Let’s Talk Relevance

(About the cover photo: This is the only place you can go and see cars not grossly outnumbered by SUVs and trucks.)

So now everybody’s excited because Tony Stewart is teaming up with new wife Leah Pruitt to race Dodges in NHRA drag racing competition. It’s only a matter of time, they say, before Dodge jumps back into the NASCAR fray with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Maybe, but remember that Dodge’s involvement in drag racing already was considerable, and it’s linked to an apparently healthy business selling parts to Mopar drag racers. That’s a very different situation than NASCAR would be. Still, I guess it would be cool if it happens.

Even though this car has Kacey Kaine’s number and Joey Saldana’s name, I’m told Tony Stewart drove it during his flirtation with Mopar in sprint car racing.

On the other hand, how does this really help either NASCAR or Dodge? As a CAR brand, Dodge grows less significant by the hour. In 2005, it “commanded” 4 ½ percent of the U.S. market; today, that’s down to less than 1 ½ percent, with a mini-van as its best seller. (Chrysler car sales are about half those for Dodge.) Fiat-Chrysler (sorry, the name-de-jour is now Stellantis) is alive because of Jeep and RAM sales, each of which is about twice that for Dodge and Chrysler car sales combined.

(Just for the record, all these statistics come from seemingly trustworthy online sources, but some could be dated. Nevertheless, I think they paint an accurate picture for this general discussion.)

Just for perspective, Nissan sells three times as many cars as Dodge-Chrysler; Hyundai-Kia about four times; even Tesla sells more. Given that the fans of tomorrow don’t remember Dodge racing in NASCAR, how does this help the long-term outlook?

Most old-timers would hate it, but for the next generation of NASCAR fans – if there is one – a racing Kia will resonate more than a racing Dodge.

It only helps if this is how you pave the way for Jeep’s involvement when racing switches to SUVs instead of cars.

Yeah, I know, nobody wants to see that. But what do you want to see Chevy do, now that the Camaro is headed for extinction (unless it returns as an electric car), and muscle car sales in general are in a free-fall.

I’ve said many times that auto racing might be headed toward something akin to horse racing, which outlived the horse’s role in the economy by adopting gambling as its reason-to-be. I don’t know if betting or something else is the answer for NASCAR, but a new marketing model may be needed if the current one keeps getting more and more irrelevant.

To review:

  • NASCAR races cars when everybody drives SUVS and trucks.
  • NASCAR races large internal-combustion engines when street vehicles run on four cylinders or – more and more – electricity.
  • NASCAR asks manufacturers to pour millions into a sport where they aren’t allowed to design/engineer/build their own vehicles.

I understand that the ever-shrinking base of long-time fans likes the cars and engines (although maybe not the NASCAR designs) and noise and everything, but we already can’t hear much of the noise or see the cars very clearly, and as much as I’d like to live forever, before long somebody else is going to have to fill my seat, either at the track on in front of the TV. I can’t see the current NASCAR model bringing in large numbers of those newbies.

Above is the racing I loved. Below is what that makes me.

I guess it’s not my problem. It’s tough for NASCAR, needing to do things differently to gain new fans but alienating the old ones with changes. Anyway, I’m looking at weekly short-track schedules and planning my racing year. The PA Sprint Series, with which I volunteer, looks like it will end up with about 40 races (some co-sanctioned with neighboring regional groups running RaceSaver economy sprint cars), nearly all within a couple hours of my house, and nearly at tracks with reasonably priced admission and concessions. With no charter system and relatively simple rules, last year we had more than 160 drivers race with us at least once, including 68 going for 26 starting positions at the season-ending Keystone RaceSaver Challenge.

It’s salt-of-the-earth people racing for the love of it.

It’s fun.

I used to feel that way about NASCAR.

Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts

My early status as a NASCAR fan (yes, they had cars that far back) was enhanced by a non-competitive membership in the organization. A bi-weekly newsletter and copies of entry blanks, race results and even the rule book kept me hooked (the racing helped, too).

The other day, while researching something else at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, I came across this ad in National Speed Sport News in 1954. I wonder how many respondents built a long-term love of NASCAR out of these memberships.

By the time I joined about a decade later, I don’t think they still offered to “transfer” your membership to driver, owner or mechanic for a $1.00 fee. Too bad. Who knows what I might have done.

(Photo Credits – Today’s cover photo is from The Sporting News and is a Getty Images shot. The Tony Stewart sprint car shot is from auto123.com. The Kia race car is from MotorTrend.com. Richard Petty on the front row at Martinsville is from NASCARHall.com, and the dinosaur is from BBC.com. The NASCAR Fan Club ad is from National Speed Sport News by way of the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing library, where the late Chris Economaki donated his papers.)

