The year I broke up with NASCAR

In February, I drove to Volusia County, Fla., and didn’t visit Daytona International Speedway. For the first time since 1993, I didn’t see a single race in the flesh at Daytona Speedweeks.

But I went to the races.

While NASCAR was kicking off its season with its Sprint Unlimited, I stood on the back of a pickup truck in turn 3 at Volusia Speedway Park as open-wheeled sprint cars and modifieds slid by me on the fast, half-mile dirt oval. Race fans from all over the country packed every seat in the steel bleachers.

The electricity of the atmosphere helped warm up a frigid night as race car drivers I mostly had never heard of put on a show I didn’t forget.

In November, NASCAR wrapped up its season in South Florida by crowning Jimmie Johnson with his seventh Sprint Cup championship. A lot of analysts laud him as the best driver ever, and he may be.

But Johnson is far from the most important driver in NASCAR history, a history rich with characters that shine in race fans’ memories long after they’re gone. Give that honor to Richard Petty. Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and a host of others could all be considered more important to NASCAR history.

Maybe that’s not fair of me to say. Maybe NASCAR today is better than it was 20 years ago. You could certainly use statistics to make that claim. NASCAR officials and talking heads are great at sharing these statistics.

It’s 2016. We live in an age when stats and facts don’t really matter. I don’t know if NASCAR is better or worse now than it was 20 years ago. I could write another 3,000 words on why I don’t think it is — recklessly expanding with no sustainable business plan, diverting events and attention from core markets to unproven ones, ruining the feeder series by filling their schedules with almost exclusively companion events, manipulating the points system to force every season to end with a “game 7” moment — but I’m just a race fan with a bunch of opinions. And those don’t really matter either.

Racing as I want it

I remembered this year why I like going to races. It’s the racing, stupid.

This year:

  • In January, I watched a last-lap pass for the win in a big late model race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. The boiled peanuts had a nice Cajun spice.
  • In February, I saw sprint car legend Sammy Swindell pick his way through the field in an Outlaw sprint car (Google them) at Volusia.
  • In May, I watched a rookie stretch a tank of fuel farther than anyone to win the 100th Indianapolis 500. I told my uncle this strategy would win 25 laps earlier.
  • This summer, I spent a few Saturday nights eating $3 brisket sandwiches and watching the sun set behind the Devil’s Bowl speedway in the heartland of Texas. These were the best sunsets I saw all year, and I live at the beach now.
  • Just last month, in between leaving a job I loved in Atlanta and moving to the Jacksonville — the city I love — a few good friends and I happened upon the All American 400 at the historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. We watched a guy get arrested.

I could say that going to these races feels like going to a race in 1996. But it’s 2016. I’m not eating member berries here (thanks, “South Park”).

There are a lot of similarities, however. In 1996 NASCAR, cookie cutter tracks did not exist. Two points-paying races were held at Michigan and Charlotte, but every race track on the schedule was remarkably different than the rest. The NASCAR then-Craftsman Truck Series and then-Busch Series still made plenty of barnstorming trips to short tracks in small markets across the country, exposing more race fans to NASCAR racing and its future stars.

A lot of those different race tracks across the three major NASCAR series had different owners at the time, which made for different, special fan experiences from one track to the next. My new race fan family wanted to check out all the local flavors. We wanted to visit all the tracks because the circus was different every time.

NASCAR’s big shift

NASCAR couldn’t help itself when more and more Fortune 500 companies and national TV networks wanted in on the action. One of the South’s best-kept secrets was out.

But in its zeal to spread the NASCAR product across the U.S. and even internationally, officials changed its product so much that a lot of older fans no longer recognized the sport they loved. NASCAR officials stripped races away from venerable speedways in Darlington, S.C. and North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, N.C., race tracks rich in lore but poor in demographics. The schedule expanded to reach new markets in Kansas City, Las Vegas, Southern California, Chicago and Dallas — and every new market had a new track that looked a whole lot like each other.

Two publicly-traded companies either opened these tracks or bought the tracks already on the schedule — save for Indianapolis, Pocono and Dover — and got to work on creating a seamless experience from one track to the next. In one generation, NASCAR essentially evolved from a loose collection of mom ‘n’ pop burger joints into the McDonald’s of auto racing. How big of an evolution are we talking about here?

  • The title sponsors for NASCAR’s three national touring series changed hands from Winston tobacco, Busch beer and Craftsman tools to Sprint/Nextel mobile networks, the Xfinity cable network and Camping World RVs.
  • NASCAR scrapped its season points system reportedly created on a cocktail napkin in favor of a 10-race playoff, now with a one-race championship.
  • The Winston/Sprint/Nextel Cup schedule ballooned from 31 points races in 1996 to 36 currently. This year, 14 races were held at the 1.5- to 2-mile “cookie cutter” tracks, compared to just 4 20 years ago.
  • In 1996, a 40-car starting grid could regularly sport 29 to even 31 race team organizations. In 2016, the 40-car field was made up of only 14 teams — and even fewer once you start factoring in alliances, which are dumb and boring, so I won’t.
  • In 1996, 11 drivers earned more than $1 million in prize money for the entire season, with Jeff Gordon taking the lion’s share with $2.4 million. In 2015, 13 drivers earned more than $10 million, and every regular starter in the 43-car field was a millionaire.

Big money, big decline

Money is cool, and making more money is awesome — as a guy who just a few years ago was making $300 a week, I can attest — but it can screw things up. You just can’t be as free or daring or stupid when you are a millionaire representing billion-dollar companies.

This is a problem. Racing, by nature, is freeing and daring and stupid. That’s where its beauty comes from.

Longtime NASCAR broadcaster Ken Squier sold racing as “the common man doing uncommon things.” It has a long history of characters who either used racing as an adrenaline outlet or as a hard-fought means of making a living.

These characters are still out there, but you have to look a little harder.

Actually, you really don’t. Just go to your local short track and start talking to people. As it turns out, many of these tracks will open their pits to give fans a chance to meet these local warriors after the races. In many cases, you can have a beer with drivers and crew members and listen to them educate you on what racing is all about. They may even try to sell you a car.

It’s not you, it’s me 

Today, NASCAR is not healthy. In the last decade, the sport has lost more than half of its television audience, and tracks the welcomed more than 100,000 fans at the peak of NASCAR’s popularity are now tearing down grandstands. As we head toward the turn of another year, just 79 days from the start of NASCAR Speedweeks at Daytona, NASCAR still doesn’t have a title sponsor for its premier series.

I used to care about these details. For years, I’ve held up NASCAR’s dwindling audience as proof that all the changes made in this last generation were wrong. I’ll still contend that the NASCAR I grew up with was the premier racing product, that the sport’s leadership didn’t understand its own product, that NASCAR foolishly tried to be the NFL when it was already SEC football.

What really happened is that NASCAR and I just grew apart, and I don’t think there’s any going back. I still love racing, but NASCAR racing and I just aren’t compatible anymore.

And that’s OK. For I know I can still get my fill of racing and humanity at hundreds of little dirt and asphalt tracks across the country. I can still see the common man do uncommon things, take risks and maybe even fight someone over some bent sheet metal and a couple hundred bucks. Every night at a race track is unpredictable, dangerous and raw. It’s the kind of racing Hemingway had in mind when he called it a real sport.

You should really check it out. I’d be glad to take you.