Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers.
But on Sunday afternoon inside the media center at Bristol Motor Speedway, the two men sat side by side at a loss of words. A member of the media had just asked them about the difference between the old Sprint Cup car and the new Gen-6 machine.
Keselowski looked at Busch. Busch looked at Keselowski.
“You can have this one, Brad,” Busch said.
“I wasn’t listening,” Keselowski said, prompting the reporter to rephrase his question as the razor-tongued, quick-witted scoundrel that has taken the Cup Series by storm over the past couple seasons scrambled to gather his thoughts.
It was out of character for Keselowski, to be sure, but not all that surprising. The question Keselowski was preparing to answer was a variation of the one that recently cost Denny Hamlin $25,000 and two weeks’ worth of peace and quiet.
In the end, Keselowski’s reaction to the question was far more telling than his eventual answer, a rambling, vague, circular conglomeration of words that ended with, “Hopefully an upgrade for the future.”
But the answer served its purpose — the Sprint Cup champ walked out of BMS without having to leave 25 grand in the Pessimism Jar located in the NASCAR hauler. He may not have lived up to his reputation of shooting from the hip, but he did his part to spread NASCAR’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” gospel as it pertains to the new Cup car.
In this case, Hamlin’s ordeal was a glaring example that discretion was the better part of valor, even for the guy they call Bad Brad.
But a glance at the grandstands on Sunday in Bristol was enough to make me wonder what price the sport is paying when NASCAR polices what its drivers say in such a heavy-handed manner. Another bang-up weekend of racing at the half-mile bullring was met with a less-than-stellar crowd, and it is becoming clear the racing action in Bristol isn’t the culprit for the lack of sellouts at the venue.
In fact, both Sunday’s Cup race and Saturday’s Nationwide race were critically acclaimed by fans and analysts alike, and yet they weren’t all that commercially successful at the box office.
Ideas for a possible cause for the decline in attendance at NASCAR races around the country — and at Bristol specifically — have been kicked around ad nauseam in recent years. You can probably spout them all off at this point: the economy, gas prices, expensive hotels, high definition television …
Let me add one more, and this may be the most important factor of them all — most race fans have no interest in 95 percent of the drivers competing on the Cup circuit. Where did I get that crazy idea from? I watched driver introductions prior to the race Sunday.
The unique thing at BMS is that drivers get a chance to grab a microphone and introduce themselves to the fans in the grandstands. A handful of drivers like Dale Jr., Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are cheered loudly. Busch is booed with equal gusto.
But everyone else? They wander out, state their names meekly and are met by a wall of apathy.
I know there have been stars, field fillers and strokers as long as there has been NASCAR. But when you’re asking fans in this day and age of reality television to plunk down some serious cash to come see the show, you’d better have some star power on hand to get them emotionally invested every time the traveling circus rolls into town.
Instead, NASCAR is going out of its way to create an environment where drivers are afraid to speak their minds and show their personalities. Cultivating interesting characters is already an uphill fight in a sport that is so heavily dependent on sponsorship dollars just to keep the show on the road.
To get a ride in a Cup car, top-level drivers have to entice Fortune 500 companies to pour tens of millions of dollars into a sponsorship deal. In return, the drivers become the face of an international ad campaign, forcing them to walk a fine line between being a fiery competitor and a trustworthy pitchman.
So when NASCAR increases the scrutiny on what drivers say, it is cutting its own throat in the battle to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded entertainment market. Hamlin already said that he won’t be as forthcoming in interviews from here on out after NASCAR fined him. When that happens, everyone loses.
NASCAR has never shied away from the fact that the top level of stock car racing is essentially show business. The competition is legitimate, but all involved talk about wanting to put on a good show. The fact that the success or failure of each Cup race is ultimately judged on ticket sales and television ratings is further evidence of that, as are made-for-TV gimmicks such Lucky Dogs, wave-arounds and double-file restarts.
NASCAR can talk all day long about how close the competition in the Cup series is, but if the fans don’t feel emotionally invested in a majority of the drivers involved in these close races, the sanctioning body is failing in its task to grow the sport.
It should be noted that the folks at BMS brought in the cast of the Discovery Channel show “Moonshiners” and self-professed redneck Jeff Foxworthy to promote this weekend’s races.
In the old days, NASCAR used to have moonshiners and rednecks driving the race cars, and all the folks at BMS had to do was throw open the gates and watch the fans come pouring in.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.