The Problem, Pt. 2 by Thomas Martins

NASCAR is fighting a battle of perception. 

Long-time fans are disenfranchised. They feel like they’re losing their grip on a sport they love. It's hard to attract new fans to the sport. The stereotypes towards NASCAR are carved into American pop culture. So, how do you strike a balance of marketing the sport to new viewers while still staying loyal to your diehard fan base?

Stock car racing should be about action. Beating and banging. Tough racing on tough tracks with tough drivers. Guys like Waltrip, Petty, Yarborough, & the Allison’s set the precedent for what a NASCAR driver is supposed to be. Earnhardt became the most popular driver in the sport because of his hard charging, take no prisoners attitude. Even in the 90’s and early 2000’s, guys like Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, & Dale Jarrett looked, spoke, & acted the same as the fans that loved them so dearly. They were real people. Sponsors were drawn to NASCAR because they felt like the drivers and the sport connected to the average, hard working, middle class American.

Right now we can’t touch fenders without cutting down a tire. We drive racecars that are so aero dependent it restricts passing on most tracks. We’ve gotten rid of short tracks like Rockingham & North Wilkesboro on the NASCAR schedule because they were, “poorly attended,” and replaced them with indistinguishable tri-ovals that spread the fields out and reward equipment more than skill. The cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to research & build. Race shops look more like hospitals than garages.

Tell me what the average fan has in common with the NASCAR stars of today. The answer is not much. Drivers themselves mostly speak in PR jargon rather than actual sentences. And that’s nothing against them. They’re told to push their products and not say anything that would get them in trouble. I’ve met several of them. They’re normal people. But, they fly around on private jets. They speak at corporate functions. They live out of million dollar motor homes. They get wrecked, get out of the car, shrug their shoulders and walk away. It doesn’t matter as much to them as it used to. How could it? At the cup level, we have a bunch of millionaires driving for billionaires, and yet the sport relies on making money off the average Joe.

At the lower levels of Trucks & Xfinity, we allow kids to drive these racecars. No one wants to watch a bunch of 16-year olds race in NASCAR. And 18-year olds are still a stretch. Nobody likes hearing about young, successful people. They’re not relatable. People will watch one kid compete against the wily old vets, but an entire field of kids isn’t compelling. And how does that look for a national series? NASCAR has a Coors Light pole award and the kids can’t even take a picture with the beer. They don’t fight, and nobody can fight them. I can’t even yell at them without looking like a jackass. Even if they total my truck, what am I supposed to do? Assault a minor?

There’s a reason guys didn’t get into good rides until they were in their late 20’s or early 30’s. They had to pay their dues. They had to earn the right to be in a front running car at the highest levels of the sport. Guys would compete for years in sprint cars or late models before finally earning a break. Now kids buy rides and immediately take off to the front of the field. It’s not their fault! They want to be there, and the rules allow them to be there. But, no matter how humble, well spoken, or talented they are, it’s going to rub a lot of people (especially racers) the wrong way.

Fans aren’t stupid. They see all of this. They talk to me about all of this.

We’ve allowed a blue-collar sport, probably the most blue-collar sport in the history of America, to become entirely white collar at the highest level.

Fans aren’t skipping out on races because it costs too much. Sure, travel costs and hotel costs are more than they used to be, but that’s not the main reason. Attendance is down because they’re upset. They don’t recognize the sport they fell in love with, and everyone in the industry keeps telling them to just deal with it. Fans still care. They watch the races on television. They call in on NASCAR radio. They comment on websites. But they’ve stopped showing up to races and giving their hard-earned money to promoters, teams, & drivers that look like they clearly have enough already. 

When fans see the stands at less than half capacity, they’re getting confirmation that others feel the same way. Then they complain about the attendance because they’re scared. They think the sport they love is dying, and we’re not doing anything to change their minds. When sponsors see empty stands, frustrated fans, & the rising costs of getting into NASCAR racing, it’s no surprise that they stay away.

