Boring. Tedious. Interminable. Dull.
Those are words commonly associated with a boring lecture or tax preparation, not a sport involving 43 cars piloted by outrageously talented and fearless drivers racing just inches apart at more than 200 miles per hour on some tracks. But that's the state of NASCAR today.
The 2012 NASCAR season, which (mercifully) ended Sunday, will be remembered as much for long stretches of spread-out, single-file racing as for its outspoken new Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski.
The limited number of passes, few cautions to tighten up the pack and races that often featured well over three hours of excitement on par with watching paint dry, may seem like a problem limited to NASCAR fans. But it's not.
In the Chattanooga area, where every tourism dollar is vitally important, the waning interest in NASCAR impacts both business and government revenues.
The lackluster quality of the on-track product over the last few years, coupled with the poor economy, has translated into fewer fans in the stands. With the interstate highways that bisect the Chattanooga area -- I-75, I-59 and I-24 -- providing primary pathways for fans across the country to reach tracks in Atlanta, Bristol, Tenn., and Talladega (which sits east of Birmingham), fewer NASCAR fans means fewer people stopping off in Chattanooga on their way to and from NASCAR tracks in our region.
In real numbers, only 196,500 fans combined to attended the two race at the Talladega Superspeedway this year, down from 315,000 five years ago.
Attendance became so woeful at the Atlanta Motor Speedway that NASCAR officials gave one of its race dates to a better-performing track before the 2011 season. As a result, a track that once drew 250,000 fans now struggles to get 90,000 fans through the turnstiles.
NASCAR's attendance problems are perhaps most apparent at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Northeast Tennessee track has long been a favorite of NASCAR enthusiasts, drawing thousands of fans through Chattanooga on their way from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia on their way to the Bristol for race weekend. This year, attendance was down 23 percent compared to the track's 2009 two-race turnout.
For Chattanooga, that means thousands fewer people grabbing lunch, buying gas and seeing Rock City on their way to the track than in the past.
Of course, the impact of the competition woes plaguing NASCAR are felt far beyond the ripple in the Chattanooga economy. The issue affects everything from the sport's television ratings -- which are down 21 percent from 2005, and were down in 9 of the last 10 races compares to last year's numbers -- to the sponsorship dollars that subsidize the hefty expense of running a race team.
With fewer people tuning in on TV and showing up at the track, and fewer companies willing to invest in NASCAR, how can the sport fix its popularity problem?
Naturally, some of the issues are related to the economy. Not as many fans can afford to travel to races, and fewer companies can shell out the eight-figure sums necessary to serve as a primary sponsor on a competitive Sprint Cup race team. But that should also be the case with all sports, and it's not. The NFL, with its competitive games and compelling story lines, is handling the Great Recession just fine, thank you.
NASCAR, by comparison, was neither particularly competitive nor compelling this season -- and it was mostly the fault of people who run the sport. In their attempt to develop a safer race car, NASCAR officials created the unintended consequence of fashioning a car which, aerodynamically, gives the leader a tremendous advantage. As a result, passes for the lead -- the most exciting moment in auto sports -- are few and far between.
Thankfully, NASCAR leaders claim a new body style, which will be introduced in 2013, will fix that issue.
NACAR officials seem less interested in fixing two other issues plaguing the sport: tracks that are too similar and races that are two long.
In the height of NASCAR's popularity, from the mid-1990s to about 2005, the sport's leaders wanted to expand its footprint beyond its traditional Southeastern market. Tracks were built near large metro areas such as Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Chicago -- and race dates were taken away from oddly-sized and peculiarly-shaped tracks in places like North Wilkesboro, N.C. and Darlington, S.C.
That would be fine except track builders, in an effort to create tracks that could be used by both NASCAR and Indy Cars, built all of those new tracks to be roughly the same length and layout -- mile-and-one-half ovals. The dimensions created thrilling Indy Car races, but boring, uncompetitive racing for the larger, less stable NASCAR cars.
NASCAR can't begin winning back fans until it is willing to run fewer races at the tracks that simply don't produce exciting races, and run more races at the short tracks, road courses and superspeedways that provide for more passing and more excitement.
Finally, much as the sports-watching culture is shifting away from baseball's slow pace and afternoon-devouring game lengths, the two-and-a-half to four-hour duration of NASCAR Sprint Cup is proving too much for the sport attention spans of today's sports fan.
NASCAR must find a way to shorten some, but not all, races to a more manageable one to two hour length.
Shortening races and taking away race dates from cookie-cutter tracks would require change; something NASCAR has traditionally avoided. If NASCAR is committed to being seen as a nationally-relevant fifth major league sport in America, and the Chattanooga area is to get a worthwhile economic kick from our surrounding tracks, such change is necessary.
However, if NASCAR is content with providing its ever-lessening number of fans with a boring product, while hemorrhaging television ratings and leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, the sport is on the right track.