The Last Frontier: Getting Women in Nascar

The UConn women just capped off a historically dominating dynasty with their fourth straight national title. The WNBA’s ratings grow year after year. US Women’s Soccer has reached greater heights than the men’s team. For years, women’s sports have been relegated to an afterthought, marginalized by large segments of society. Now, however, as they continue a slow and steady march into prominence, the sports where women lack representation face greater scrutiny. Nowhere have women been less able to break down the gender barrier than in motorsports. A look at NASCAR, America’s most popular form of auto racing, can help us learn why.

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NASCAR has exactly one prominent female driver, Danica Patrick, and the amount of criticism she has faced has been disproportionate to her driving ability. A look at the comments on any Facebook post about her makes that evident–there’s a consistent chorus of complaints that Danica is unqualified, that she’s only in her car because she’s a woman. However, when you look at her racing stats, she’s been driving fine.

Her racing pedigree is solid–she’s raced go-karts since she was 10 and placed top 10 overall in the IndyCar Series 6 times. Danica hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since she switched to NASCAR, but in 2015 she finished ahead of 2-time Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse, former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, and her boss, 3-time champion Tony Stewart. None of these other drivers have faced the same level of criticism Danica has–Bayne and Stenhouse have been similarly underwhelming, but no one says they have their rides “only because they’re men.” Danica Patrick faces an excessive amount of criticism from the fans, but the problem doesn’t lie just with them–it’s part of NASCAR’s overall culture.

RIDGEWAY, VA - APRIL 07: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, leads a group of cars out of turn four during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 7, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR has a demographic problem which has been long overlooked by the sport’s leaders. Most NASCAR viewers tend to be older, white men–while most sports make their bread and butter from attracting 18-45 year olds, NASCAR’s viewers are dominated by 46-65 year olds. An influx of younger, more diverse followers will make the fanbase more accepting of women and minority drivers in NASCAR. While older fans who grew up watching the sport in the 1980’s and 1990’s are accustomed to the all white and male racers, younger fans would respond to a more diverse group with more enthusiasm.

However, for there to be female drivers at NASCAR’s highest levels, there have to be girls racing at its lowest. Most NASCAR drivers get their start racing go-karts or sprint cars around dirt tracks–many begin when they’re just 6,7, or 8 years old. However, if you attend these races today, the vast majority of the kids racing are boys. It’s tough for girls to break into a sport dominated by boys.

This is where NASCAR, which has often been criticized for being behind the times, has made significant progress. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has begun to develop a crop of very capable women and minority drivers. It trains and publicizes female racers across the nation. It’s gotten women’s organizations and minority community leaders involved in the sport. Most importantly, it’s begun to change the culture of the sport, opening it up to new participants and fans. NASCAR has a very long way to go to get women in the sport, but when it does, it will be better for it.

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The Problem With the All-Star Race

The All-Star Race is supposed to be one of the best events of the year. A Saturday night at Charlotte where the best names in the sport battle for a chance at a million dollars. However, in recent years this star-studded spectacle has become a snoozefest. The 2015 edition featured no cautions, almost no passing, and an uneventful battle for the finish, as Denny Hamlin won by over a second. Drivers such as 2nd place Kevin Harvick blamed the new rules package, which makes passing very difficult. However, the problems with the All-Star Race didn’t begin this year–they’ve been around for over a decade, and Nascar hasn’t come close to fixing them.

While all-star games in other sports, such as the NBA and the NFL have over 10 million viewers, Nascar’s All-Star races struggle to break 3. Part of this is simply the nature of the sport. In the NFL, the only time you see the best of the best on the field together, the only time you can see Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, and Odell Beckham on the same field is during the Pro Bowl. In Nascar, we see the best  drivers on the same track every single Sunday–by including the 20 best racers, all the All-Star Race does is eliminate the backmarkers in the bottom half of the field. Cutting the field more, to 15 or even 10 drivers, would help increase interest by making the race feel more special and less like a normal Saturday night.

The main draw of the All-Star Race is the million-dollar prize. However, in a day and age where drivers routinely earn $5 million in annual winnings and match that in endorsements, a million bucks doesn’t mean what it used to. Nascar needs to increase the prize money–awarding 2 million dollars for a win and 5 million for sweeping the race segments would create better, more spirited racing. Nascar needs to bring back elements of the old All-Star Races as well–inverting the field and introducing eliminations would make for a much more exciting race.