Look, the competition level is awesome. It’s closer than it’s ever been. There are more good drivers and teams than there’s ever been in the history of NASCAR. So think of how great it would be if we could cut the costs and allow more sponsors an opportunity to get on the side of a competitive NASCAR racecar. What if we could find a way to make NASCAR ownership a break even business without such a heavy dependency on sponsorship income? That would allow owners to retake power over their teams and select the drivers they thought would finish the best, not just the ones that brought money with them. What if kids could get into the lower levels of racing without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to, “build their brand?” 

NASCAR is in limbo.

Rather than embracing the dedicated fans we do have, we’ve altered the course of the sport chasing after fans that might never develop an interest in NASCAR racing. NASCAR is the premier motorsport in the United States. It isn’t even close from a numbers standpoint. So why does it feel like we’re struggling to find an identity?

We’ve changed rules to promote better, safer racing. We created the lucky dog rule. It’s a good rule. We moved to double file, shootout style restarts, which has been awesome. But, we’ve also created the restart box rule, which is dumb, and overtime rules that are even dumber. We change the format of our all-star race & shootout every single year. There seems to be a rule change every month in the season.

Sometimes we can’t leave well enough alone. Sometimes we talk out of both sides of our mouth.

The chase is an example of that. I think it’s a cool concept. The new chase format is much better than the original format. But the way it’s described is completely ridiculous. The pitch from NASCAR is, “we’re not like any other sport. We’re NASCAR. We’re racing,” but yet we’ve changed the championship format to make it more like other sports. Well, which is it?

We’ve got a start/finish line that doesn’t start or finish the race anymore. The flagperson has to wait until the leader goes inside the restart box to even be able to wave the green flag. Why even have a flagperson at this point? Why not just have a light? If there’s a caution, we don’t even race back to the line on the last lap. We routinely rob the fans that actually do show up to the racetrack of the most exciting thing in the whole sport – a close finish!  And good luck trying to explain the three overtime attempts/overtime line rules to someone that doesn’t know racing. Or why Cup drivers and teams are allowed to compete in the Xfinity & Truck Series. If you try to make the major leagues/minor leagues comparison then you’re stuck trying to explain why Albert Pujols would need to smash more homers in AAA. It’s absurd.

The whole sport is a contradiction. We want to have drivers fight and promote crashes on commercials, but also be safe and not race back to the line. We want drivers to speak their minds but also not upset sponsors. We want the Xfinity & Truck Series to develop new stars, but we let Cup teams & drivers compete in them & steal the spotlight. We have a 36-race schedule but run several of the tracks twice, something no other pro racing series does.

Until we find that new identity, we’re going to be stuck in purgatory as a league and a brand.

One of the worst things NASCAR ever did was let Will Ferrell make the movie Talladega Nights. It was a hilarious movie. It’s one of my favorites. But it gave an entire generation of people the impression that NASCAR is a redneck, no talent, joke of a sport. It took a stereotype many people had towards us and cemented it as fact. As I just covered, nothing could be further from the truth.

NASCAR drivers aren’t stupid. We’re well spoken, brand ambassadors. NASCAR fans aren’t stupid. We have fans from every different background & socioeconomic level. NASCAR isn’t easy. It’s not driving around in circles for hours. It’s hard as hell to drive one of these cars at a high level.

But we need to stop trying to counteract the stereotypes by promoting drivers & pit crews as athletes. That’s not the answer.

I hate that debate. We’re not athletes! Driving a racecar doesn’t make me an athlete. Changing a tire on pit road doesn't make someone an athlete. We’re daredevils. Which is infinitely more interesting! A marathon runner is an athlete, but there’s nothing interesting about watching a marathon. A weightlifter is an athlete, but people aren’t packing the stands to watch people bench press.

Rallycross gets it. Drifting gets it. They don’t promote Ken Block or Vaughn Gittin Jr. as athletes. They promote them as lunatics! They slide their cars around on YouTube videos. They do jumps during races. They bang into each other. They tear each other up. Their races are shorter, but action packed. Their disciplines translate better to highlight reels, pictures, & video clips. All of this happens at roughly half the speed of NASCAR racing. 

