LIANE HANSEN, host:
One business looking for new ideas may be NASCAR. This is homecoming week for the sport. Today, the season's longest stock-car race will be held at a track near Charlotte, North Carolina, long considered NASCAR's home.
But this year, there are new questions about the sport's health. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Scott Graf reports.
SCOTT GRAF: In last summer's box-office hit "Talladega Nights," actor Will Ferrell plays a race car driver named Ricky Bobby. During one scene, the character sits down to a meal with his family and begins saying grace. In seconds, prayer begins to blend with NASCAR.
(Soundbite of movie "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby")
Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (As Ricky Bobby) Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious, and it cools you off on a hot summer day.
GRAF: Those lines spoof the relationship a NASCAR driver has with his sponsors. But then, corporate money has fueled NASCAR's huge growth over the last 15 years. Fan David O'Dell(ph) of Durham, North Carolina will watch the race today with his wife. Camping near the track, O'Dell says when his favorite driver Jimmy Johnson gets out of his car and thanks his sponsors, he won't necessarily like it, but he'll understand.
Mr. DAVID O'DELL (NASCAR Fan): There'll be no end to that. As long as people keep putting money in it to win, they're going to keep dictating what they have to - what they can and what they can't say.
GRAF: But for all that money has added to this sport, some like Humpy Wheeler say it's now taking away from NASCAR's appeal. Wheeler used to be general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Today, it's known as Lowe's Motor Speedway. Speaking in the track's Time Warner media center, Wheeler says too often, advertisers are muffling drivers' personalities.
Mr. H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler (President and General Manager, Lowe's Motor Speedway): The sponsors need to let up on these guys a little bit and let them be themselves and speak their piece.
GRAF: A lot of those veteran NASCAR drivers who were seen as nearly untouchable aren't racing anymore. Rusty Wallace and Daryl Waltrip are now broadcasters. It's been six years since Dale Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500. And these days, if a young driver like Ryan Newman gets too hotheaded, he's likely to find himself in hot water.
Mr. RYAN NEWMAN (NASCAR Driver): It's tough to create controversy anymore. It's tough to pick a good fight, and it's tough to finish a good fight, and, you know, that's part of the way it is, and that's acceptable. It's acceptable for the right reasons because it's a family sport, and nobody - not everybody needs to see that or experience it.
GRAF: But lately, fewer people are watching this sport, both on television and in person. Last year, ratings were off by about 10 percent. Some TV audiences this year are nearly a third smaller than they were in 2005. For promoters, filling the seats they were quick to add a few years ago has all of a sudden become a tough task.
(Soundbite of speeding cars)
GRAF: During a recent test session just outside of Charlotte, the bright(ph) stock cars practice at speeds near 200 miles an hour. NASCAR is still second to the National Football League in total viewers, thanks in part to massive tracks with huge seating capacities. But theories as to why NASCAR has plateaued include the high gas prices and economic uncertainties that can keep fans from going to races. Others say the nine-month season is too long.
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp says his company sees the trends, but he stopped short of saying they're worrisome.
Mr. KERRY THARP (Director of Public Relations for Licensing, NASCAR): Are we concerned? You know, we take a look at it, and we analyze it, we study it, and we do everything we can to make our sport as fan friendly as possible.
GRAF: Very few think so much is wrong with NASCAR that it won't turn itself around, but reporter Rick Minter, who covers racing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says something's not right with the sport, and he's waiting to see how NASCAR reacts.
Mr. RICK MINTER (Staff Writer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): I think this year's going to be the year that really tells whether NASCAR's got a problem or not.
GRAF: If NASCAR is to begin a rally, Charlotte would be a good place to start, and there's reason for optimism. For the first time in six years, track officials say they're close to selling out the facility's 165,000 seats for this weekend's Coca-Cola 600. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Charlotte.
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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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