At least a dozen NASCAR-related billboards are seen on the hour drive up Interstate 4 from Orlando to Daytona International Speedway.
Thousands of campers have already flooded the infield of the historic track and there’s a noticeable buzz about NASCAR’s signature event, the Daytona 500, being days away.
The kickoff of a new racing season brings the same joy and nostalgia as baseball’s opening day. But it also brings about the underlying concerns facing the sport’s future.
Will attendance pick up? Is this the year TV ratings finally turn around? Will NASCAR be able to keep the momentum built by the Daytona 500 and carry it the rest of the season?
43 Percentage drop in attendance revenue from 2005-2015 at Speedway Motorsports Inc.
Those are legitimate questions facing a sport that is in transition.
“Like all sports, we’ve got issues facing us, but I think we’re much healthier than some of these people that are running around in circles screaming the sky is falling,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said Thursday. “It makes a better story when you tell it that way.
“Yes, we’ve been in a better place, but we’re in a good place. We have the ability to put ourselves back to where we were. With time and hard work, we will.”
TV ratings dropped in 21 of 29 Cup races a year ago, and the sport has seen a 45 percent dip in viewers since 2005. Attendance revenue at Speedway Motorsports tracks fell 43 percent from 2005 to 2015.
NASCAR hopes that breaking races into “stages” will help boost interest with more winning moments, but that seems like wishful thinking.
Instead, it needs to focus on building up the drivers. Stars are the lifeblood of any sport.
Tiger Woods made golf relevant in the 1990s and early 2000s. Michael Phelps did the same for swimming. The Tour de France wasn’t mainstream until since-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong came around.
And NASCAR has seen more household names exit than enter the sport in recent years. Gone are Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and others such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are in their 40s.
Gossage and the drivers know this as well as anyone.
Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, was peppered with questions about the sport’s popularity on Wednesday and gave a telling answer when asked about younger fans.
“Fortunately I drive the M&M’s car, and I’ve seen a lot of younger fans … 6, 7, 8 all the way to 14 years old being huge M&M and Kyle Busch fans,” Busch said. “They enjoy coming out and seeing what we’ve got going on. Do they kind of die off or not come to the races as much once they get past 16, 17 because it’s not cool? I don’t know.
“Certainly I would think when you’re a fan and you come once and you’re hooked, you keep coming again and again.”
As Busch alluded to, it’s a question of whether NASCAR is “cool” to the younger generations. It doesn’t seem like many kids these days want to rebuild a Mustang or Corvette, and cars simply aren’t as popular as they once were.
That means NASCAR needs its new wave of drivers to develop into personalities that connect with younger generations. The sport is looking at guys such as Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez to carry it forward.
And, as Gossage put it: “We need some good rivalries. I don’t mean guys swinging at each other or throwing things at each other, but Richard Petty needed David Pearson. [Muhammad] Ali needed [Joe] Frazier and [George] Foreman. We need great rivalries on the track.”
The sport is at least trying to stay relevant in an ever-changing sports landscape.
Having Monster Energy become the Cup title sponsor could pay off in the long run. Monster is a more edgy brand that could appeal to younger generations.
TMS is attempting to do its part, too, seeing positive reviews of its “No Limits” theme in recent years and offering fan-friendly ticket specials such as a buy-one-get-one-free and $10 children’s tickets for the April race.
Gossage is optimistic these kinds of deals will hook more people into the sport and broaden its reach. He isn’t ready to hit the panic button even though there’s no arguing that TV ratings and attendance numbers have dipped.
“I remember a time when I was managing Bristol [Motor Speedway] and we couldn’t afford to turn the air conditioner on in the summer,” Gossage said. “We couldn’t get our roof fixed. When it rained, we had to get plants and buckets and spread them around the office ’cause that’s the way the sport was.
“So we’re light years ahead of that.”
1 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/Ch. 4