CHARLOTTE, NC (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - The oft-painted picture is that NASCAR is an outdated, expensive, sinking ship whose position among the elite American sports leagues is in jeopardy. But is that really the case?
There's no one better to ask than the people who have dedicated their lives to the sport.
The Observer interviewed eight prominent NASCAR figures, all with different roles and perspectives, about the current state of the sport.
? Kevin Harvick: 2014 Cup Series champion and three-time Cup race winner in 2018.
? Steve Phelps: NASCAR executive vice president, global sales and marketing officer.
Discussions mostly fell into five areas – the quality of the racing, young drivers, the next generation of fans, television issues and NASCAR's schedule. Those are the areas they saw as the most encouraging and the most challenging for NASCAR's future.
We divided the five into the following 20 categories, to start a conversation about NASCAR's future.
And they begin with the most basic suggestion:
In basketball, the pace of scoring can be furious. In football, a touchdown every few minutes. Even in baseball, there are innings where you'll see back-to-back-to-back home runs.
But in NASCAR? Well ... it can be 500 miles of follow the leader.
One point that came up repeatedly in the interviews was that the actual racing has to be better. More exciting, more entertaining.
"Nothing is more important than the competition – how much passing you've got on the track, what kind of close finishes you have at the race, and the quality of entertainment that the race produces," Wheeler said. "In my opinion, that's first on the list because that is what's going to eventually either keep people away from the grandstands or put them back in."
Wheeler said he thinks NASCAR's rules changes in recent years have led to decreased passing, especially for the lead. That, he and several others said, is what fans care about.
Watching four or five guys all battle for the lead, as was the case at the end of this year's Daytona 500, creates drama and excitement – and rivalries, if those guys get tangled up.
Wheeler's longing for the "good ol' days" of racing isn't universal.
Harvick, who has three dominant victories so far in 2018, said the racing in NASCAR has never been more competitive – and therefore captivating – than it is now.
"When you look at it from a realistic standpoint, the racing today is much better than it was in 1990," Harvick said. "It might not be talked about that way, but when you look at how competitive it is from front to back, it's as competitive as it's ever been.
"It was kind of the the wild, Wild West (back then). Almost like it wasn't really a professional sport up until you got into the 1990s."
And while Harvick's status as a current driver influences his perspective, other panelists feel that way, too.
"I think the racing's exciting," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "It feels like all the things the sport's doing are exciting."
A common thread remains: The quality of racing still matters, even as the importance of at-track entertainment and social media surges.
For that reason, NASCAR keeps tinkering with its rules – trying like any business to refine its product.
NASCAR introduced stage racing – splitting the races into points-paying segments – last season. Before that, fans only needed to tune in for the last 25 laps to see everything that mattered. Likewise, drivers didn't have to lead all day to be in contention at the end.
Now, since points are awarded throughout the race, there's added incentive for fans to tune in early.
"When I'm in the booth I feel like I'm a fan, so I kind of look at it that way," Gordon said. "I really was encouraged last year by the stages and the excitement – how it broke up the racing and the excitement, the competitiveness it added."
Harvick also said stage racing "has changed the sport in a direction unlike anything we've recently ever had," because it encourages drivers to run their hardest for the duration of a race.
Stage racing seemingly is a positive step. Passes for the lead and rivalries among drivers help, too.
The key, our panel agreed, is keeping things interesting. Long lulls are damaging; if a fan is bored at any point, other options can easily pull them away.
"I firmly believe that NASCAR is the best racing on the planet and our product on the track is better now than it has ever been," Phelps said. "Close, side-by-side racing is creating even more dramatic moments, fueling incredible performances and stoking intense new rivalries.
"Our drivers learned just how important those stage points became at playoff time, and we are expecting an even more competitive 2018 season."
In short, idealizing the past serves no purpose. Instead, NASCAR must continue enhancing its product with rule changes that encourage close racing, bumping and the type of entertainment any casual fan would enjoy.
"That's what people think whenever they turn on the TV," Wheeler said, "or decide to go to the race – is there going to be some exciting racing out there?
"And if there's not, then it's dullsville, and things just keep going south."
There was no unanimous opinion among these eight NASCAR names ... except this one.
All eight agreed the most encouraging thing in the sport is the influx of young drivers.
"The youth coming into the sport, I think they're changing the dynamics of where NASCAR is going," Bill Elliott said.
But his point wasn't just that there are talented drivers under the age of 25. It's that in a time when NASCAR's most popular veterans are rapidly leaving the sport, the next generation is getting real opportunities to compete in top equipment.
"There's been plenty of young, talented drivers come into the sport, but they just don't get highlighted because they're not with a team that can showcase their talents," Gordon said. "It's not a Penske or a Hendrick or a Gibbs.
"(But) that's what we're seeing right now ... that's the unique thing."
While these young drivers are good for NASCAR's on-track product, there's still work for them to do.
