In Wake of Lower TV Ratings and Sagging Attendance, NASCAR Looks for Some Fast Buzz

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

DOVER, Del., May 30 -- From Carl Edwards's vantage point, few experiences match the thrill of racing at Dover International Speedway, where the steep banking and cramped confines exaggerate the sense of speed.

But sagging attendance and a double-digit drop in television ratings suggest that NASCAR is struggling to translate the exhilaration Edwards feels behind the wheel of his No. 99 Ford Fusion to fans who once scheduled their weekends around stock-car racing's calendar.

Halfway through NASCAR's regular season, TV ratings are down 13 percent from last year -- and that's excluding Memorial Day weekend's bust, the Coca-Cola 600, which dragged out over two soggy days before ending under caution with barely half the distance completed.

The sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has yet to win a race and continues to make news more for his moves off the track than on it.

Moreover, there's a growing perception that the racing is dull.

NASCAR officials point to statistics that say otherwise, such as the number of cars finishing on the lead lap, number of passes for the lead and the average margin of victory.

Veteran racer Jeff Burton, 41, echoes the claim.

"I understand the 'good ol' days' theory, and I understand that we all fantasize and romanticize the way things used to be," Burton said. But "the thought that the racing's not good isn't supported. I've been doing this long enough to tell you that the competition is harder today then it's ever been."

Nonetheless, NASCAR's boxy, redesigned racecar has created an aerodynamic handful on the track. In short, its bulky shape creates such turbulence in its wake, especially on the bigger speedways, that it's difficult for drivers to get close enough to one another to pass.

The upshot, all too often, is a nose-to-tail parade that no amount of speed can make interesting.

Many of these issues were debated last week at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., where NASCAR chief executive Brian France held a closed-door meeting with the sport's drivers and team owners to discuss ways of making stock-car racing sizzle again.

Had NASCAR fans who dominate the blogosphere been invited, the discussion surely would have included such hot-button issues as the plethora of "cookie-cutter" racetracks (1.5-mile superspeedways in Atlanta, Chicago, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Las Vegas, Texas and Concord, N.C., where the competition is similar); the erratic start times of races; and the hackneyed banter that dominates the broadcasts on Fox, along with its animated gopher mascot, Digger, who's more overexposed than Madonna.

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