Story by: Ben Sanders
The 2017 NASCAR season is the most important and vital year for the sport, not just in the immediate, but also long term future. It is a sport that has declined 45 percent in television viewership and struggled year-to-year over the past decade for race attendance. With such a complex juggernaut, Brian France and his staff have a job on their hands to recreate the atmosphere of the mid 90’s and early 2000’s.
In recent times, NASCAR has introduced a playoff system, changed the points structure a multitude of times and now race to stages, much like they do in exhibition events, to recreate the atmosphere of its heyday. The racing has always been close, intense and enthralling, but the advanced technology in the vehicles make them look easy to drive and the middle parts of the events have become, not boring, but processional as the drivers are smarter to maneuver themselves for the last run to the checkered flag.
NASCAR is in a tough predicament as shortening races in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series has added excitement, but those feeder series are meant to be short sprint races to acclimate young drivers and springboard veterans trying to make it back to the top. A fan who pays upwards of $166 for a ticket does not want to experience an event shorter than an NBA game or MLS game for five times more money.
However, what NASCAR has done subtly over this offseason is position themselves for 10-15 years down the line to reinvigorate and transform the sport– or at least attempt to. The key acquisition of the naming rights deal with Monster Energy shouldn’t be overlooked. Monster Energy only associates themselves with extreme, genuine sports and athletes. Ever watched a Ken Block Gymkhana video? You should.
Monster Energy’s unique focus on online content can only be a positive as NASCAR has had an issue of its content disappearing into the vast abyss of the world-wide web or turned into a crash compilation YouTube video, which is accompanied by some god-awful Drowning Pool song. Monster Energy is finally appealing directly to people in our age bracket, 18-25-year-old’s, and getting us involved and up close with the product they are sponsoring like it does with AMA Supercross.
It has worked, at least for the Daytona 500, as there was an increase in viewership in men aged 18-34 by 10 percent and adults aged 18-34 by 13 percent, per a stat tweeted by NASCAR media legend and ESPN reporter Bob Pockrass on Monday, despite the overall rating being flat at 6.6 compared to the 2016 edition of the Great American Race.
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) February 27, 2017
The next thing NASCAR has done is introduce stage racing, where drivers race to a certain lap to achieve points not only to the season total, but also the playoff point total to whoever is leading at the end of the first two segments. At Daytona on Sunday these drivers were 2015 champion Kyle Busch and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick. A restrictor plate race is much different than a traditional race on an intermediate track, but drivers were doing anything they could to score as many points at the segment end. This appeals to our lack of attention span by splitting one race, into almost three different 60, 60 and 80 lap races for the Daytona 500.
It is also a positive for the drivers as they are rewarded for running well throughout the race and safeguards against unforeseen circumstances such as blowing an engine on the last lap or inadvertently being wiped out by a lapped driver. This prevents championship battling drivers from being resigned to a bad point haul due to factors beyond their control and increases intensity in moments of the race that would otherwise be less eventful. This isn’t the racing equivalent of a participation trophy, major points are only scored through 30th place anyway, but vindication that a driver is rewarded for racing hard all day. It is the equivalent to an and-1 play in basketball or extra point in football, rewarding players and teams for playing at 100 percent.
Finally, there is a changing of the guard in the sport. Veteran drivers are reaching the end of their careers and are being replaced by young, talented, fast drivers. Young drivers are less experienced, high-risk assets and are trying to prove themselves in the sport, which means excitement and unpredictability.
NASCAR driving and broadcasting legend Darrell Waltrip says yellow bumpers create excitement-all rookies are required to have a neon yellow strip adorned on the rear bumper- and says these drivers “don’t know what they don’t know.” Simply put, young drivers put their cars in positions that are risky and sketchy and either end up in victory lane or crashing into the wall and sliding through the infield.
Over this offseason alone Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte and even 28-year-old Brian Scott have all decided to retire or change directions in their careers to devote more time to family and move into other roles within the sport.
As much as losing these drivers could hurt the sport by dividing fan bases and providing a void for long-term fans, this young crop of talent are the best young drivers to ever come through the sport. Not only are these drivers quick, but they are also relatable despite making millions of dollars. Drivers such as Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. enjoy the same music we do. All of those guys have gone to the Vans Warped Tour in Orlando the weekend of the Coke Zero 400 July 4th NASCAR weekend– some even quote Drake and J.Cole on their social media posts.
Additionally, Kyle Larson has admitted in interviews he stays up all night playing video games with his friends, something that we all have done and still do despite juggling our work and school responsibilities and obligations.
In the 2017 Daytona 500, 14 of the 40 drivers were under the age of 26-years-old. Of the 200 laps run these drivers led 65 of them. Usually young drivers aren’t trusted by the veterans to make the correct and safe moves in the draft at Daytona and get forced to the rear of the pack. Chase Elliott, 21, was in front of the field for the second most circuits with 39, only 11 shy of Harvick’s race high of 50 laps led. Drivers under the age of 26-years-old led 32.5 percent of the laps run compared to 2016 when they only led 2.5 percent of the race. That is a measly five laps.
So, what does this mean? Why you should you care? NASCAR is for rednecks, right? How can you sit through those races?
— UCF HittingTheField (@HittingTheField) February 27, 2017
NASCAR has positioned themselves to take advantage of the millennial demographic to capitalize on what we like and necessitate from sports. Short, fast-paced action that is tangible, that we can feel, touch and interact with in person and through our smartphones. Only time will tell if they succeed, but the sport has been firmly put in our hands. It is our responsibility to make sure that the largest, wildest spectator sport in the U.S. doesn’t die a slow, painful, and undignified death.
Featured image for this post courtesy of NASCAR