"The reality is, we've been working for several years now and building the next group of young stars in our sport, and you saw many of them take that next step last year," Phelps said. "The sport is in great hands, and it's going to be exciting to watch these drivers develop into stars both on and off the track over the next 10-15 years."
Winning, obviously, would help. But the other element, Phelps said, is showcasing their personalities.
"The biggest thing we need right now, the single biggest thing, is a dramatic new personality," Wheeler said. "It's just like when the PGA was floundering – then Tiger Woods pops up and bam! If he didn't play a tournament, nobody came or watched."
Does NASCAR's next generation have a Tiger Woods?
"That's what we need," Wheeler said. "Big time."
The two young drivers with the skill and personality to become a transcendent star? Blaney and Wallace stood out to our panel. Both are prominent on social media, where they paint themselves as regular young adults. And they openly show their emotions, such as when Wallace cried after finishing second in the Daytona 500.
Our panel also said Chase Elliott, with his name and demeanor, could end up as one the sport's biggest stars.
"The interesting thing about this young crop of drivers," Bruns said, "is they're the first digitally native group of drivers that have been on social media their entire life and have had that opportunity to showcase their personalities."
Gordon, a longtime teammate of Dale Earnhardt Jr., said fan access to a driver's personality was what helped Earnhardt win so many Most Popular Driver awards. Social media only provides fans with more behind-the-scenes access.
"That's why Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so popular," Gordon said. "Besides knowing his name, people felt like, 'I can relate to this guy. I want to go have a beer with this guy.' And then, 'I want him to be my friend.' And the only way you can do that is for somebody to show that personal side."
It's that personable factor that elevates a talented young driver to a young star. NASCAR needs someone – or a few someones – to make that jump.
Of course, that raises another question.
Which matters more? Winning, or personality?
Both matter, but ...
"Winning trumps all," Harvick said. "Danica (Patrick) is the best example of that. The marketing and the mystique behind that marketing tool only lasts for so long.
"You can get a couple of years out of that, but before long, the sponsors want to see their car on TV. They want to see some improvement, see some progression."
Patrick didn't produce that – finishing in the top 10 just seven times in 191 Cup races – and left NASCAR after February's Daytona 500.
Despite often struggling on the track, Patrick did manage to bring new fans to NASCAR as the sport's only female driver. Where do those new fans come from now?
"Our biggest challenge is getting fans," Petty said. "As we go through generations of people, there's so much more competition out there for the entertainment dollar.
"How do we get new fans?"
There's no easy answer for any sport, but ...
NASCAR's existing fan base is among the oldest of any American sports league, and the most rapidly aging bunch, too. A 2017 report from the Sports Business Journal found that NASCAR's average TV viewer was 58 years old, third-oldest among measured sports behind golf and tennis. But the age of NASCAR's average fan has also gone up by nine years over the past decade, easily the most of any major sport.
Some of that, Hendrick said, is cultural.
"You don't see the love affair with the car in young kids the way you used to," he said. "They've got so many things that can occupy them: Football, basketball, baseball, they're in video games and social media and all these things.
"The closer we can get to them that way, and these young (drivers) coming up, that's what we need to energize this young crowd."
Of course, other sports face the same hurdles as NASCAR. They're all competing against one another for the same market of untapped (young) fans. The trick is differentiating themselves.
Part of being different comes from a more entertaining product. Part of it comes from relatable, younger drivers.
But part of it also comes from what's happening off the track – in fantasy sports.
More than 20 percent of Americans play fantasy sports, primarily fantasy football and basketball. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, fantasy sports participants report both watching more live sports and reading more about the sports they are engaged in.
If NASCAR could refine – and improve – its fantasy presence and dip into that market, it would go a long way toward building the sport's next generation of fans.
"Right now (fantasy leagues) have not been able to adapt to stage points and racing throughout the events into how you do your driver alliance, and I'd like to see that," Gordon said. "We know how much that digital side of things plays out for the younger fans."
Even Earnhardt, speaking before the Daytona 500, was asked about his fantasy NASCAR lineup.
"I always enjoyed fantasy," Earnhardt said then, "so I think (growing fantasy NASCAR) is a good match."
Fantasy sports alone won't draw a new generation of fans, of course. But everything else that happens at NASCAR tracks – the concerts, the fan fests, the meet-and-greets with drivers – could distinguish NASCAR races from many other sporting events.
"I personally don't believe that races should be called races," Harvick said. "I believe that these are events."
And that, Harvick said, makes attendance about more than the racing.
"When you go to an event – whether it be a football game, a basketball game, a soccer game – they're not always close," Harvick said. "They're not always a good game."
But that doesn't mean they weren't worth attending, even if it was just for the tailgating.
"When you go to a race personally, the race should almost be an added bonus to everything that's happening and the events there are to do at the racetrack," Harvick said. "Every race is not going to be good. That's just the nature of sports."
