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Question of the day: What is causing NASCAR’s ratings decline and how can it be fixed? [Updated]

June 30, 2010 | 10:33 am

Question_300 Reporters from around the Tribune Co. weigh in on the topic. Check back throughout the day for more responses and feel free to leave a comment of your own.

[Updated at 12:25 p.m.:

Jim Peltz, Los Angeles Times

Remember that Cup races remain among the most watched sports on TV; it’s that their popularity has sagged from its peak.

That said, there’s no one smoking gun. Many factors are cited: the finicky Car of Tomorrow, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s long struggle, Jimmie Johnson dominance, years of uneven race times that alienated viewers, online streaming and other new methods of tracking races, to name just a few. Too many “vanilla drivers” also get blamed, though a driver feud seems to break out weekly.

Two other possibilities: TV commentators’ compulsion to drone on about mechanics – count how many times the words “loose” and “tight” are mentioned over three or four hours – and incessant commercialization on broadcasts. It’s all so scripted now. Commercial. National anthem. Commercial. Command to start engines. Commercial. Etc.

There have been great TV fireworks between drivers after some recent races (see Joey Logano and Jeff Burton), but how many viewers stuck around to see them?

Andrew Wagaman, The Morning Call

Alienating its true fans, NASCAR seems to have forgotten who makes up the vast majority of its die-hard fans: blue-collar folks who covet a soggy pinch of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s expelled chewing tobacco more than a date to the new, $195-million NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In its attempts to expand and attract a more heterogeneous crowd, NASCAR has watered down the raceway and forsaken its Southern-rooted devotees. Some things buffering its edge can’t be helped -- such as the fact that racing’s superstar lives closer to the middle of the road than golf’s superstar.

And NASCAR is taking a step in the right direction by giving the green light to more aggressive driving. But if NASCAR wants to fill those metal bleachers and boost its ratings, it better remember what -- and who -- made it so popular in the first place.  

Shawn Courchesne, Hartford Courant

There are many reasons for NASCAR’s decline in ratings for the Sprint Cup Series. One that often isn’t talked about is the relationship between the Sprint Cup Series and its short-track racing roots.

The beauty of NASCAR during its meteoric rise in America’s crowded sports landscape during the 1990s was that grassroots short-track fans and participants could relate to the drivers. They saw the Dale Earnhardts and Terry Labontes and the rest of the big names of that era as men who worked hard to claw their way up the racing ladder from blue-collar backgrounds like their own.

A big part of the reason why fans spent so many years hating Jeff Gordon was because he was seen as the first prodigy “robo-driver.”

Today’s short-track racing fans, or even participants, have as much a connection to 20-year old Joey Logano as they do a Formula One driver. They see guys like Logano and Kyle Busch as simply purpose-built to make it to the top as fast as possible.

The Sprint Cup Series is no longer an extension of short-track racing, and that has caused a disconnect. Fixing that would involve NASCAR teams returning to the practice of looking for talent at the short tracks rather than developing teenagers who seemingly step from go-karts to the top.]

Tania Ganguli, Orlando Sentinel

Ratings for major sporting events have thrived this year. The Super Bowl drew 106 million viewers. The NBA Finals saw double-digit increases in its ratings.

But for two years in a row, NASCAR’s biggest race of the season floundered. The pothole disaster of this year followed last year’s rain-shortened race. Both times drivers who don’t incite passions won the race.

Then there’s the driver issue.

Though Jimmie Johnson’s souvenir sales show he has a core group of fans, and though he truthfully is a fascinating character, viewers just aren’t connecting to a season in which Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have won 10 of 17 races.

NASCAR needs Dale Earnhardt Jr. to succeed for his candor, his pedigree and his legions of faithful followers.

Once you’ve lost fans, it’s hard to win them back.

NASCAR has made the product and the show more exciting, but recovering viewers will take time.

Photo: Jimmie Johnson. Credit: Greg M. Cooper / US Presswire