At a crossroads ….

February 08, 2011 |

Take a few moments and slide into the “wayback machine” to February 8, 2001.  Our sports world was a distinctly different place ten years ago, huh?  From nearly every aspect imaginable, looking back just a mere decade paints a different picture for most of us.

From a local perspective:

Baltimore was still basking in the glow of a Super Bowl championship.

Brian Billick and Trent Dilfer were two of the most popular guys in town.

The Orioles were headed to Spring Training, with hopes of ending a 3-year losing skid.

Cal Ripken was entering his final season in uniform.

From a national perspective:

The Oakland A’s, St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Mariners were near or atop their divisions.

Cellar dwellers included the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Falcons, Texas Rangers, New England Patriots and Minnesota Twins.

Highlight footage was dominated by players such as Sammy Sosa, Allen Iverson, Jason Giambi, Marshall Faulk and Daunte Culpepper.

Names like Lebron James, Tom Brady, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson didn’t resonate with most of us.

You get the point, right?

I think it’s pretty amazing to see how much any culture, including the AMERICAN SPORTS CULTURE changes in such a relatively brief span of time.  After all, we’re only talking about ten years ….

Another striking phenomenon of our sports world, in 2001, was the popularity of NASCAR.  I think it’s pretty safe to say this highest form of stock car racing was cresting atop its wave of popularity ten years ago.

The sport was dominated by a young Californian named Jeff Gordon.  Major brand sponsors were fighting to get their logos plastered on a hood or quarter-panel.  And, the kickoff to another season was just ten days away.

What could go wrong?

Unlike any other American sport, auto racing poses the threat of death for its competitors.  It’s a reality those same competitors accept. It’s also a reality that proved very true just ten years ago.

NASCAR’s biggest star was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500 ….

The fallout from Dale Earnhardt’s death was immediate and it spurred debate among nearly everyone with an opinion on sports entertainment.  As always, some such opinions were informed and others were both ignorant and ridiculous.

Those who really understood auto racing embraced a need for increased safety technology, while still realizing auto racing is not SAFE and it never will be SAFE.  Conversely, dissenting opinions ranged from outlawing the sport or slowing it down.

However, something that was lost amid all the sensationalism of Dale Earnhardt’s death was the profound effect his absence would have on the popularity of NASCAR.  In each successive year, since 2001, the sport has lost small slices of ratings and overall exposure.

Today, NASCAR is a drastically different environment and entity than it was 10 years ago ….

A playoff system or “Chase” now exists

Cars are fabricated by ideal template of design

The points system or standings has been restructured a couple times

Yet, NASCAR still appears to be losing ground.  Do those who control it realize such losses?  Sure – and they’ve even tried to “replace” the lost character of a Dale Earnhardt.

His son has been “whored” out in every possible marketing campaign.

The participating networks orchestrate supposed feuds among young guns, like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Brad Keslowski.

Rock stars have replaced country stars.

Trust me, there has been a long list of endeavors aimed at finding NASCAR’s next “American Idol” and propelling the sport back toward popularity.  To date, it hasn’t happened …..

In a couple weeks, NASCAR will host its latest edition of the Daytona 500 – the 10th such edition, since the death of Dale Earnhardt.  This year, Daytona International Speedway features a brand new racing surface and a great event is expected.

But, the core problem still exists.  NASCAR is losing popularity.  The defending champion has won the crown five consecutive times – and he has the personality of a cardboard box.  The most talented driver hasn’t found a checkered flag in two years.  The most popular driver is shaping up to be quite average, at best.

And, they all belong to the same racing organization – Hendrick Motorsports.

Right now, NASCAR is at a crossroads.  Aside from competition and exciting finishes, they must find a CHARACTER.  They must find the next Dale Earnhardt … without replacing Dale Earnhardt.

According to TV ratings and racetrack attendance, time is running out.

If NASCAR doesn’t find an answer soon, it might be relegated to obscurity ten years from now.

Just count me as a guy who hopes that doesn’t happen.

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