 

The Decline of Nascar Part 3: Fixing NASCAR’s Problems

Earlier, in part 1 and part 2 of this story, I discussed the problems that are facing Nascar. And there are plenty. The sport faces plunging attendance, declining TV viewership, and fans who see lethargic racing, boring drivers, and a lack of excitement. These problems, although serious, do not spell the death of Nascar. But how can Nascar fix these problems? Well, you’ll see here.

1. Better cars

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The new cars (shown on the right) have more brand identity

The much reviled Car of Tomorrow, which was introduced in 2007 and quickly became the subject of unilateral hate, has been phased out of Nascar. Starting this season, the new Gen-6 cars have been introduced into the sport. And what a difference they have made! The new cars immediately got a positive reaction from the fans. They are much more aesthetically pleasing and look more like their street counterparts. All of the Car of Tomorrow models looked exactly the same. The cars have also led to more exciting racing. The races in California, Las Vegas,and New Hampshire were all much more exciting than they had been in years. However, Nascar still has some work today. Lethargic follow-the-leader racing still persists at tracks such as the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Daytona and Talladega featured long stretches of double-file racing where virtually no passing occurred. Gone are the days when a driver could charge to the front of the filed in just a few laps. An improved aero package for the superspeedways would go a long way to rectifying this.

2. TV deal

Nascar has made agreements to have its races broadcast on FOX, TNT, and ESPN throughout the season. The TNT and ESPN deals come up for renewal at the end of the 2014 season. Renewing these deals, especially the agreement with TNT, would hurt Nascar and decrease its viewership. TNT consistently puts out poor quality, commercial filled broadcasts that turn even the most exciting races into snoozefests. NBC and CBS are reportedly interested in broadcasting races. Nascar would be well-advised to consider their offers. In order to gain more exposure, Nascar races need to be broadcasted on major networks like NBC and CBS, not on cable channels like TNT and ESPN.  I mean, who really watches TNT?

3. Stopping Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson has won five straight championships. Take a moment to digest that.  In any other sport, or even with any other driver, his accomplishment would be celebrated, revered even. The only other teams that have done this are the 1950’s Yankees, the 1960’s Celtics, and the 1950’s Montreal Canadiens. That’s it. And yet, when people talk about Johnson’s achievement, it is not with reverence or with awe. His streak is talked about with utter disgust. By many, Johnson is considered a bland and boring driver. His consistent performance is driving fans away from the sport. So, what can Nascar do to stop this?

First of all, they can Jimmie-proof the Chase, much like the PGA tour did after the rise of Tiger Woods. The PGA deliberately made their courses harder, adjusting tee-off spots and hole placements in order to ensure parity and make the courses more difficult for Tiger. Now, obviously Nascar doesn’t have the ability to change the layout of their tracks, but they do have the ability to change the schedule. If Nascar were to take out Chase tracks that Jimmie performs well at, such as Martinsville, Phoenix, Kansas, or Dover, and replace them with tracks where he consistently performs poorly, such as Bristol, Watkins Glen, or Richmond, it would go a long way towards stopping Jimmie’s dominance.  Upping the scrutiny on Johnson’s cars would also help Nascar hold back the 48. More incidents like at New Hampshire, where Jimmie was sent to the back of the field after he failed post-qualifying inspection, would put a damper on the 48’s success.

4. Better racing 

This fix is fairly simple. Fans and sportswriters  alike have complained about the high volume of intermediate, Cookie cutter tracks, and with good reason. Nascar races at 1.5 mile ovals such as Texas, Las Vegas, and Atlanta often feature long boring stretches of single file racing. There are on average only two caution flags for crashes per race. Races are often won and lost by strategy calls on top of the pit box, rather than by a great move on the track. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Jimmie Johnson is often at his best on these tracks. The solution? Move races away from these cookie cutter raceways. Replace them with road course events, or short tracks. Another superspeedway race like Talladega would be a good idea as well. Nascar should even consider hosting a race on a dirt track. The Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway (7 ET, July 24 on SPEED), has already generated an insane amount of interest–and that’s just a Truck Series race! It featured great racing and some of the best storylines of the year. It doesn’t matter where Nascar moves its races. It just needs to move them away form the 1.5 mile cookie cutters.

