NASCAR Popularity Dips

NASCAR's days of heady growth are over. TV ratings are off, and ticket sales have slumped. Many longtime fans say that NASCAR has lost its essence and personality as the sport's top brass have chased more exposure by going mainstream.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A few years ago, NASCAR was the second-most-watched sport after the NFL, but with its 60th season approaching, NASCAR's popularity may be waning. From member-station WFAE in Charlotte, Scott Graf reports.

SCOTT GRAF, reporting:

David Love(ph) is a NASCAR fan, but he's disgruntled. The 51-year-old retired policeman from Michigan recently vacationed with his wife in the Carolinas. Among their stops, the Lowes Motor Speedway gift shop near Charlotte.

(Soundbite of cash register)

GRAF: Love started following racing in the 1980s, but he says NASCAR has changed for the worse lately, as its leaders have tried to expand the sport.

Mr. DAVID LOVE (NASCAR Fan): They're in it for the money. They're not in it for the fans. They're not in it for the sport itself. Whatever makes that cash register flow, they'll do.

GRAF: Love is part of a group of fans who have helped drive TV ratings down and slow ticket sales the last two seasons. Ask Love and nine other race fans why they're not as interested as they used to be, and you might get 10 different answers. Whatever their reasons, NASCAR wants them back.

Mr. BRIAN FRANCE (CEO, NASCAR): And we certainly are proud we have been able to attract new fans virtually every year NASCAR has been in existence, but we're also proud of those fans who have been with us for many decades.

GRAF: That was NASCAR CEO Brian France last month. Rather than trying to reach new fans, NASCAR is trying to shore up its base. France calls it going back to basics. One step France has talked about is letting drivers be more ornery. Racing is an emotional sport, and controversy arises from time to time. When it does, fans eat it up, but as stock-car racing got bigger, NASCAR's tolerance for things like fighting got smaller.

Former crew chief and current FOX analyst Larry McReynolds is among those welcoming the change.

Mr. LARRY McREYNOLDS (Former Crew Chief, NASCAR; Analyst, FOX): But I'm just saying let a guy speak his peace, as long as he does it in a professional manner, and let a guy show his emotions if it's, you know, confronting a guy nose to nose, maybe a little shove in the chest, whatever - if that's what happens, let that happen. Let it play out, and it'll help our sport.

GRAF: Besides the infusion of more emotion, NASCAR may be embracing another part of its heritage. Country music star Garth Brooks will be the spokesperson for NASCAR's annual charity day in May.

(Soundbite of song, "Since You've Been Gone")

Ms. KELLY CLARKSON (Singer): (Singing) Here's the thing, we started out friends…

GRAF: A year ago, that job went to pop star Kelly Clarkson, hear here just before last year's Daytona 500. Once upon a time, NASCAR and country music went hand in hand, but Humpy Wheeler, a long-time promoter and track manager, says that changed as NASCAR grew.

Mr. HUMPY WHEELER (Promoter and Track Manager, NASCAR): A lot of people decided, well, we need to get into mainstream America, and we need to be part of pop culture, and I'm not sure that we're destined for pop culture.

GRAF: Wheeler says too many people, himself included, tried to make NASCAR a violin when it's really just a fiddle. The first test of the 2008 season, both for drivers and for NASCAR's back-to-basics campaign, comes Sunday afternoon in the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Charlotte.

SIMON: Humpy Wheeler.

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