Nothing like a little NASCAR controversy, eh?
On Thursday, International Speedway Corporation — which owns and operates roughly half the tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit — held a conference call with reporters to discuss the company's second-quarter results. Only, that seemingly innocuous call turned on its head when ISC President John Saunders got into details about the company's decline in race attendance.
"All in all, the attendance was a little softer than expected," Saunders said, referring to ISC's six most-recent race weekends. "We still have an issue with star power. Hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands."
There's a lot that's problematic with that statement.
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First, the one accurate part of what Saunders said? That NASCAR still has an issue with star power. That much, at least, is indisputable. In recent seasons, a mass exodus of big-time drivers — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, to name a few — has left the sport void in the one area it was always secure. Even as TV ratings and attendance dipped (more on that later), NASCAR always at least had those legendary, marketable names to fall back on.
That isn't to say NASCAR has no stars, though. You still have a pair of former champions in Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch dueling for the series lead week in and week out. You have Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch — again, more former champions with loyal followings. And what about Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion? Even in a down year, have we forgotten about him?
So, yes, you could make the argument that NASCAR has lost some of its star power in recent years. What you can't do, at least not reasonably, is argue that as the sole reason for a decline in attendance, nor can you then place a new burden on young drivers.
And, oh yeah, do you think the young drivers were happy to hear those remarks? Not hardly.
"Honestly, this whole 'young guys need to win now thing' is getting old," said 24-year-old Ryan Blaney. "We’re trying. We’re trying our hardest. It’s not like I go out there and I’m happy for fifth every single week. Any other guys under the age of 25 I’ll just say is the same way.
"It’s not a competition here between young guys and old guys; it’s a competition between 39 other cars and yourself."
Other young drivers like Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson also chimed into the discussion, but their messages were the same as Blaney's.
And all of them are correct in defending themselves.
NASCAR's attendance issues predate any of these young drivers' time in the Cup Series, and those issues have been well-documented. There are any number of reasons why NASCAR's fan base is dwindling: competition with other sports for fans; a lack of younger fans to supplement the older base; a less exciting on-track product; and a handful of other substantial issues. Star power is one thing, sure, but it's a faulty argument attributing all of NASCAR's decline to the departure of a few drivers.
And now, to suggest that young drivers not winning is part of the problem? It's ridiculous. This season has only seen six winners total, whether they're old or young or somewhere in between. The lack of different winners overall is alarming — the same winners over and over becomes stale, disengages fans and destroys the competitive parity in the sport — but the burden to change that absolutely does not fall to under-25's alone. Don't you imagine Keselowski, the 34-year-old former champion, would like a win, too?
But really, the biggest issue with Saunders' comment isn't that it places an unfair burden on young, talented drivers like Blaney and Wallace. It isn't that it undervalues the remaining stars NASCAR does have. It isn't even that it fails to acknowledge the well-known fact that NASCAR, contrary to most other major sports, is on the downswing.
No. The biggest issue with what Saunders said is simple: It's another excuse.
And that's a sign of a much larger problem with NASCAR.
Every time a NASCAR executive comes out and offers up some half-baked excuse, like Saunders did, it fails to address the deeper, more intrinsic issues with the sport. It's just kicking the can, shoving those issues further down the line — or in this case, down the racing lineage — for someone else to deal with.
Given the multitude of issues facing it, NASCAR can't afford to kick the can anymore. It can't afford to hide behind bogus excuses like this, or to ignore that the foundation of the sport has wide, growing cracks. And until executives like Saunders — the people who have the power to make sweeping, significant changes — acknowledge that, the sport will only continue to depreciate in the greater American sports landscape.
So, no, young drivers aren't NASCAR's biggest issue. But if those real issues aren't addressed?
Well, those same young drivers might not have anything left to save.