5. The economy

Many Nascar fans have stopped coming to races because of the economy. They simply can’t afford it. Aside from reducing the cost of its tickets, there’s not much that Nascar can do to stop this. Nascar just needs to ride the recession out. When the economy improves, so will ticket sales.

Eldora was a step in the right direction for Nascar. To read about how the race went down and whether it was a success, click here. 

Did Michael Waltrip Racing conspire to fix the race at Richmond? Read here for more info.

The Decline of NASCAR–Part 2

Aaaaaaaaand, we’re back! In my earlier post, which can be found here, I discussed three major challenges facing NASCAR as it struggles to grow in this post-recession world. Beset by (1) the rise of corporate molded personalities such as 5 time champion Jimmie Johnson, (2) poor quality racing, and (3) bad broadcasts and commentating by networks such as TNT, NASCAR has stagnated. Track attendance is down. In 2012, no NASCAR races were sellouts. Television ratings have remained flat throughout the last 5 years, in stark contrast to the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, when ratings grew 5 to 10% every season. I’ve already examined 3 problems facing NASCAR. Today I look at two more issues that threaten the sport’s future.

4. Nascar has an image problem

Stock car racing is consistently one of the top three most watched sports in America, beating almost every major sporting league except the NFL in the ratings. However, Nascar’s exposure in the news media is minimal. On ESPN’s popular SportsCenter program, Nascar is talked about for at most five minutes in the course of an hour long TV show. In the New York Times Sports Section, which I’m using as an example because it’s the only paper I get, stock car races are lucky to get a two paragraph write up buried under the box scores. Midseason college basketball, youth soccer competitions, and national swimming championships all get more press and exposure than Nascar. And this is a problem. Nascar can’t attract new fans and new audiences if it has no exposure in the media. No one will get hooked on Nascar by reading a four sentence blurb about last week’s race.

Pictured: More popular than NASCAR?

If Nascar has a problem getting exposure, then it also has a problem with its image. Nascar is looked down upon by many, most of whom have never even seen an actual race. It’s perceived as a borefest where cars do nothing but go around in circles for hours on end. The drivers are seen as out-of-shape rednecks who sit in a car for a living. Many don’t even consider Nascar to be a real sport. And this is not true. Being a race car driver requires better hand-eye coordination than basketball, boxing, or football, better reactions and judgement than baseball, cycling, or martial arts, and more nerve than just about any other sport. Yet, people still hold Nascar in disdain, refusing to attend an event or to watch a race on TV. This perception needs to change, or else Nascar will have serious trouble with attracting new fans and increasing its ratings.

5. The Economy

Many of Nascar’s woes can be traced back to the economic troubles that the United States is going through. People all across the country are experiencing money problems, and this directly impacts their habits concerning Nascar. People can’t afford to pay for high-priced tickets to Nascar events. The cost of the gas needed to travel to the tracks also turns many people away from the sport. People can’t afford to take vacations and spend long weekends at a Nascar track. If they take time off, they’ll be perceived as slacking and will be the first to go if a new round of layoffs hit. The Great Recession has put a major dent in Nascar’s ticket sales and attendance records. However, the silver lining in this is that the American economy will eventually recover. America will bounce back, and when it does, once again prosperous race fans will be able to spend the money needed to attend races. Nascar just needs to ride the economic crisis out, and eventually it will come out on top.

Nascar is experiencing many problems, and as a result its viewership is in decline. But these problems are not fatal. They do not spell the death of this great American sport. How can Nascar fix its issues and surge to the top once again? Stay tuned to find out.

To read about how these problems can be fixed, click here.

Did Michael Waltrip Racing conspire to fix the race at Richmond? Read here for more info.

The Decline of NASCAR

For part 2 of this story, click here.

To read about how these problems can be fixed, click here.

NASCAR was once one of America‘s most popular sports. In the late ’90s and the early 2000s, NASCAR saw an unprecedented growth in popularity and TV ratings. NASCAR’s meteoric rise was fed by the rise of Jeff Gordon, whom many consider to be NASCAR’s first superstar, and the death of legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. However, in recent years that growth has slowed. Bland drivers, storylines, and racing have sent NASCAR’s TV ratings into a tailspin. They have also been responsible for steadily declining attendance at NASCAR races. NASCAR is in danger of fading into irrelevance if it does not do something to revitalize its growth and make it once again America’s fastest growing sport.

