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NASCAR’s reliance on personalities could damage the sport in the long term

By admin | February 13, 2012

By Richard Allen


Earlier in this current off season, NASCAR released a report that essentially said a study they conducted has revealed that fans are not nearly as interested in articles and/or columns that analyze the state of the sport as they are about those pieces that focus on personalities in the sport. While it’s not surprising that fans enjoy hearing about their favorite drivers, has NASCAR, like many other facets of today’s society, become too much about personality?

On a personal note, I can both agree and disagree with that study. Typically, I receive more site hits on this blog when I post a story that is more personality related but I get far more comments from readers when I post columns about the state of the sport. Perhaps it could be said that stories about drivers are simply more reassuring while pieces about the state of the sport are more thought provoking. (And I’m not just referring to stories written by me but all writers.)

NASCAR has always been filled with big personalities. From the early days of people like Junior Johnson up to Richard Petty to Darrell Waltrip to modern day attention getters like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon fans have been drawn to particular individuals. And this year, of course, the sport is about to receive yet another infusion of personality when Danica Patrick makes a fulltime go of racing in the Nationwide Series ranks as well as part time effort in the Sprint Cup Series.

There are obvious benefits from having fans be more centered on personality than the condition of the sport. Such a situation appeals to sponsors as those companies involved in racing like having high profile associations. And, more revenue is generated by such things as souvenir sales and other forms of merchandising.

However, there are also negative aspects as well. What happens when those personalities go away? All drivers eventually retire, so if a set of fans were simply attracted to one individual they may lose interest when that person is gone.

Also, when fans are only tied to a personality rather than the sport, interest levels can rise and fall with the fortunes of that one driver. An early exit from a race by one or more of the popular drivers could cause a drop off in television viewers. A bad season by those stars could have far reaching implications for tracks and networks.

No individual or group of individuals can ever be allowed to become bigger than the sport itself. Unfortunately, in NASCAR such is not only be allowed to happen, it is being encouraged. As evidence, look how much attention is paid in pre-season promotions for NASCAR to a driver who has not won since 2008(Earnhardt) and a driver who has never turned a competitive lap at the Sprint Cup level(Patrick).

But this is not only true of NASCAR but other sports as well. In my home area of east Tennessee there was a sudden influx of “Colts” fans during each NFL season from the late 1990s to the present. People in this area do not say, “Did you see the Colts play on Sunday?” but rather, “Did you see Peyton(Manning) play on Sunday?”

Should Manning be traded or released from the Colts in the near future there will be an abundance of blue jerseys available in spring and summer yard sales all around the Knoxville area.

Having immensely popular personalities can provide a great short term boost for NASCAR or any sport. Revenues will soar in the short term as apparel flies off the shelf and sponsors offer up money to get involved with the next fresh face. But what happens when that personality fades into history or some unforeseen drop in popularity takes place? Ask the PGA that question.

In 1969, star drivers refused to race at the brand new Talladega Super Speedway because of concerns over tires. Then NASCAR boss Bill France, Sr. recognized that the sport had to be bigger than any of them and held the race anyway. The crowds still came. And the next year, so did the star drivers.

I do not believe the current leadership of this sport has that same long term vision. As long as souvenirs are selling right now, little else seems to matter in terms of long term impact.

NASCAR officials were almost boastful when they declared that their study showed fans cared more about stories on drivers than on the sport itself. But to me, what that study showed was that the fate of the sport could rest with the fortunes of three or four individuals who are, after all, only human.

But then again, maybe it’s just the way our society functions nowadays.

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Topics: Articles |

11 Responses to “NASCAR’s reliance on personalities could damage the sport in the long term”

  1. Lydia Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 6:38 am

    You know Mr. Allen I read your article and was right there with you..until I finished reading and started mulling it over. In theory you’re right.. It should be about the sport and not the participants …but in the human “real world” it’s all about “connecting”. Your example of the ” non star studded” Talladega race was great.. But I would watch a Talladega race no matter who was’s Talladega man! But, when it comes to some of the other ” snoozer” tracks…I need that “my driver” connection to keep me interested in the race. I need to watch the entire race to see where my guy finishes and how it affects his points standing. I need to hear how his car was, his pit crew, his overall view on how his team is progressing. Without that driver connection, for me, NASCAR would be just another race….something to watch when the weather’s bad or I’m under the weather. I’m human and watching 3400 pounds of metal go around and around is NOT enough..I need to be able to put myself in the seat..and the only way I can do that is by “knowing” my driver.

