NASCAR is a sport, but that is about all it has going for it

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson celebrates in victory lane after winning the 2013 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports)

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson celebrates in victory lane after winning the 2013 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports)

When we talk about my budding sports writing career, my dad always asks if I’ve written any NASCAR articles. It’s a fair question. I’m from Daytona Beach, The Birthplace of Speed. NASCAR should be a layup. More than a layup, really, it should be my go-to on a slow news day. After all: write what you know. I know NASCAR quite well, but I just don’t enjoy it.

This is a sad confession. You see, I used to love NASCAR. There was a 5-to-6 year stretch where I attended every major race at Daytona International Speedway. I used to associate numbers with drivers’ cars—there’s Jeff Gordon hours in the day—and anthropomorphize objects with NASCAR names—named my truck Dave Marcis. I’ve been on the starting grid for the Daytona 500 when they fired up the engines. My buddy and I were old pros at sneaking into Victory Lane. In fact, we may or may not have stolen the Champaign bottle from Matt Kenseth’s 500 victory celebration. I was even on pit road during the great Dale Earnhardt’s final race. All these fond memories of the sport seem like relics of a past life.

I can’t tell you when the change happened. I can, however, explain what turned me sour on the sport**. There is very little continuity in racing. In fact, the only continuity is the dimensions of a track. The sport has no consistency in its rules, officiating, or production. As a niche sport its great. The venture into popular culture, however, simply cut out all of the charm.

**Let’s put the kibosh on whether or not stock car racing is a sport. It is. Driving 180 mph in an oven for 3 hours, with no mirrors and 3 inches from the next car is both mentally and physically grueling. That constitutes a sport, in my book.**

Rules in NASCAR are so arbitrary. Somebody passes below the yellow line and other drivers kick up a fuss. The chairman calls a meeting, confers with colleagues, and makes a rule, effective immediately, banning passes below the line. No other major sporting league changes rules midseason. They all monitor a problem, raise the issue during offseason meetings, and rectify the problem. NASCAR changes rules willy-nilly. Can you imagine the NFL changing its policy on late hits between weeks five and six? Me neither.

Arbitrary changes go well past rules; they have extended to the championship. In the past decade, NASCAR has used four different models to determine its champion. If you think the BSC is flawed, try and comprehend what goes on in racing. First there were points, then there was a ten-driver field, then there was a twelve-driver field, then points were reset to 5000 for qualifying drivers, then wins meant ten extra bonus points. It’s simply ridiculous. We can all agree that the purpose of participating in competitive sports is to win championships. How can I invest in a sport that constantly changes its championship metrics?

This is a common complaint with NASCAR, but it’s one I share: the cars aren’t “stock.” There was a time when race-cars looked like the vehicles we drive around town. Now when watching a race the only way to tell a car’s make is to check out its grill.

Crew members push the car of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports)

Crew members push the car of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports)

We can even add our continuity epidemic into car models. NASCAR has used three different car designs in the past decade. Different designs make for different racing, which makes for different viewing experience. So, if you’re scoring at home, we have three different cars and four different championship models in the last ten years.

NASCAR is like a business that expanded too quickly, and without much thought. The goal was to get in front of as many eyes as possible and accrue tons of ad revenue. Its only problem was that the foundation wasn’t solid. The sport is now bigtime, but still run like its bootlegging roots. It cannot be taken seriously when changing formatting every year or two. The MLB hasn’t changed from wood to aluminum to graphite bats. The NBA hasn’t changed the three-point line in midseason. The NFL hasn’t turned its playoffs into a best-of-three format, added teams, and then gone to best-of-five. The world’s premiere sports organizations operate with consistency. They act slowly and deliberately. There is a method to everything they do. NASCAR operates on knee-jerk reactions.

While watching a Brad Keselowski interview on PTI my dad again asked if I ever cover NASCAR. Keselowski is a refreshingly honest voice to which I normally gravitate, but even he can’t bring me back. After spending years defending the nuances of racing to people, I now occasionally flip to a race to see they’ve destroyed all the intricacies that once made the sport fun. There are plenty of other sports out there to catch my interest; ones that operate within a consistent framework. Next time my father asks if I write about NASCAR, I can at least say yes. Unfortunately, I’m sure this isn’t what he had in mind.