Heading into Memorial Day weekend, I scrolled across an article from autoweek.com written by Greg Engle where Denny Hamlin stated that NASCAR doesn’t need a 600-mile race. Denny added on to his statements by saying, “I don’t think that anything is totally necessary.” “If the race was 300 miles, you’re going to have the same, I believe, core group watch the race and possibly even more that are interested because it’s not five hours long.”
Denny Hamlin seemed to be in the tiny minority on this thought. NASCAR Series Champions Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Kyle Busch have been in unison about wanting to protect the history and tradition of the Coca-Cola 600. To that, Denny Hamlin says “Tradition, ‘shmadition.’” “It’s whatever. All sports adapt and change. I hate it when people say, ‘Well, that’s the way it always was.’ Things are different. I’d be just as happy with a Coke 300 trophy as a Coke 600, to be honest with you.”
I agree with Denny Hamlin to a point; sports do ebb and flow. They change and adapt with the times, and there isn’t a better example of that in sports than the three-point line in basketball. While The Cola-Cola 600 might not be the same test of man vs. machine it had the reputation of being throughout the race’s history, I rebuttal Danny Hamlin by saying why not have a 600-mile race? NASCAR is a pinnacle of motor racing, and I believe there needs to be something that tests not only the equipment but the drivers and their crews as well.
However, this subject of lessening the miles/time of a race does entice a couple of interesting questions from me. Those are what will be the next adaptation to auto racing and who will be their target audience going forward?
NASCAR has been on the leading edge of adaptation with the chase/playoff system, the stage racing, and the lucky dogs. Have they been bad adaptations to the sport of auto racing? Some might say yes and that these changes have tarnished racing forever, but to me, they have only added to the excitement. (The word “added” being key there) We have yet to see other racing series adapt to a similar style and I believe that is because of two reasons:
#1. No one likes a copycat.
But more seriously,
#2. Other series have not been as committed to trying to attract a specific audience other than hardcore race fans. (i.e., casual fans or younger generations)
Changing an entire sport that can conform to the social norms of our point and click, instant gratification, and ever-growing impatient lifestyles are what sporting leagues around the world are currently trying to do. Instead, these leagues are finding that this balance between being cutting edge and keeping to the traditions and history of the game is not as clear cut as it may have initially seemed.
In baseball, their league executives believe shorting the number of innings played during the game is the solution. The NBA is looking into shorting their total time played in their games from 48 minutes to 40. These are just examples of some of the changes to try and satisfy the societal need for instant gratification. To try and cooperate with short attention spans that go along with the glamorization of the casual fan.
Often, this glamorization will leave those who are loyal to the sport with no place to voice their opinion. Leagues and series continue to turn a blind eye toward them in favor of the short-term gain casual fans can often provide. Again, look no farther than NASCAR for being a prime example. They have admitted to doing this to what used to be a strong, unified, and loyal fan base.
I believe several other factors contributed to the loss of fans for NASCAR. For example, the passing of Dale Earnhardt, the loss of the “good ol’ boys” mentality, the emphasis put on mile and a half-tracks, the 2009 stock market crash, and the weird and somewhat awkward introduction to the beginning of the “Car of Tomorrow” era but more on this in a possible future posting.
Can racing conform to these growing social norms? Do we have to concede to having shorter races to stay relevant? Is it possible that The Indianapolis 500 becomes The Indianapolis 250 one day? Or the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans be changed to the 2.4 Hours of Le Mans? The Coca-Cola 300 has an excellent ring to it according to Denny Hamlin.
Doesn’t all of that sound absurd?
Well, that’s because it is but auto racing has been at the forefront of using social media platforms, like YouTube, to illustrate the balance between satisfying the hardcore fans and the casual. Many series like NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and Formula E upload not only races in their entirety but various lengths of recaps and highlights. This kind of adaptation allows fans to watch when they want, where they want, and however they want. Not to mention, social media has allowed fans to access drivers and teams for instant practice, qualifying or racing updates. This type of availability has become perfect for today’s point and click, instant gratification, and ever-growing impatient lifestyle without having to change the sport for the hardcore fans.
Significant events like those on Memorial Day will always attract casual fans but just as easy as they can come, they go. No amount of changing a sport will retain casual fans throughout the season. The only way to convert the casual fan into an avid fan and then into a hardcore fan is by having that fan make a personal connection to the sport. I say this as a warning to other leagues by asking if the addition by subtraction is the addition they need?
Racing is in a stable place within the sports world. There is no need to make it unstable with something like The Coca-Cola 300.