  2. Russ Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Rich, all excellent points. I would say, that from a strictly economic view, the churning of drivers, sponsors, and paint schemes, has made someone a lot of money, just in merchandise sales. So you can look for that to continue.

    It is interesting that the cult of personalities is focused on some of the least successful drivers. You would think it would be otherwise.

    On a historical note, the factory boycotts of the 60’s cemented the focus on personalities. While the drivers had been popular before, many rooted for a brand of car. Nascar decided they were never again going to be held hostage by the manufacturers, and totally shifted the focus to the drivers.

  3. Sue Rarick Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:24 am

    I rooted for Fireball Roberts originally and over the years as one of my drivers retired I found another to replace them. Today I root for Kyle Busch, David Reutimann and because I spent my working life as a woman in a man’s career, I will root for Danica.

    For me Nascar has always been about the personalities. It surely isn’t about the technology. Gordon and Hamlin racing side by side is just good racing side by side. Busch and Harvick racing side by side has the chance of becoming high drama. And that is because of the drivers involved, not the equipment.

    IMO Nascar has always had a cult of personality from the beginning.

  4. Tony Geinzer Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Rich, I feel strongly and passionately that myself, where’s the bridge to fill the base once Jr. Retires? I know the Silver Fox-Petty- Elliott-Jr. Bridge, but truth be told, we need good drivers and not miss on Indy or NHRA in time.

  5. Charles Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:44 am


    I think you might miss the real meaning of the Nascar Study!

    This bought and paid for study by Nascar was something they ‘Nascar” devised from their ’spin room’ to try demote articles that are negative to Nascar…plain and simple..

    What Nascar needs to focus and study is what the fans would like on the race track…and thats what is in most columns they detest..grassroots fans making a statement that they dont want to hear!!!!!!!

  6. Bill B Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    I don’t know that NASCAR is driven by personalities anymore than other sports. You may argue that it’s ramped up more in NASCAR than other sports, but it’s there.
    Every sport relies on those personality players - Derek Jeter, Alex Ovechkin, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady - you know the one’s you see hawking everything on tv from sports drinks to underwear. If it appears more prevalent in NASCAR it’s because all 43 teams compete against each other every week, where in the other sports those high-profile players are spread out amongst teams that only compete against each other a handful of times in a season.
    Imagine if you took the best football, baseball, hockey or basketball players culled from the across the league and there were only two teams in each sport. It would more or less be the all-star teams from each league playing each other game after game. Without the home team factor the personality driven factor of the sport would definitely increase.
    As always, comparing NASCAR to other sports is an apples to oranges affair.

  7. NaBUru38 Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    When I was a kid, I rooted for Michael Schumacher in Formula 1. When he retired, I didn’t know who to root for. I tried to go for Lewis Hamilton, who was young, fast and cool. But later he turned whiny and McLaren was found as a cheater.

    So I ended up rooting for any Ferrari driver, even Alonso who I don’t enjoy as a personality. But the link isn’t too strong: I don’t fully support Ferrari in Le Mans racing, I like other winning too.

    I agree that relying on personalities is dangerous in the long term, because drivers come and go, and it’s hard to create personalities constantly. That’s why team sports rely on team rivalries: Celtics vs Lakers, Argentina vs England, Manchester vs Liverpool, Real Madrid vs Barcelona.

    F1 has done the same: Ferrari and McLaren have been rivals for decades. Nascar could do the same with manufacturers. IndyCar could do it with Penske vs Penske.

  8. NaBUru38 Says:
    February 14th, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    (I meant Penske vs Ganassi.)

  9. Steve Says:
    February 15th, 2012 at 11:32 am

    My view is that if Nascar made sure the product on the track was good, everything else would take care of itself. Old school fans back when the racing was exciting every week, still remained fans, even when their driver retired. I don’t know you can say that now. When Jr retires, how many of those fans are going to stick around.

  10. Offkilter Says:
    February 15th, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Nascar trying to push patrick out in the spotlight for the casual fan is actually smart. Nothing wrong with them marketing the personality side. If the argument that the sport is more important than the personalities was true, why bother paying a driver millions a year? Just engineer the cars to be remote controll and have a kid to drive it from the spotter’s stand.

  11. Justin Says:
    February 16th, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with the fans being more focused on the drivers and their personalities than the sport as a whole. That’s only natural; the fans watch races for entertainment, just like any other sport. However, the leaders of Nascar must not forget that it is their responsibility to take the long view and always consider the health of the sport over any driver, no matter how popular. To try and cater to the whims of the fans in the interest of short-term profits is to be derelict of duty, and is a grave mistake.