NASCAR: A Once Hot Sport Tries to Restart Its Engine

A once hot sport is stalled by the economic crisis, dull racing and bland drivers. How to jump-start the stock-car circuit

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Gilles Mingasson / Getty

A NASCAR fan follows the race from the top of his vehicle in Las Vegas

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The Bristol Blues
The downturn in Bristol, long known as the toughest ticket in racing, is a disturbing signal. Just ask Lisa Hennessee, who ran a souvenir stand outside the speedway on race weekend, about NASCAR's changing fortunes. During a Saturday race in the Nationwide Series, which serves as NASCAR's top minor-league circuit, I asked her to compare Bristol sales now with those, say, four years ago. Her eyes practically popped out of her head. "They're horrendous," she responded. Or drive off the Volunteer Parkway, a road flanked by countless churches on the way to the Bristol track, and talk to ticket scalpers. One of them, Dave Luter, 50, used to cruise into town in a $40,000 Dodge, rent an office and grab a hotel room during race week. But with his profits down 80% over the past three years, Luter is working out of his $1,100 used Volvo. "This was considered the toughest ticket in the sport," he says. "And now I'm sleeping in my Volvo." Track owners around the circuit have cut prices to lure fans. Still, Bristol tickets start at $93.

Several forces combusted NASCAR's engine, and they can all be traced to one of the darkest days in its history: the day the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at the 2001 Daytona 500. The Intimidator's larger-than-life legacy brought unprecedented exposure to the sport (his death was on TIME's cover that week), and with the economic tailwinds, corporate money flowed into NASCAR's coffers.

It also brought a paradox. The Fortune 500 companies spending at least $15 million a year sponsoring race cars saw them as 200-m.p.h. ad campaigns and didn't want their drivers tarnishing their brands in postrace altercations — a NASCAR tradition as old as the checkered flag itself. "I've got Cheerios for a sponsor. I have children at home who are buying our products in the stores and watching us race," says driver Clint Bowyer, a four-year Sprint Cup veteran. "I can't go out and act like an idiot on the racetrack."

Fans, though, love the good-ole-boy play. "The sport lost its personality," concedes Doug Randolph, crew chief for Bobby Labonte, winner of the 2000 Cup title. "When it was growing, it was all about passion, and we've mellowed that down. We probably shouldn't have."

At the same time, after Earnhardt's death at Daytona (he crashed straight into the wall on the last turn), NASCAR officials put a premium on safety. Energy-absorbing walls were installed on the tracks, and new head and neck restraints were introduced for the drivers. Harsher penalties for tough on-track tactics in a motor sport in which "trading paint" was the norm contributed to more conservative driving. Admits NASCAR chairman Brian France: "Frankly, we probably overregulated."

In 2007, NASCAR introduced a new car design, dubbed the Car of Tomorrow. Its standardized blueprint offered drivers more protection while also attempting to level the playing field so that neither Chevy, Ford, Toyota nor Dodge could gain any real competitive advantage through mechanical trickery. The drivers instantly grumbled that the Car of Tomorrow limited their ability to drive aggressively. "We shot ourselves in the foot by complaining about the car when it was introduced," says Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which backs an all-star lineup of drivers, including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. "The drivers bashed it, so the media bashed it, so the fans bashed it."

The look of the car also turned off NASCAR loyalists, who root for carmakers as well as drivers. "It's a cookie-cutter car," says Chuck Nagy, a metal-fabrication specialist from Niagara Falls, Ont., who drove to Bristol for the race. "It's hard to get too excited rooting for a decal."

With six laps to go at the Bristol race, Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's car slipped past Tony Stewart's Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy, giving Johnson a lead he would not relinquish and his first career title at the venerable track. NASCAR suits weren't chugging any bubbly. The circuit is clearly suffering from Johnson fatigue. The sport's ratings slide has directly coincided with his dominant run of four straight driving titles. "I'm sick of hearing about him," says Shaunna Monahan, a finance student at Bradley University, while waiting for autographs after the Bristol race. "Let someone else shine."

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