Murto: NASCAR needs to back off changes

Jimmie Johnson became the first person since Dale Earnhardt Sr. to win the 600-mile race at Charlotte and follow it up with a win at Dover, but there were only about 60,000 people in the stands watching.

The Delaware facility holds between 110,000 and 135,000. Some would say the stands were empty. Why? And what can be done about it?

There are plenty of good reasons for the empty seats, mostly due to the economy. It costs money in gas to travel. Tracks that host Cup events no longer offer free camping, so there’s extra cost for people not willing to pay a small fortune for a hotel room. Food costs money; fans have to eat. And tickets cost a lot; low-cost options such as general admission seating and infield parking are no longer available at many tracks.

It’s interesting that attendance at Dover today is similar to the attendance at the track in the late-’80s and early ’90s. At that time the sport was growing rapidly and NASCAR wanted to clean up its image. Ticket prices rose, tracks began charging for parking and camping. The very people who were responsible for the growth were pushed out of the sport.

The sport became trendy, and attendance peaked at some point. All those empty stands you see today were full at one time. But the problem with attracting a trendy crowd is that something new always comes along and the crowd disappears as they follow the latest trend.

NASCAR has a chance to recover. The current season is highly competitive, both statistically and on track. If you watch a film of racing in the late-’80s or early ’90s you’ll see that today’s NASCAR is a much better product. And it’s still the most popular form of racing in North America.

Talk of more changes leave fans frustrated and confused. Why would NASCAR take away horsepower in the Cup Series? They’ll say it’s to save competitors money, but anybody in racing will tell you that every rule change costs competitors money; if you want to save competitors money, sit on the rules the way they are. It’s racing; isn’t horsepower part of the game?

And it’s time to leave the Chase alone. Many would say it should be abandoned altogether, but that’s not going to happen. It’s time to sit on what we have and let the fans get used to what we have before making news by adding more convoluted rules as to who gets in the Chase and how it’s won. Treating racing as if it’s a ball-and-stick sport isn’t going to attract ball-and-stick fans; it’s only alienating the race fans NASCAR has left.

There is a fear that the empty seats will prompt more radical changes in the sport, as a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. In actuality, every time a new change is announced a scalpel slices off another small piece of the fan base, as frustrated and confused people find something else — and less expensive — to do with their time.

Hopefully the people who run the sport in Daytona will see the empty seats and realize it’s time to just settle down and ride out the sour economy. Let the changes already instituted be ingested before spoon-feeding more confusion to already frustrated fans. The product is good; maybe a bit pricey, but it’s good. Sit tight and the fans will eventually return.

Hopefully fans still seek their high-octane fix, and fulfill that need at local and regional racetracks. Saturday in particular will be a great day for local and regional motorsports.

Shenandoah Speedway will host motocross motorcycle racing all day. Looking at the schedule it’s probably a good idea to arrive about 10 a.m., if not earlier. All other racing in the region will be Saturday night, and you should plan to arrive at those facilities about 5.

Hagerstown Speedway features its Late Model and Late Model Sportsman divisions. It’ll also be the Hobby Stock Summer Championship as those competitors race for double points. Winchester Speedway features Super Late Models, Limited Late Models and four other divisions. The CARS Pro Cup division races at Motor Mile in Radford, but that series has been plagued by anemic car counts. The best bet is the PASS South Super Late Model Series, which will tackle South Boston Speedway. Many of the young guns racing in NASCAR’s trucks and Nationwide Series graduated from PASS.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.