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In the Rearview: Texas

April 8th, 2014 1:11 pm by Dave Ongie

In the Rearview: Texas

A video screen at Texas Motor Speedway shows a replay of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car wrecking during Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo)

The fact that mile-and-a-half tracks have become the norm on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit has hurt the sport more than anything else in terms of attendance and television ratings.

I can't imagine anyone sitting down and looking at Chicago, a metropolis teeming with blue-collar workers, and saying, "What this place needs is a track that showcases the type of engineering prowess that makes European race fans swoon."

The same could be said for Texas, the only state in the union that warns the rest of us not to mess with it. And yet, when Bruton Smith decided to build a track near Dallas in the mid-1990s, he decided to model it after Charlotte Motor Speedway. So that's what we were stuck with on Monday, and we got a race with a bizarre beginning, an exciting dash to the checkered flag and a whole lot of monotony in the middle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s "Crash in the Grass" was certainly a rousing opener and Joey Logano's white-knuckle drive past Jeff Gordon and into Victory Lane during the green-white-checkered finish provided a suitable enough ending to send the crowd off into the bi-annual North Texas Traffic Snarl without feeling cheated. However, if they had stopped and remembered that one of Texas Motor Speedway's dates used to belong to North Wilkesboro and the other to Rockingham, there might have been a riot.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you look back at NASCAR's national expansion that started in earnest during the boom of the 1990s and continued into the early part of the new millennium, it's hard to imagine a scenario worse than the one NASCAR finds itself in.

Tracks like Texas, Chicagoland, Las Vegas and California are marketing raw speed to a new generation that could care less. There was a time in the 1800s when thousands of people would throng to a public park with picnic lunches to watch somebody launch a hot air balloon. Likewise, there was a time in this country in the 1900s when folks marveled at the new speed records being set by American automobiles.

Those days are long gone. Kids nowadays have Internet connections faster than Jimmie Johnson's Chevy. They also have 1,000 channels on their televisions as well as movies and music streaming through their iPads and Xboxes. Five hundred laps? If they don't see something that looks like a scene out of "Days of Thunder" by lap 5 they're turning the channel for good.

So speed doesn't sell, but so-called reality shows do. Just ask the guys who sponsored Monday's Duck Commander 500. The Robinson family will tell you they didn't buy the naming rights from selling duck calls — it was the television money earned from allowing some folks with cameras to follow their bearded family through semi-scripted hijinks.

The key to NASCAR's success in the '90s, the earliest days of reality television, was that the sport was "Duck Dynasty" before there was such a thing. Drivers in those days were people fans latched onto, and watching them duke it out on hard-nosed tracks in Bristol, Martinsville, Darlington, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro was must-see TV.

Short of tearing down mile-and-a-half tracks and building smaller tracks measuring a half-mile or a mile, NASCAR is stuck 17 weeks a year pushing a product an increasing number of folks don't seem to have much interest in. It also doesn't help matters when drivers on the Cup series are essentially marketing machines in firesuits, dousing their personalities for the sake of their sponsors' bottom lines.

Tony Stewart has often wondered why somebody hasn't tried to build a replica of Bristol Motor Speedway somewhere else in the country. It's a great question, but it's one that should have been asked 20 years ago.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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