NASCAR isn’t an action sport. It’s THE action sport!

I slid a truck sideways at Pocono at 150 mph, an inch away from another truck. That’s crazy! Three guys crashed right in front of me at over 100 mph and I had to weave through it! That doesn’t make me an athlete. That makes me an idiot! Why else would I put myself in those situations? But people love to watch idiots like us do crazy stuff like that. Fans want to see us push the boundaries of what a person and a racecar can do together. That will never stop being entertaining to every type of person in the world.

I wanted to be a racecar driver because I thought it was cool. I’m a showboat, by nature. Racing gave me an outlet to show off in a car in front of other people. I thought I’d be good at it, and I am. Also, I was right. It is cool. Going 190 mph in a car is always going to be cool. That part hasn’t changed. Everything surrounding it has.

We’ve got to stop confusing people and changing what made the sport so popular. We’ve got some of the best drivers & best racing in the world. We need to make it simpler to follow, change some of the ways we cover and market the sport, and give new and old fans a better way to connect with the people they see on the racetrack. We need to correct the balance between money and talent is crushing a sport that I fell in love with, and still love deeply to this day.

NASCAR has some problems, sure. But no other sport can match the speed, danger, drama, passion, & excitement you get from a NASCAR race. At its core, I think it’s still the greatest sport in the world. 

We need to start giving people more reasons to believe that’s true.

The Problem, Pt. 1 by Thomas Martins

A 17th place finish is a good finish for our team. I’m proud of it. Of course, I was still mad when I got out of the truck at Pocono.

We battled all day. On our first pit stop, we broke a shock. The right front of the truck never got back down in the racetrack afterwards. Anytime I was in the throttle, it was one of the tightest trucks I’ve ever driven. Unfortunately there wasn’t much we could do to fix it.

We used some strategy & I was up to 7th on a restart in the middle of the race. I got smoked. We were 15th by the time we got to turn one. I thought I got through the gears alright, but our torque & horsepower disadvantage really showed when compared to the top trucks in the field.

I had to dodge several wrecks. Three happened right in front of us. I saw more aggressive driving during the race at Pocono than I’ve ever seen in a NASCAR race.

On the final restart I lined up 14th. I got a really good restart, and was able to move up to 13th, racing side-by-side with Jordan Anderson through turn one and into turn two. Jordan is a hard racer. I knew he wouldn’t give me much room during the final four laps. We raced tight, but clean, for a whole lap. 

As Jordan & I got to turn 2 with three to go, another driver made one of the dumbest moves I’ve ever seen.

He jumped to the inside of both of us, down to the apron, on the entry to the tunnel turn. The context here is that the tunnel turn at Pocono is one of the wildest corners in all of NASCAR. It’s sharp, bumpy, & close to flat out. It’s hairy to go through there side by side with one truck. Three-wide is a guaranteed wreck.

I was furious.

I got shoved up the track, slid sideways, saved it, backed out, lost all my momentum and lost a few more positions. Instead of finishing 15th, we backed up to 17th.

It was the final straw in a race full of nonsense. It’s a perfect example of what’s going on in the NASCAR Truck Series, and NASCAR in general. We’ve got a bunch of guys racing at this level that simply do not respect anyone. 

They don’t respect their teams. They tear stuff up every single week. They don’t care about that. The teams are always funded enough to bring another one. They have no idea the amount of effort and time that goes into building & preparing these racecars every week. 

They don’t respect other drivers. Think about how many stupid, overly aggressive, unnecessary moves happened during our Pocono race. It’s been that way all year. I’ve gotten put four wide for 25th place. Crowded in corners by torn up lapped trucks. I’ve watched guys turn into each other down a straightaway for 15th. It’s insane.

They don’t respect the effort it takes to get to this level. Guys have elite-level rides handed to them through tremendous amounts of sponsorship or family money. They’ve crushed people in lower divisions because their equipment is so much better than the field. When they get to the NASCAR level, they aren’t prepared to race as closely as we have to race. Sure, the team taking their money tells them that they are, but it’s obvious by the results that they aren’t.

