DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski knows he has to be part of the solution. Aside from winning races and contending for championships, the 2012 Cup Series champion feels pressure “all the time” to provide exciting racing and attract new fans to NASCAR, and he’s not the only one.
“The sport’s going through its own set of struggles,” he said this week as he enters his 10th full-time season. And the responsibility to increase NASCAR’s audience “falls in everybody’s hands except for independent media. That responsibility falls in all of the key stakeholders’ hands. I don’t think there’s one person that holds a heavier hand than another.”
At the start of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season, beginning with Sunday’s Daytona 500, questions about the future of the sport remain unanswered.
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Like Keselowski, some other NASCAR drivers feel an urgent responsibility to draw new fans to racing or drag long-lost ones back in. Those who have been racing at the sport’s highest level for several years — and who spent their entire lives working their way up at the height of its popularity — are watching fans walk away.
Several longtime sponsors — like Lowe’s, Target, Subway and 5-Hour Energy — have left. Race attendance remains inconsistent but shrinking — although the Daytona 500 is sold out — and TV ratings are in decline. The 2018 Daytona 500 and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November both hit record ratings lows following a pattern of decline over several years, according to Sports Media Watch.
It’s somewhat surprising that those feeling the most heat are veterans. But they have a better sense of what the sport felt like at its height — and are also more entrenched in their positions. Younger drivers are focused more on winning and securing their rides for years to come.
“It’s all of our responsibility, and I don’t exactly know how to fix that,” said Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup Series champ who’s entering his 15th full-time season.
“You had all these guys that made the sport popular in the popular era from the ’90s into the 2000s that are on their way out or have left, and everybody’s like, ‘Well, who’s going to fill the void?’ And it’s like, there’s still 40 of us out there. We’re all right here. Who are you going to jump onto?”
In addition to drivers and the governing body, Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother and the 2004 series champion, said sponsors “need to be fun and engaging” with their marketing involving drivers.
However, not everyone agrees drivers share the burden of growing NASCAR and pushing it forward.
Fourteen-year veteran Denny Hamlin has been vocal about his suggestions to lower the operating costs for teams, which can be at least $30 million a year for one car, the Associated Press reported. But the responsibility of broadening NASCAR’s audience and promoting the sport shouldn’t fall on drivers, he said.
“It’s NASCAR’s job — it really is,” said Hamlin, who won the 2016 Daytona 500. “It’s not on us to bring those fans back. It’s up to them to showcase who we are, and hopefully, new fans will latch onto that.”
In a break from earlier company statements, NASCAR president Steve Phelps opened up about it earlier this month. He told The Daytona Beach News-Journal NASCAR “probably lost our way” into its current slump by ignoring hardcore fans.
Still, he said be believes “NASCAR’s best days are in front of it.”
But then you have races like The Clash exhibition event last Sunday, where drivers rode around Daytona International Speedway in a single-file line for about two-thirds of the 75-lap race. To some, it seemed like they were protecting their cars and content with their positions instead of fighting to get up front and win.
“It’s like, ‘Guys, this is not good,'” Busch said. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘Hey everybody around me, somebody needs to mix this up.’ I’m not going to be the one to do it, because if I do it, I’m going backwards. The guy in front of me is thinking the same thing, probably.
“‘Come on, boys! Let’s go.’ But if you’re the only one that goes, and nobody follows, you go to the back, and nobody wants to go to the back.”
After a similar situation occurred during Saturday’s second-tier XFINITY Series race, Hamlin tweeted:
But compared with Keselowski and the Busch brothers, some younger drivers, like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney, said they don’t feel obligated provide excitement beyond their styles of racing, which they think are entertaining enough.
And while they say they don’t feel pressure, these young drivers know they do have a duty to connect with fans.
“I feel like I do a really good job of entertaining fans just because of my driving style and how aggressive I am,” said Larson, who’s won five races in five full-time seasons, four in 2017. “So I feel like fans enjoy watching me race.”
At the end of Elliott’s third full-time season, he was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver last year, taking over for 15-time winner Dale Jr. and capturing the attention of many of the now-retired driver’s fans. The son of similarly popular driver Bill Elliott, Chase is the obvious frontrunner for the future face of the sport.
Blaney has his own personal way of connecting with fans, along with being involved in a variety of promotional events. After winning a 2017 XFINITY Series race, he reached through a fence between the track and the grandstands and gave the checkered flag to a young fan.
In the couple races he’s won since, the 25-year-old driver continues to do this.
“(I) tried to give him something to hopefully last for a lifetime, just show them a good time and appreciation that they’re out there,” Blaney said about the first time he did this. “And then it just became a thing.”
While no one seems to agree on what the best strategy is for getting more eyes on the sport, drivers are certain about one thing: When they get behind the wheel, they’re only thinking about one thing.
“My favorite races are the races that we just outright dominate that people don’t find entertaining at all,” Keselowski said. “My job, once I’m in the race car, is not to entertain. It’s to win.”