My memories of stock-car racing go back to the 1960s when legendary figures such as Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts and Cale Yarborough barnstormed the NASCAR circuit.
This often included my dad rounding up his kids and heading to the races at Martinsville.
The things I remember most about those days were the roar of the engines, which would linger in one’s head for several days afterward even if you wore earplugs, and watching Wendell Scott, the sport’s only African-American racer at that time.
Despite having a low-budget team, Scott always managed to put on a show on the track and in the pits, where he sometimes also helped change tires due to it being so undermanned.
Overall, I developed a love for short-track racing which remains to this day, but unfortunately is now diminishing.
My consistent devotion to NASCAR has not been matched by its excitement level — which seems to drop with each passing season like the tachometer dial for a failing engine. Evidently, many other people feel the same way.
I noticed this Sunday while watching a televised race from Richmond. For many years, the spring event there was a sellout. However, the most recent race seemed to draw a crowd (if you can call it that) which appeared to be only half-capacity or less, based on what the TV cameras showed.
Other tracks, including Bristol, also have seen sharp declines in attendance.
Many factors have been suggested to explain NASCAR’s waning popularity, including the continuing impact of the bad economy on ticket sales. That’s especially an issue for fans traveling great distances, who also face lodging and transportation costs.
Another reason is that fans at home have less access to the sport. For years, broadcasts of NASCAR races were available only by radio (with phrases by enthusiastic announcers such as “Trouble in Turn Three!” regularly uttered).
Then came a time when all races were shown on regular network television, available to most everyone whether they had satellite, cable or just an antenna.
Lately, though, FOX and NBC, the networks with NASCAR broadcasting rights, have shown some races on their sports channels rather than the regular stations (in this area, channels 8 and 12). This means average fans, even those with expanded basic cable, couldn’t watch the most recent Martinsville race and others on the schedule.
NASCAR is in danger of suffering the same fate as boxing, which once had championship fights on regular network TV, but eventually went the pay-per-view route. As a result, boxing is now almost totally off the radar screen and has effectively been supplanted by MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) matches.
Of course, this is the classic catch-22 situation — if ratings were higher, all races would still be shown on regular network TV, but then how are ratings supposed to improve by bumping them to channels people can’t get?
I would submit that the primary reason for NASCAR’s decline can be described in two words — BO-RING! You would think people driving 200 mph around a track would not be, but that’s the case nonetheless.
Except for the two road courses on the circuit, NASCAR is still mostly about turning left for 400 or 500 laps — the same as always. Yet what’s missing today are colorful racing personalities, guys such as Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker and others.
Back in 2011, when Johnson visited Mount Airy, I asked him what he thought of NASCAR today.
His face contorted into a sour expression as if he had just bit into a lemon soaked in kerosene.
Johnson managed to deliver a diplomatic-sounding answer: “The sport, I don’t know why, but it’s not as exciting as it used to be.”
I would submit that the main reason for this is we don’t have any Junior Johnsons or others like him anymore.
When you get right down to it, stock-car racing was built on the backs of good old boys who ran moonshine, spit tobacco juice and had their share of fistfights — sometimes missing a front tooth or two as testament to their wild lifestyles.
No one can deny that what put NASCAR on the map on a national level was a late-1970s fight after a wreck at Daytona in which Cale Yarborough took on both Allison brothers as millions of viewers watched.
In its growth as a national sport, NASCAR abandoned its roots, and its drivers now are nearly all clean-cut corporate types who come off as sanitized robots.
I’m not saying NASCAR should pattern itself after pro wrestling. But it certainly needs to do something to maintain fans, who increasingly are black-flagging the sport as unwatchable — make that BO-RING!
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.