCAR long ago outgrew venues like Augusta International Raceway, where “Fireball” Roberts got his last victory on its road course and fellow Hall of Famers Joe Weatherly, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and Richard Petty all won Grand National Series events on its half-mile oval.
More recently it abandoned places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham in an effort to attract new fans in markets like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Kansas City and Chicago. It seemed like a good idea when NASCAR was hitting its peak in popularity in the early 2000s, but it hasn’t had much sustain.
Despite a $8.2 billion television contract with Fox and NBC that runs through 2024, the sports’ ratings have plummeted. NASCAR desperately tweaked its rules and playoff series to better accommodate the TV presentation, creating points races within races. It didn’t announce a new umbrella sponsor to replace Sprint until December despite a two-year notice. The Monster Energy Cup Series hardly has the ring of the bygone Winston Cup that the hardiest fans still prefer to call it in casual conversation.
NASCAR needs to curtail the exodus of its fan base or risk its own extinction. Breaking races into segments doesn’t seem like the answer. Perhaps a more abbreviated schedule can enhance the inventory, but it’s impossible to put the beer back in the bottle after so many changes have diluted the elements that once made it so popular. It can never again be a sport riding well over the edge of danger like it once was.
Losing personalities like Dale Jr. is another blow for a sport that lost much of its soul with the death of Dale Sr. Jimmie Johnson is unequivocally the greatest current racer, but his pleasant personality hardly resonates with NASCAR’s core following the way legendary bootlegger Junior Johnson once did.
A new generation of drivers hasn’t captured the old generation of fans, much less built a new one. We’ll see if a promising young star like Chase Elliott can carry the sport on his shoulders the way his popular father Awesome Bill from Dawsonville (Ga.) and peers once did.
“Maybe I’m the only one that sees it, but I’m confident in the personalities that we have,” said Earnhardt Jr., ever the optimist. “This is a new batch of guys, let the fans get to know them, and the rest will take care of itself. The sky is the limit. I’m super excited for the future of NASCAR.”
Bless his heart, but the white flag that signifies the last lap of a race has never seemed more appropriate. Because once beloved NASCAR seems to be hurtling ever closer to surrender.