Frank Buhrman

9 comments

  1. You’re right on, I started following NASCAR through NSSN in the early 70’s. Because one of our local (Springfield Mo. Fairgrounds) drivers started running NASCAR. He was a back of the pack runner here, & also in NASCAR, but no matter. Then NASCAR results & what news there was, was a single column deep inside. The featured stories were mostly the Pa. sprint news. I suppose I’ll still watch, but now that it’s become a spec. series, I’ll have to see how that plays out. I need to sign up with either Flo Racing, or Dirt Track. I just returned from the Chili Bowl, & it shows me what I’m missing not getting USAC, or PowerI.

  2. Frank, you’ll recall our senior year of high school 1965-1966 you, me, Chris Young & Jack Pendleton teaching driver education (what on earth were they thinking??!!) for Richmond Public Schools on Saturdays – using (what else?) push button transmission DODGES with an extra brake pedal, but no additional steering. Thankfully, we were on a closed course and not public roads. Melvin Fulks backed my DODGE into a brick wall before I could brake it and later got the Dodge stuck on one of those telephone poles we used to teach parallel parking. On Richmond race weekends in mid-60s you and I made the trip across the James River to see David Pearson’s Cotton Owens DODGE on display at Southside Dodge on Belt Boulevard. I was a year behind you seeing my first race, which I will never forget. Sometimes seems like yesterday, though the calendar tells me it was 58 years ago! The winning car – why it was a DODGE!

    1. Dodge was definitely a big deal then (and pretty well built, considering they more-or-less survived those driving students who were supposed to learn from our expertise). In that first race I attended, I knew about Joe Weatherly and Richard Petty (and Junior Johnson, I think), but there was this guy who sneaked into the lead mid-race who was new to me. His name was David Pearson, and he was driving a white-and-red Dodge #6. Didn’t finish well, but I remembered him, and he was the guy to beat in just about all the remaining GN races on the old fairgrounds dirt. Thanks for helping to excavate those memories.

  3. Interesting article Frank. I’ve been an advocate for the creation of an electric small SUV division of
    Nascar to eventually replace trucks, Xfinity or, eventually, Cup. Formula E has done alot of the heavy lifting on this, but range is always a determining factor. They may need to twin shorter races on the weekends, but this is very likely the future of automobiles. And certainly, Formula E events are real racing.
    It may be of value for some manufacturer to build an electric demonstrator sprint car or midget (maybe a 2-seat sprint car in place of the current noise maker). Making racing relevant to a new generation that has grown up with a cell phone and video games is vital to not have this go the way of the minuet.
    Ironically, I see kids of the future buying lowering kits for the SUV’s…which will kind of be the revival of the car.

    1. Well said, John. The bonus is that you won’t have the noise complaints from neighbors (although, again, we nearly-deaf geezers will complain about losing the roar). The Eastern Museum of Motor Racing has a solar-powered racer (from a collegiate competition); if you could combine those two technologies, range might not be an issue.

  4. Frank, you did it again! You kept my interest throughout your article and made me think and ponder. Sometimes I wonder if I am as avid a stock car racing fan as I once was. I don’t know about Dodge coming back. What, with the electric cars being pushed on us, and the fact that the younger generation just has so much more to keep them occupied, makes it look like a downslide for NASCAR. That probably means no Dodge. Tony can’t do it alone. Local tracks still have a lot interest so maybe their relevance will remain. As I recently made a downsize and moved, I found so much stuff from the past that showed a definitely rise of interest in stock car racing, and as I reviewed different papers and magazines, I also found a decline starting.

    1. That rise-and-fall is sad, Vivian, although it might also reflect the shift away from printed stuff altogether. You hit the nail on the head about the future: where does racing go in an era of electric cars, less interest in the mechanical aspects, and quite possibly less interest in speed. Could make for a bleak future.

      1. One more thing I have to say is that I truly believe that we people who are older have truly lived in the best of times, in possibly all types of racing. We saw the cars of the 30’s and up at their finest. We saw the hard working men do everything on their own, saw the first sponsors come in to help, saw the transition from older racers to the up and coming teenagers, then saw the start of the downside of pure racing into a politically correct sport which almost seemed to make robots of drivers who did their interviews in a clean and p.c. way as the sanctioning body wanted, so as to reflect they were not a redneck sport which came from a moonshine running past. And, personally, I still get sad over the way they treated Smokey Yunick and Tim Richmond due to someone else having innovation and bias against the unknown.

        Keep these good reads coming, My Friend.

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