Rarely has a sport had such a dramatic rise and an equally dramatic decline as NASCAR has over the last 20 years. That was vividly demonstrated on Sunday, when Jimmie Johnson won the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway.
It wasn’t that long ago when a race at Dover was the big story on Action News, Delaware division. More than 100,000 people would pack the grandstands and infield and the race would generate millions of dollars for the local economy and plenty of headaches for drivers trying to traverse the length of the state on routes 1 or 13. The sport of stock car racing was growing at a phenomenal rate and we were right in the middle of it.
We’re still in the middle of it, but the sport isn’t the big deal it was in the past. When Johnson won his record 11th race at Dover on Sunday, the crowd wasn’t nearly as large as it used to be, although we don’t know exactly how much the decline was since NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures in 2012 when that decline became too obvious and embarrassing. We do know that there was a sea of empty seats on Sunday, even though there were a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
Dover officials initially tried to cover up the empty seats several years ago with giant advertising banners. Then they simply removed thousands of seats, going from a maximum of 135,000 to 95,000 and then to 85,000. And it’s not just Dover – even Daytona, the sacred shrine of stock car racing, has seen serious decline and has removed 55,000 seats.
And it’s not just the people in the grandstands who aren’t showing up like they used to. Television ratings for NASCAR have also decreased dramatically – according to the Nielson ratings, there’s been a 45 percent decline in viewership from 2005 to 2016, a total of nine million viewers to 4.6 million.
There are multiple reasons for the decline in attendance and viewership, including a bad economy. But oversaturation hasn’t helped, as NASCAR expanded to take advantage of its then-growing popularity and apparently expanded too much. Plus the sport’s explosion of popularity, which took it from its southern roots to a national stage, also meant that the top drivers – who now earn millions of dollars — seemed to be less accessible than they were in the good ol’ days, and that approachability was a big reason the sport appealed to so many people. And now, with so many popular long-time drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. either retired or about to retire, NASCAR is losing another connection with those once-loyal fans. Now it has whiny cry-babies like Kyle Busch.
NASCAR has tried to stem the tide by tinkering with its rules and format, but so far nothing has worked. And now Dover’s first race of the season will be moved from June to May, another blow for this track, which is at least fortunate that it still has two races on the NASCAR calendar. But even that could change in the future if current trends continue.
That decline in stock car racing has been mirrored by another industry that has fallen on hard times – newspapers. When NASCAR was at its zenith 10-15 years ago, The News Journal covered the two annual Dover races like it did the first moon landing. The newspaper had a beat writer who covered all of the major races and in the week leading up to the two Dover races, the paper had a special section every day that included more information than any NASCAR fan needed, including the always-obligatory angle of what kind of impact the races had on the local economy.
That was then and this is now — last week before the race, there was hardly a printed word about it in The News Journal. On the actual day of the race, the only two articles about it were buried on Page 4 of the sports section and they weren’t even staff reports – they were written by reporters from USA Today and The Associated Press. There used to be a small army of News Journal reporters covering a million different angles, but this year, only one News Journal sports reporter was on hand to cover the actual race – the always-excellent Martin Frank — and he wrote only one article. Granted, there was another “game story’’ on the race by a USA Today writer on Page 7 of the sports section, but that was it.
That lack of coverage is mostly due to a lack of space and staff at the paper, but there’s no question the declining popularity of NASCAR played a big role in it, too. And it’s hard to see how NASCAR can reverse the trend and return to its glory days of the recent past. The question now isn’t whether the decline will end, but how bad it will get.