Over the past few years, multiple problems have beset NASCAR racing. Here are some of the biggest ones.

1. The rise of Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson has accomplished a feat no one ever thought possible. From 2006-2010, Johnson won five straight Sprint Cup Championships. His domination of the sport has actually been one of the main reasons for its decline. These five titles chases were some of the most boring in modern NASCAR history. Aside from 2007, in which Johnson was met with a stiff challenge from Jeff Gordon, and in 2010, when Johnson came from behind to beat Denny Hamlin for the title, all of Johnson’s title chases have been fairly boring. the outcome of the season was never in doubt. Like Dale Earnhardt’s domination of the sport in the early ’90s, and Jeff Gordon’s spate of championships from 1995-2001, Johnson’s winning streak should have been a boon for NASCAR–a fresh face on top of the sport. However, people have instead turned away form the sport because of Jimmie. Jimmie just isn’t that likable. He’s a wonderful person and a class act on the track, but he is not very charismatic or interesting. Jimmie is seen by many fans as having a corporate-molded persona. To them, Johnson is just one more slick average character in a sea of similar faces. Having such a bland person as the face of NASCAR is not what the sport needs. But with Jimmie, that’s what has happened.

Shot by The Daredevil at Daytona during Speedw...

Jimmie Johnson during 2008

NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt

NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt

2. Poor racing

The quality of NASCAR racing has declined in recent years. Fans and drivers alike have complained about new tracks and new cars that make it difficult to pass. Many argue that the quality of racing has declined–fans are now subjected to long periods of green flag racing where the drivers ride around the track in single files. Others complain about the tracks. Most of the tracks recently added to the NASCAR circuit have been 1.5 mile ovals. Critics have charged that these cookie cutter tracks are too similar and that all result in lethargic racing. Whatever the reason, the excitement in NASCAR has slowed, and that has been reflected by the drop-off in TV ratings.

Single file racing

But a lack of passing is not the only reason that fans have been turned away. Fuel mileage races, in which victory comes down to who can last the longest on a tank of gas rather than who drives the fastest, have become more and more common. In 2011, for example, virtually every single race on a 1.5 mile track came down to who could finish the race without running out of gas. Fuel mileage racing takes away the action associated with a race and adds a sense of boredom to what is normally the most exciting part of a race–the finish.

3. Bad broadcasting

Sometimes, when covering a sport, a good announcer can keep you on the the edge of your seat, completely engaged in what you’re watching, even if the event isn’t exactly a thriller. This has not been the case with NASCAR. NASCAR broadcasters, especially those on TNT, are known for providing decidedly dull coverage of races.

Let’s compare. In August 2012, I was watching a Formula 1 race, the Belgian Grand Prix. The race was won by Jenson Button, who led every lap and finished 13 seconds ahead of 2nd place Sebastian Vettel. The outcome was never in doubt. And yet, that Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever watched on TV. The camera crew was excellent, showing close ups of intense action and racing happening all around the track. The announcers were exciting, providing fast-paced calls and interesting color commentary.

Jenson Button in 2011

Jenson Button in 2011

Now let’s compare a NASCAR race on TNT–namely, last summer’s race at the Infineon Raceway, one of only two non-oval tracks on the NASCAR circuit. This broadcast epitomized the TV troubles NASCAR has been having. The announcers were uninteresting, spending more time discussing their new in-car cameras than they did actually talking about the racing. There were long pauses as they frequently contradicted each other as to what was going on during the race. At the same time they missed some great battles for position on the racetrack. The broadcast was bad. TNT turned a great race into a snoozer.

NASCAR has problems, and these problems are hurting its popularity. TV ratings are down. Ticket sales are down. Merchandise sales are down. NASCAR is down. But its not out. The sport can fix and recover from these problems. But it will have to make some major changes in order to survive. How can NASCAR come surging back? Stay tuned to find out.

 Part 2 can be found here.

To read Part 3, click here.

Did Michael Waltrip Racing conspire to fix the race at Richmond? Read here for more info.