May 222012
 

There are many who would argue that NASCAR is boring. They would argue that its drivers lack broad motor racing skill. They would argue that it’s simplistic, too drawn-out, too informed by antiquated Southern tradition. I would disagree. Except for the part about it being boring.

NASCAR is its own little world, both for the teams and their fans. I’ve been a part of that fan community since I was roughly 10 years old. My dad flipped on a race in 1993, ironically at one of the circuits most notoriously boring tracks, and watched Kyle Petty drive to a 5-second victory, all with a camcorder strapped into his car to save the feat for posterity. I can’t tell you why, but I was hooked from then on.

Growing up, watching races was primarily a father-son activity for me and I quickly found excitement and enjoyment in that bond. As I got older and started attending NASCAR events (both local short-track and the top-tier series) I found more to like about the sport. While many fans find their catalyst to enjoyment being aggressive driving, wrecks, or more wrecks. I found my passion being rooted in the relatability to what I could do behind the wheel. My excitement was derived a great deal from the physics and engineering of the sport. I’ve never been an engineer — or someone who was ever terribly good at math — but there was something so true and awesome about being able to take half a pound of air out of the right front tire to help loosen up a tight car. What’s cooler than being able to throw a piece of rubber in between the coils of the left front spring to help loosen a car up on a flat track? I guess that might be my own special brand of gearhead, but there’s something downright magical about it, even if the reason why it’s even possible is the farthest from magic we could possibly get.

What’s most enjoyable for me is that specific focus for my interest in NASCAR helps keep it from getting old. The engineering changes, but is still a necessary and key component to competition. Which is why the fact that NASCAR has gotten so boring is doubly troubling. Despite the physics being an unchanging competitor on the track, there is above all else one reason for my declining interest in NASCAR.

His name is Jimmie Johnson.

I know, I know you’ve heard it before. He’s boring, he’s vanilla, he wins all the time. Then there are the counter arguments that the team is just that good and it should be celebrated, plus he’s not all that bland of a person, and he’s not without his drama as his crew chief (Chad Knaus) is one of the most heavily penalized in the modern era of NASCAR.

That’s gobbledygook. Hogwash. Balderdash. Utter nonsense. If it were a cow it would be udder nonsense. Above all, it’s irrelevant.

I’ll say it, and I mean it: Jimmie Johnson is bad for NASCAR. It’s not because of him personally, it’s not because of his crew chief or any of that. It’s rather ironic, actually. What makes Jimmie Johnson bad for NASCAR is exactly what NASCAR is about — succeeding. JJ48 does it better than almost anyone, certainly in recent memory. His consistency, ability, high standard of achievement and the results that come from it (It should be said this is true of the whole team, certainly not just him as a driver) is what every team in the paddock works for. But actually succeeding in that endeavor is what is detrimental to the sport.

In 2011 NASCAR saw a ratings increase after five (5) straight years of decline. What happened in 2011? Someone other than JJ48 won the Championship. What happened 5 years previous? Someone other than JJ48 won the Championship. And while correlation does not imply causation, we’re forced to wonder if seeing Jimmie Johnson in victory lane, holding a trophy year after year, forced ratings down the 23%. I’d argue it did. (Full Disclosure: I’m an unabashed Tony Stewart fan, and he won the championships that bookended Jimmie Johnson’s unprecedented title run.)

When was the last time you started watching sports because the same team was winning over and over? Outside of golf, how often do you get excited for the same smiling mug to hoist yet another trophy week after week? How many times has a new game attracted your attention because you only hear about one team doing well in it? Did the horrific years of the New Jersey Devils infamous neutral zone trap really grab you by the short and curlies and refuse to release your attention from the world of the NHL? Allow me to guess at your answers: Never, Extremely Infrequently, Not once, What’s the NHL?

At the same time as JJ48 won 5 championships in a row, attendance in NASCAR dropped dramatically. Obviously the attendance figures are aided in their decline by a weak economy, altered spending priority by the fans, and potentially just a simple post-peak decline. But what NASCAR has itself reported, is that fans routinely criticized the racing for getting more boring, less competitive. In fact the viewership figures rose immediately after NASCAR announced a new “boys have at it” policy, which many experts consider a big reason for the increase in general.

But to boil it down further we have fans decrying a lack of excitement in the races they watch, coupled with declining attendance and declining TV viewership. Clearly fans were unhappy with the product on the track. And the ultimate culmination of that product on the track was Jimmie Johnson winning repeated championships. His repeated success is a detriment to NASCAR, just as much as it’s the ultimate goal for every NASCAR team.

This all came rushing back to me as we watched JJ48 cruise to victory during the Sprint All-Star race this past weekend. He won the first of four segments, was guaranteed the top starting spot for the final dash to the finish, a race for $1m, and was able to sandbag his way to the final segment for the remainder of what’s generally seen as a social experiment by NASCAR to engineer the wildest racing of the year. Not only is this counter to how many see NASCAR should be (win at all costs, especially with $1m on the line) but it creates a less than entertaining 90 laps for the fans in the stands and the eyes at home.  Now, my parents always taught me that I shouldn’t complain about something if I don’t have a solution. And far be it from me, an ardent fan of NASCAR to suggest we need to have a solution for winning frequently — no doubt if Tony Stewart won 5 Championships in a row I’d be ecstatic, but the fact remains that someone capturing the title year after year after year, consistently winning races, and always being present in the top 10 takes its toll on how exciting NASCAR can be. I’ve long decried NASCAR’s habit of changing the rules for just one driver, or just one team, or just one car manufacturer — so it would be hypocritical to suggest such a thing now.

Basically, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what can be done. But I know NASCAR has to get better. We’re never going to see third tier teams competing for wins, let alone championships, but watching the best organization in the history of NASCAR repeatedly, snoozingly, cruise to victory I’m forced to wonder if it’s good for the sport.

It’s not. It’s boring. It’s stale. It’s repetitive. Sure, NASCAR is doing everything they can to keep the sport interesting. But I’m not sure how many more seasons I can watch the 48 car always be in the hunt. It’s so….vanilla.

But man, I still love the sport.