I will begin this post by stating, unequivocally, I respected Dale Earnhardt, Sr., I loved to watch him drive, and while I didn't always agree with this on-track tactics, I believe what he did for NASCAR racing was important for the growth of the sport. Dale actually ran into me once, in the infield at Columbia Speedway, when I came around the corner of the concession stand and he was riding his bike at breakneck speed. He was probably 15, maybe younger. His Dad was racing the weekly sportsman race as he almost always did on Thursday nights.
There have been many articles posted, many radio and television comments made, and other forms of spreading the myth that NASCAR died with Dale on that last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. I want to debunk that myth and it was NASCAR's own doing that brought about this post. The sport did not "die" with Fonty Flock, Tim Flock, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, or Fireball Roberts when they died or retired. Surely each one of those individuals were as important to the sport and contributed probably more to building the sport than did Dale, Sr. The sport did NOT die with that last lap crash in 2001.
What started this was, as I said, NASCAR's own provocation. During the rain delay from the Texas joke Sunday, NBCSN chose to show the NASCAR produced chronicle of the 2001 season, which included, among other things, much to do with 9/11 and NASCAR's willingness to reschedule the New Hampshire race set for the weekend after 9/11. To be fair, I remember that discussion went on for two days before NASCAR decided to reset the New Hampshire date to the Friday after Thanksgiving. I also remember the local university football coach here in Columbia was absolutely NOT in favor of rescheduling the game set for that Saturday. But, after all, that was Lou Holtz, considering himself to be only one step below God. But, be that as it may, let me make my case here.
The entire season of 2001 was shown in snippets from each track and at every track shown, the stands were full. Not an empty seat appeared at any of the tracks. Odd, I thought, that with the tragedy in Daytona in February alleged to have killed the sport, still full stands. That made me curious to follow-up on that.
Thanks to YouTube, I was able to pull up video of grandstands of races so I went on a search. I searched the Daytona 500 and the Coke 600 for all seasons starting with 2002 and going through 2010 before tiring of the obvious that was appearing before my eyes. The 2002 season saw no drop in attendance from what I could determine from the shots of the stands and infields at those tracks. Neither did 2003, 2004, '05, or '06, although 2006 began to show some fewer fans in stands on the turns in Charlotte. Daytona appeared to be as full but there was never a clear shot of the back straight stands at Daytona. I didn't bother to research when those stands were removed since I couldn't see them in any of the videos.
Oddly, in 2007, crowds were slightly less at Daytona and noticeably less at Charlotte. In 2008, the massive "Tarp" family began to take the seats at Charlotte that were once filled with cheering fans. Stands in Daytona were noticeably fewer although not yet to the point to of a huge defection of fans. The 2010 season shows a marked decrease in attendance. The last Cup race I attended was the 2011 World 600, to which I took my three grandsons. We were in the stands in turn four (complimentary tickets) and there were so few people in those stands we could have thrown a football around without disturbing anyone. Looking down the front straight, it was obvious that fans were staying away in droves.
We are all aware that tracks are now installing larger seats and painting them different colors so as to appear there at people sitting there when, in fact, there aren't. Last year we saw, at least of FOX, every effort being made to avoid overhead shots of grandstands and even track level shots of the stands to prevent fans at home (what few watched as supported by dismal ratings). But it has been rumored that at least one major track owner has said he could care less how many folks are in the stands because the television money makes up for lack of attendance and besides, it takes less time to clean up the stands with few people thereby saving him even more money not having to pay crews to clean up.
So, my point is the death of Dale Earnhardt did NOT kill NASCAR, although he is definitely missed and it would be wonderful to see him now as a team owner with winning drivers once more putting his mischief-grinning face in victory lane. Such a thought stirs good emotions inside me. All of us who watched that black number 3 hit that wall in Daytona remember that vision just as we remember every other major tragic event occurring in our lives.
I refuse to state that NASCAR is dead. I admit it is suffering and is being administered chemo treatments to keep it alive, and I believe remission of the cancer lies in the future. But Dale's death did not cause the cancer. I do think it speaks for itself that the first marked decline in attendance began in 2007. Do you remember what appeared in NASCAR's Cup Series in 2007 with the auspicious start in Daytona?
The Chase? Good or bad? I hate it and I don't often use the word "hate" as I feel that is too strong. The "champ" from last year is a joke. Missed half the season and then was manipulated into the Chase by NASCAR. The Chase has killed the sport for the "core fans" of yesteryear of which I am one. As for all the new fans being pulled in according to NASCAR, the Chase is a gadget of trickery for minds more attuned to technical equipment than racing. How long is that going to last?
I am sure NASCAR management makes every move based on what is good for the bank account, NOT what is good for the sport. That's the way it rolls these days. Think back over just this season and the debacle after debacle through which the fans have had to suffer and it continues as we roll on to a Championship where the two winning-est drivers on the circuit are not even allowed to participate for the Championship.
But to end my diatribe, it was NOT the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. that began the downward slide of NASCAR. That is hype NASCAR would love for you to accept because it relieves the pressure for them having to admit the management within NASCAR is clueless as to how to present an "on-track product" (their new catch phrase) that is going to appeal to the fans.