Tom Sorensen

Will stock car racing survive the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire at the end of the season, will further eliminate post-race traffic, Tom Sorensen says.
The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire at the end of the season, will further eliminate post-race traffic, Tom Sorensen says. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, reporters and photographers would file their stories and send their pictures and gather in the infield for a post-race beer. After spending the day and night and most of the week at the track, a beer was a reward. It tasted better there than it does anywhere but the beach.

The premise when the tradition started was to have something to do while we waited for post-race traffic to dissipate.

The premise now is that we sip beer because we like beer. Traffic has ceased to be a problem.

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire at the end of the season, will further eliminate post-race traffic.

NASCAR had a golden age. In the late 1990s and into 2000 NASCAR was the sport that featured clean-cut young Americans who belonged to no union and would engage in no strike or be locked out by management. A racing official told me at the time that all new tracks should accommodate at least 100,000 fans.

NASCAR was new then for many fans. They loved the idea of the sport. But they didn’t necessarily love the sport. Long-time fans, meanwhile, felt betrayed. Races were yanked from their tracks and their turf to accommodate fans in Chicago and Kansas City, in Phoenix and Fort Worth.

NASCAR became a victim of inflation. The new fans were temps.

At its apex, NASCAR hoped to challenge the NFL. That was absurd, of course. Nobody could. To succeed, NASCAR doesn’t have to.

Racing is not going to return to what fans consider the good old days, good old days that featured good old boys. They’re gone. Find me a driver who wears a cowboy hat when nobody is looking and on the front of his belt has a buckle as big as a paperback book.

Yet race tracks don’t need to accommodate 100,000 fans. Even tracks such as Charlotte are removing seats rather than adding them.

Some officials will contend that the price of gas or a perceived recession are what discourage fans from driving to tracks and buying tickets. But TV ratings have slid, too. How much gas does it take to hit the remote and find the station with the race?

The sport has been sliding, and the absence of Earnhardt Jr. will contribute to the slide.

Maybe there will be a new model. Maybe tracks will charge less and teams will make less and somebody will figure out a way to make racing less expensive.

I could drink to that.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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