By admin | May 21, 2008
By Richard Allen
In 1996 Indy Car racing split itself in two and almost destroyed itself in the process. There were two competing groups within open wheel racing who had two different ideas about the direction in which the sport was heading. One of the competing groups believed Indy racing had moved too far away from its roots, had become too expensive with cars that were too technical and was in danger of alienating its core fan base.
And more, fans felt as though they could no longer relate to the drivers. Old Indy favorites like Foyt, Rutherford, Johncock and the Unsers had been replaced by drivers named Villeneuve, Montoya, Fittipaldi and others from foreign lands.
Does any of this sound familiar, NASCAR fans?
The recent merger of the CART open wheel series with the IRL means that for the first time since the split of twelve years ago all the top stars and teams of American open wheel racing will be together again for the 2008 running of the Indianapolis 500.
NASCAR gained tremendously from the open wheel split. Trace the time of NASCAR’s most rapid growth, the 1990s, and it coincides with the time in which Indy Car racing was in its period of greatest decline. Also, NASCAR’s greatest coup of that time period was to secure a date at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing there for the first time in 1994.
NASCAR also took advantage of the Indy split to corner the American auto racing television market. A move that culminated in the sanctioning body landing an enormous television deal which took effect in 2001.
Now, it is NASCAR that finds itself facing some of the very same problems that tore Indy racing apart a decade ago. Many long time fans feel as though they have been left behind by a sport that got “too big for its britches”.
Traditional venues have been abandoned in favor of glitzier, more high profile locales. And, many fans are less than thrilled with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, a machine they feel unable to relate to because it is too technical and too far removed from the norm.
As far as not relating to the drivers, NASCAR also faces the same type of issue. Last year, for the first time since NASCAR’s inception no driver from the state of North Carolina won a race.
It sounds as if history could be in the process of repeating itself, only in the opposite direction.
Indy racing now seems to be on somewhat of an upswing. The emergence of Danica Patrick as a winning driver has brought a new wave of interest to that sport.
NASCAR seems to be on the downswing. Several of this season’s events have been run in front of less than full grandstands. Also, television ratings have fallen off sharply over the past two years. Those ratings have improved this season but much of that may simply be due to the fact that this year’s ratings are being compared to those of last year when ratings neared all time lows.
The purpose of this article has not been to predict the end of stock car racing. Instead, the purpose has been to point out that warning signs are on the horizon and NASCAR must be aware that any moves they may make could determine whether they are using history as a guide or simply repeating it.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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