Worst of all, there are no consequences to any of this.

Think about the risk vs reward in my scenario. If it works, he just moved up to 13th, which is still not that big of a deal. If it doesn’t, and I decide to keep us three-wide, then three trucks get totaled. Given our financial situation, our team would’ve probably been out of business. He was faster than both Jordan & I. He could’ve waited until turn three and it would’ve been a much easier, safer pass.

I was embarrassed to be a part of a race like that. Someone told me fans were booing us during stretches of the Pocono race. Not booing one driver; they were booing our entire series. We’re supposed to be professionals. Ryan Ellis told me after the race that we didn’t make it more than six laps without a caution flag. That’s a joke.

You see, the perception is that we’re the best drivers in the country. The NASCAR Truck Series is a top-three national stock car racing series. Top drivers. Top teams. The best of the best. To make it to this level it takes talent, determination, hard work & skill. That’s simply not true.

We’re not the best drivers in the country. We’re the best drivers in the country that can afford it.

All it takes to make it to this level is money. You want to be a NASCAR Truck Series driver? Write a check. If you’re 16 years old, have ever driven a racecar in your life, and have about $50,000-$150,000 lying around, then you can be a NASCAR driver. It’s not about how talented you are. If you want to break into NASCAR then you have two options: be rich or be a great salesperson.

The only reason I get to be a NASCAR driver is because my father spent the money to start a NASCAR team. We’re not millionaires. My dad owns a concrete business. He’s had to spend every dime he’s ever saved to give me an opportunity to compete at this level, and this is the third time we’ve done it.

Every time I race, I run the risk of ending my career. One too many crashes and we’re done. It’s been like that every time I’ve driven in NASCAR. Every one of my mistakes or unfortunate breaks on the racetrack has brought a tremendous burden to my family. Meanwhile, I see guys totaling trucks each and every week with impunity. It makes my blood boil.

The only thing that has held my career back is money. I’ve had team owners in the ARCA, Truck, & Xfinity series tell me I have the talent to be a race winning, championship level driver. All of them also asked my family for money to allow me to drive their racecars. When we couldn't afford it, those opportunities went away. It makes me wonder about the sincerity of their claims. Or does it even matter? The business model can't survive on talent alone. There has to be money attached to it. If a team won every race on the truck series schedule, they'd still lose money as a company if they were relying on prize money alone.

I desperately want the opportunity to showcase my talent. That’s why we’re out here. My dad and I believed if I could just be out here, that someone would notice. Maybe a team owner or a sponsor would give me a better chance than he could afford to give me. People have noticed. But talent has nothing to do with your progress in this sport. In the end, it all comes down to dollars and cents.

The industry has completely changed.

There are several guys in the truck series that are flat out unqualified to be there. They’ve proven it time and time again on national television. The NASCAR PR world desperately tries to define the public perception of these teams & drivers. Team press releases, media appearances, and television coverage all skew the truth of the matter: most of the sponsors you see at the lower levels aren’t sponsors. You don't earn top rides in NASCAR anymore. You buy them. Then you try your best to cover it up to the general public or potential real sponsors.

A “development deal” is a kid bringing money to a team. A “development series” has become a place where teams can outspend the competition to help build resumes for newly crowned stars. People in the industry say the worst thing a young driver can do is get in bad equipment. How about finishing mid-pack or on the wrecker in great equipment? How does that make you look? Or does it even matter?

Every guy at the cup level has had someone pay for it. Whether it was their own family, a benevolent team owner, or a sponsor - someone paid the bill. To have success at the top levels of NASCAR, it takes a tremendous amount of money behind you. If someone tells you they made it on their own merit, that’s not true. They might’ve caught the right person’s eye and landed a good ride, but someone still paid for it.

Whoever brings the money is the one running the team. Team owners have no power anymore. If someone brings a sponsorship for a full season and they start tearing stuff up, what are they supposed to do? Throw them out? They can't! We've got drivers that have more power than the owners in the sport. When drivers pull sponsorship, entire teams shut down. Dozens of people's jobs rely on one driver's impression of the team. The crew can't get on them. If they hurt their feelings they might be out of a job.

