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Can NASCAR Steer Itself Back Into Popularity?

Oct 30, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 5:24 am

As the NASCAR season climaxes, America's prime motor sport continues to see its popularity in decline. For several years now, revenues and sponsorship have plummeted, leaving an audience that increasingly resembles the stereotype NASCAR so desperately thought it could grow beyond: older white Dixie working class.

Both ESPN and the Turner Broadcasting Co., longtime NASCAR networks, took a look at the down graphs and the down-scale demographics and didn't even bother to bid on the new TV contract.

Economics, of course, are part of the problem. Not as many folks can gas up the big old RV and head off to a long weekend at a track a ways away.

But there may be a couple other more fundamental problems NASCAR should face up to.

Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on this issue.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's turn next to commentator Frank Deford, who has some thoughts on speed and diminishing returns.

FRANK DEFORD: As the NASCAR season climaxes, America's prime motor sport continues to see its popularity in decline. For several years now, revenues and sponsorship have plummeted, leaving an audience that increasingly resembles the stereotype that NASCAR so desperately thought it could grow beyond: Older, white, Dixie working-class.

While ESPN and the Turner Broadcasting Company, longtime NASCAR networks, took a look at the down graphs and the down-scale demographics and didn't even bother to bid on the new TV contract. Economics, of course, are part of the problem. Not as many folks can gas up the big old RV and head off to a long weekend at a track a long ways away.

But there may be a couple other more fundamental problems that NASCAR must face up to. First of all, the evidence shows that our fascination with cars and, by extension, cars running around in a circle, has diminished. To so many younger Americans, a car is just another appliance like a refrigerator or a popcorn machine.

The famous expression: The American love affair with the car. If there's any apparatus Americans have a love affair with now, it's the cell phone and its new, improved variations thereof. Hey, that's why we have people texting while driving. Just driving is so passé.

And you can even play games on your phone. For a generation that's grown up with videogames, merely watching automobiles drive fast simply may not be thrilling enough. It's not just cars, either. Whereas races were always the mainstay of sport, surely going back to Paleolithic times, simple speed itself is out of fashion. Horse racing lost its place in the top tier of American sports as soon as other forms of gambling were legalized. And people racing, the track in track and field, is not nearly so popular.

The hundred meters still gets a little mainstream attention because the champion is romantically called The World's Fastest Human. But even that's only like the Kentucky Derby, or the Daytona 500 or Olympic swimming; races that reach beyond their core audience, but only briefly.

In the complex world that Americans have grown up in, everything is fast, so speed is blithely accepted and devalued. Speed records used to be stylish - cars, planes, boats. But now all of that is ho-hum. Now that's ho-hum. "The Amazing Race" on television is probably our most popular race now, precisely because it's not just a race, but a game first, full of fun obstacles. Speed up the game? No, the trick is to game up the speed.

A car? A car is a comfortable container full of FM and DVD and AC and GPS. Do we really want to watch cars anymore? Cars are for taking you somewhere like to a game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Or a place to listen to Frank Deford on the radio. He joins us each Wednesday on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.