NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is sitting in his motor home, which is parked beside the Bristol Motor Speedway, a 160,000-seat auto-racing shrine in Tennessee, right in the heart of NASCAR's Southeastern birthplace. Stewart's pad looks out onto a campground. It's a Friday evening in March, two days away from the big race.
Bristol is a place of pilgrimage for NASCAR gearheads. It's normally packed with RVs and beer-drinking, hot-dog-grilling fans by now. Not so this year. Bristol has become symbolic of how NASCAR has stalled. "I mean, this is a perfect example of it," Stewart says, pointing out his window as his two cats, Wylie and Wyatt, purr around his shiny RV. There's room for hundreds more haulers. "Three years ago, right now, all you'd see is motor homes on that whole hillside," Stewart says, staring at acres of empty space. "You wouldn't see a speck of grass."
After enjoying years of explosive growth and transforming itself into the first sports-business phenomenon of the 21st century, NASCAR is trying to restart its engine. Last season, attendance fell some 10%, and empty seats have pockmarked this year's races in Atlanta; Fontana, Calif.; and even venerable Bristol, which saw its 55-race sellout streak, dating to 1982, end in March. Since 2005, average viewership of Sprint Cup races on network television has fallen a remarkable 25%, according to Nielsen Sports; this year's Feb. 14 Fox broadcast of the Daytona 500 was the lowest-rated Great American Race since 1991. Most sports would love to have NASCAR's problems it still routinely draws more than 100,000 fans for races. But the economic slowdown has hit hard: corporate sponsorship, the lifeblood of every race team, has tailed off, car manufacturers have pared support, and a chunk of NASCAR's blue collar fan base can no longer afford a weekend at the track.
Perhaps worse than the bad economy, NASCAR has managed to make auto racing a little boring. The feuding, aggressive drivers who gave NASCAR its personality seem to have lost their edge, blanded by their loyalty to corporate sponsors and by NASCAR's not unreasonable focus on safety. The sport's star driver, Jimmie Johnson, has won four straight Sprint Cup championships but has yet to forge a strong connection with either hard-core race fans or the casual public. By contrast, the irascible Stewart, a two-time champion, was once fined $50,000 for duking it out with a rival driver. But that was six years ago.
Even NASCAR's attempt to rekindle some of its fire went awry. Before the current season, NASCAR encouraged its drivers to "have at it" and amp up the aggression. So what happened? In March, during a race in Atlanta, Carl Edwards, furious that driver Brad Keselowski had bumped him earlier, steered his 3,400-lb. (1,500 kg) stock car into Keselowski's ride while both drivers were going about 180 m.p.h. (290 km/h). Keselowski's car flipped up in the air and landed hood-first against the ground. He walked away unscathed, but many fans were horrified.
NASCAR grew up lawless and positively redneck the sport traces its heritage to moonshiners outrunning the law but it's wrestling with an identity crisis. Can a sport appeal to both the chardonnay corporate crowd whose trackside condos at fancy new circuits fueled NASCAR's recent growth and the diehards whose unabashed passion for racin' and wreckin' built stock-car racing in the first place? As Darrell Waltrip, a Fox NASCAR analyst and a three-time Cup winner in his own right, puts it, "We're all so desperate to get this sport back to where it used to be."