We’ve allowed the top teams to completely take over the sport. At the lower levels, the only way a driver has a chance of standing out is to get in a top caliber ride. The fields aren’t as deep as the starting lineup says they are. In the Xfinity Series, the only way you’re going to win is to be with Gibbs, RCR, Roush or a cup affiliate. Those teams aren’t scouting for talent. They’re scouting for money. Or they just have it brought to them based on their winning reputation. They make money coming and going. I can’t compete with my team without a great motor or truck. Guess who builds them? The teams I’m trying to beat! They won’t sell me one of their best engines. I have to lease it for about $20,000-$30,000 per race. If I do buy one, it’s going to be older and not nearly as competitive.

Sponsorship is a nightmare. We’ve allowed the costs in the sport to get so high that even small budget teams like ours are losing propositions. We’re so desperate for money in our sport that we’ve allowed sponsors to completely dictate the terms of agreements instead of the other way around. As the prices have continued to rise, we’ve lost control. For the amount of money they’re spending, sponsors want a guarantee. That’s why every “famous” cup driver has 15 sponsors. That’s why you see big teams with so many one-race sponsorships. Those same sponsors that might’ve sponsored me or another Xfinity or Truck series driver, instead chose to do partial deals with drivers that are already “branded names.” No one wants to sponsor me. My dad didn't race. I don't have a family name to rely on. I’ve never won a race. When I say it costs $125,000 per race to win in the truck series, a sponsor scoffs at me. When Kyle Busch says it, people listen.

Do we even know who the best drivers are anymore? You don’t have to be in the best car to win, but you’ve got to be in one of the best cars to win. Equipment has been a factor in racing for a lot longer than I’ve been around. It’s called a motorsport for a reason. But it’s never been more painfully apparent at every level of the sport. 

Whoever is spending the most money is winning. That goes from local short tracks all the way up to the NASCAR level. Eventually, when you get to the cup series, everyone is spending a ton of money so it semi-levels out through about 30th place. Stroll through the Xfinity & Truck series. It’s obvious who the haves & have nots are. There’s a clear, wide, irreversible gap that can’t be overcome by hard driving. They’re supposed to be series to showcase talent good enough to go to the next level. Instead, they’re series that showcase how great the top teams are compared to teams like us. The race winners aren’t racing full field. They aren’t racing against me. They’re only racing the other guys in rides as good as theirs. 

We can’t go to a spec engine or some other form of spec racing. NASCAR tried with the Delta engine program. The big teams won’t allow it. Why would they? They’ve invested millions and millions of dollars to get an advantage on teams like ours. But now the only way you can be noticed in the “development series” of Xfinity & Trucks is to either be affiliated with one of those major teams (which has an unrealistic price tag attached to it for 99.9% of drivers in the world) or just spend roughly the same amount of money on your own deal.

NASCAR isn’t a sport anymore. It’s a business.

When skill & talent aren’t the primary factors that determine if someone can advance their career in a sport, then it’s not a sport. What if Michael Jordan had to pay $1,000,000 to play for the Bulls. Would he have gotten to be an NBA player? That’s what’s going on in NASCAR. Careers are determined more by checkbooks & PR people than by results on the racetrack. 

Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t make it as a NASCAR driver in today’s version of the sport. Neither would any of our old heroes. There’s probably a driver out there with the charisma and talent to pack the grandstands for the next 20 years, and chances are they won’t make it off their local short track. It’s heartbreaking. 

Sponsors aren’t looking for drivers. Drivers are looking for sponsors. Competition isn’t on the racetrack, it’s in the boardroom. It’s a race to see who can capture the biggest check from a corporate sponsor. If a driver has a connection with a company, they’ll follow him to another team. Sponsors are currency. They define careers. I’d like to have a better resume to take to potential companies, but there’s a glass ceiling unless I’m in a top-level ride. To get a ride like that it takes money, but to attract money it takes a ride like that. It’s a chicken or the egg situation. 

Until something changes, my career is stuck in neutral. And so is our sport.