Fans take pictures during warm-up laps before the Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
They call Bristol Motor Speedway “The Last Great Colosseum.”
After what I saw this past weekend, that moniker is right on the money. No, I’m not talking about the beating and banging done by those modern-day gladiators in their steel chariots on the high banks of the dadgum old bullring, or whatever it is the guy with the Sam Elliott voice says in the commercials.
I’m talking about the attempt to recreate past battles, a staple of the entertainment staged in the honest-to-goodness Colosseum at the height of the Roman Empire. They’d split up some gladiators into opposing armies and recreate the great military victories the Romans had scored throughout history.
When you get right down to it, that is a major part of NASCAR’s marketing strategy these days, and that is particularly true when the Sprint Cup Series rolls in to Bristol twice a year.
The commercials leading up to the race are pretty much the same every year. Earnhardt wrecks Labonte. Harvick lunges off the hood of a race car and gets his hands on Biffle. Gordon punts Rusty’s No. 2 car up the racetrack. Over the top of these well-worn video clips is the gravelly voiceover hinting at more of the same.
So people show up looking to relive history, and nobody dishes out the nostalgia like the tag team of NASCAR and BMS. There’s Hank Williams Jr. doing a pre-race concert, old and bloated, kicking out the jams that had your dad tapping his toe back in the mid-'80s. The Branson brigade is well represented as a recording of Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless The USA” blares over the loudspeakers.
Then the race starts and, all too often, a wave of disappointment spreads across the grandstands. Even Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race, which featured a heart-pounding duel to the checkers between Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, received criticism on social media following the race. “Seems to me they botched the ending there. Isn’t that second-place car supposed to wreck the leader? That’s the way it happened in the commercial.”
I’m not singling out BMS here, because it will be much the same story in Atlanta this weekend. Speed is the selling point at Atlanta Motor Speedway, so you won’t see the beating and banging in the ads, but a photo finish between Harvick and Jeff Gordon from 12 years ago will certainly be featured.
My point here is that innovation is all but dead in NASCAR, so all the sport has left to sell is nostalgia. The sport used to be a race for dominance among the different car manufacturers, and each year fans knew they’d find out which car maker had made the biggest strides in the performance department. The same went for the race teams, which featured crew chiefs who had a knack for working in the gray areas in NASCAR’s rule book and finding some extra speed. Then there were the drivers – a band of mavericks and outlaws looking to carve out a legacy in the sport.
But NASCAR has banned innovation in a never-ending quest to make all the cars go the same speed while fining drivers who don’t know how to keep their personalities under wraps. What used to be a sprint toward the future has now slowed into a long, loving gaze into the past, a quest to recreate what has already been created with a cast of pitchmen driving a fleet of IROC cars.
That being said, is it any wonder the IRWIN Tools Night Race wasn’t a sellout? There’re only so many fans willing to pay $90 a ticket to take a walk down memory lane, minus the personalities that made the trip so much fun the first time around. I’m not a businessman, but I’ll bet there are more people out there willing to pay the same price to see something they haven’t seen before.
Instead of trying to bring back the old Bristol, whatever that is, the idea should be to transform the sport back into something that is moving forward instead of looking back at its own glory days. The idea should be to put a product on the track that makes fans forget what has come before and focus on the tantalizing prospect of what might happen next.
I can’t tell you the number of people I run across who tell me they don’t follow NASCAR as closely as they used to. Maybe that’s because they know exactly where it’s going – down a long, winding path into a past they already know by heart.
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 Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.