NASCAR must reignite passion

More speed, aggressiveness will excite fans

February 14, 2010|By Mike Bianchi

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It seems only appropriate that this Daytona 500 falls on Valentine's Day.

This is, after all, the day when NASCAR hopes its fans will fall back in love with its sport.

It is a day NASCAR hopes to write a steamy love letter at 190 mph, vowing to its long, lost fans that it has changed for the better; that the passion and romance is back; that the sport never again will stray and be unfaithful to those who love it most.

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Bump-drafting is legal,

Bigger restrictor plates, too.

Sunday's Great American Race is NASCAR's Great American Opportunity to rekindle a dying love affair.

NASCAR absolutely must get it right Sunday to help transform what has become the mundanely monotonous Dulltona 500 back into the deliriously dramatic Daytona 500. If NASCAR wants to recapture its fan base and rebound from its stale, stagnant malaise, the comeback must begin Sunday.

NASCAR entered the American sporting consciousness back in 1979 when CBS first televised the race wire-to-wire on a day when the entire East Coast, because of a blizzard, was stuck in the house watching TV. That historic, histrionic race ended with Cale Yarborough and the Allison boys wrecking each other on the final lap and brawling on the backstretch as the ultra-popular Richard Petty breezed by for the victory. That was America's first real taste of the rowdy, howdy world of stock-car racing.

Well, guess what? When the gentlemen in this Daytona 500 start their engines, the East Coast will still be blanketed by the record-breaking snowfall of a few days ago and bracing for yet another snowstorm. Meanwhile, NASCAR is doing everything it possibly can to return to its "If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin' " roots that captivated the country three decades ago.

The powers that be, after all these years, finally are starting to listen to those who matter most - the fans who watch and the drivers who compete. NASCAR always has been the most autocratic of all the major sports leagues. The France family founded it, funded it and ran it with an iron fist for three generations. And if you didn't like the way they did things - too bad.

But there's an old proverb: "Arrogance diminishes wisdom." And that's what happened to NASCAR. Because of the sport's booming success in the 1990s and early 2000s, NASCAR thought it could do no wrong. Profits took precedent over product. NASCAR drove so fast into the future, its past was left choking on the dust.

Fans were taken for granted; drivers were ignored. Before the 1997 Daytona 500 Dale Earnhardt - Dale Earnhardt Sr. - predicted NASCAR was driving off the edge of a cliff and didn't even know it.

"The days of exciting races at Daytona and Talladega (NASCAR's two superspeedways) are over," Earnhardt said of all the changes to adjust the aerodynamics, regulate the engines and slow down the cars. "It's no fun anymore. They finally got it like Indy-car racing."

Turns out the Intimidator was right. The Days of Thunder began to turn into the Daze of Boredom. The Great American Race turned into the Great American Insomnia Cure. The Daytona 500 turned into a bunch of puttering, powerless cars lollygagging around the track single file, afraid to get out of line for fear they would get shuffled to the rear of the pack. There was so little passing NASCAR might as well have painted double-yellow lines down the middle of Daytona's famous 2.5 mile tri-oval.

It's no wonder ticket sales have plunged and TV ratings declined in recent years.

And that brings us to this Daytona 500, where the sport will attempt to get into a time machine and drive its way back to future. There will be fewer regulations and more horsepower. Speed will increase with the bigger restrictor plates. Aggressiveness will escalate now that NASCAR has legalized bump-drafting.

As the iconic Humpy Wheeler, former president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, said: "Now they've got the Brahma bull. Let's see who can ride it."

That long, hard ride back into America's hearts appropriately begins Sunday.

Daytona 500 Day.

Valentine's Day.

mbianchi@tribune.com

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