For NASCAR the year 2011 will bring opportunities for it to improve itself, whether that be through competition, image or its status in the world of professional sports.
Here’s a suggestion: For NASCAR to indeed become something new and improved it must, in some portion, return to the old.
To be clear, this is meant to say that perhaps the most important thing NASCAR can do for itself as we approach the new year is to become more of what it once was.
I daresay the sanctioning body has already told itself that.
Stock car racing’s roots are firmly entrenched in the legend – no, the fact – that it was born in the rural South and its competitors were rough hewn men who didn’t have much of an education but who had common sense. Many made a living as best they could, often outside the law, and in so doing one thing they learned was how to drive cars fast along small country roads.
They parlayed that into competition. In time the vision of Bill France Sr. gained control of it and propelled it into a sport that eventually provided some men with a new way to make a comfortable living – and in a sport that grew into national prominence.
Today’s NASCAR is nothing like it once was and never will be again. It is a wide-reaching sport that engulfs the entire nation. It is a full-scale marketing phenomenon that has grown into national prominence and is broadcast coast-to-coast via television. It is unlike like the elder France might have ever imagined.
As all of this evolved NASCAR forgot what it used to be. It seemed that to mold itself into a proper, and financially rewarding, entity for an admiring new public it had to mandate rules to fit a more innocent image, one that was far removed from the rough-and-tumble one it once had.
It seemed it wanted its competitors to become more prim and proper with not even a hint of the rednecks they were once perceived to be. NASCAR saw to that by providing stiff penalties for any behavior it warranted as unacceptable.
It got its wish. It dearly paid for it. It knows it.
That’s one reason why, in 2010, it told us that, yes, racing was a contact sport and that, yes, it wanted its drivers to settle their issues among themselves – as they once did – rather than for it to constantly intervene and, in so doing, so cowed drivers they dared not reveal their true personalities.
Rivalries, however infrequent, arose. Some drivers became villains who invoked fans’ disdain. Others were perceived as heroes.
The point is that NASCAR regained a portion of what it once was. In one man’s opinion, that helped, somewhat, to remove something that drove away many of its longtime, hardcore fans, the ones it so very much needs today.
To capture a measure of its past image is by no means the only challenge NASCAR faces in 2011. Hardly.
It will have to deal with the lean economy, as will its teams, speedways and fans. Perhaps all will be better in the coming year, which will be good for us all.
NASCAR must hope that the competition will at least rise to the level it did in 2010, when the Chase produced its most dramatic finish ever. It has to trust that any anticipated changes to the “playoff” will do just that.
Yeah, it might help that Jimmie Johnson does not win a sixth consecutive title. But you can’t blame him by any means, OK? He’s accomplished what he has with his, and his team’s, talent within the system. It’s up to others to beat him. If they cannot, well ….
There will be continued issues with NASCAR’s new car but, it appears, the altered front end might convince some disgruntled fans that what they see on the track more closely approaches what it is their driveway – which, I believe, has always been one of the sanctioning body’s strengths. Yes, it’s not likely, but at the very least it’s a step in the right direction. And it sure won’t hurt if Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, wins once and a while.
Certainly there will be more issues. With each season there always are. But one issue NASCAR cannot ignore is that it must allow the sport to become more of what it once was and that helped bring it to what it is today.
In other words, it must continue to do what it started in 2010, when it said racing was a “contact sport.”
And when it said, “Boys, have it.”
The thought here is that, if stock car racing becomes more like it used to be, eventually it will become more appealing to those who want to see it for the first time – and for those who want to see it as they remember it.
Today NASCAR needs them all.
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