The move from game to event is part of a shifting sports entertainment landscape, Bruns said.
"No sport can really go along with just the on-court or on-track action," he said. "It is hard to compete for those entertainment dollars, so the more you can do to add to the value of it, the better. And that's what people are coming to expect."
The television viewing numbers for the 2018 Daytona 500 were the lowest in the history of The Great American Race.
That, objectively, is not good. It's even worse when you consider how dependent NASCAR is on television revenue.
"If you continue going down in the ratings, it's going to be a really, really tough deal," Wheeler said. "If you could hold on even to what you have now in this environment, it might be all right, but right now TV is carrying racing, carrying these major public companies as far as their revenue is concerned.
"Revenue coming from the grandstands isn't there like it once was, and that revenue includes tickets, concessions. … When you lose a customer, you've lost at least 10 dollars profit in concessions. You've lost a souvenir, which aren't what they were.
"So how do you get all those back? You get it back by having an exciting sport where more viewers will want to come forward."
NASCAR's current television contracts with FOX and NBC both expire after the 2024 season. Jointly, those contracts account for roughly $820 million per year in revenue, an increase from the previous deal NASCAR had with FOX, Turner Sports and ESPN.
But with Nielsen viewership numbers falling (something that is also happening in other sports), it could be tough for NASCAR to get a similar television deal when the current contracts expire.
"TV is extremely important," Gordon said. "The good news is, live sporting events are very important to the TV broadcasters, and NASCAR has a very loyal following and puts up very consistent numbers."
While traditional television numbers for NASCAR might be on the decline, that's a somewhat deceptive measurement – largely because of NASCAR's surging streaming, digital and app-based viewership numbers.
An example: The Daytona 500 drew 9.3 million television viewers, but FOX announced that the race had 18.1 million viewers across all platforms. Streaming viewership saw a 28 percent increase from 2017 (primarily in the 18-34 demographic), which is indicative of how younger fans watch races.
"I don't know about you, but I don't know many people that have a Nielsen box in their house," Gordon said. "I don't know if that's really the fairest assessment of how many people are actually viewing the races.
"I truly believe there's more eyes on the sport now than there's ever been. But every time you have TV viewership and Nielsen ratings that come out on a Monday or Tuesday, it's always being measured up against our past."
NASCAR is looking to that streaming future as it adjusts to the changing media landscape.
"What we look at is fan engagement, whether that be television, attending a race, digital, social, fantasy, esports or radio," Phelps said. "We arguably have the highest fan engagement in our history due to many dynamic platforms.
"The world has shifted from analog to digital, and our fans are consuming our sport 365 days across multiple platforms, wherever and whenever they want."
Doug Pearlman, the CEO of Sports Media Advisors who helped negotiate NASCAR's current television deals, said modern media partners and corporations don't solely focus on television numbers anymore.
"A lot of times, people focus on TV ratings too much. That's only one piece of the puzzle," Pearlman said. "Most people in the business would talk more in terms of engagement across all platforms. ... For whatever reason, in certain places folks still continue to focus on old-fashioned areas."
So, what does Pearlman expect for the value of the next contract? Is NASCAR destined for a drop there, too?
"It's hard to predict that far out, but I can definitely see things continue to rise going forward," Pearlman said. "These major sports are going to continue to do well. The business model may look a little different. The metrics may look a little different. But any sport with the kind of audience NASCAR has – that size, that passion – I think will do very well."
All these new digital options focus on ways to watch races, not attend them.
"There's too much technology to bring it into your living room," Bill Elliott said, "and then there's not as many people who are showing up to the speedways."
Striking the balance between increased viewership without cutting attendance is difficult, but one thing remains clear: Television (and the revenue it accounts for) remains dominant.
"Television is and will remain to be a huge piece of the puzzle for years to come," Phelps said. "Our job over the next decade is to ensure that our sport is positioned for growth across all platforms."
But there is one thing that might need to shrink.
There are 36 points races each season, plus special events on two other weekends, in Daytona and Charlotte.
That stretches the season from the Daytona 500 in the middle of February until the championship at Homestead in the middle of November – or about 10 months.
It wears on everyone involved.
"The biggest challenge is just the pace," Hendrick said. "The number of races, getting to and from, it's a long season. And that is what it is.
"I don't know that that won't change in the years to come, races maybe sometimes in the middle of the week."
That has been discussed, including at this year's preseason media day in Charlotte.
"You take NASCAR, and it definitely has a very strong place in the (TV) lineup," Gordon said. "But at the same time, the second half of our season cuts into the NFL season and we know how strong the NFL is. ... In Daytona (in 2018), we're up against the Winter Olympics. That's only every four years, but those are definitely challenges."
Petty had the same worry.
"There's so much competition," he said. "Baseball, football, there's the X Games and all this kind of stuff. ... Nobody's really figured it out."
What Hendrick and others proposed is trying to double up on races in certain weeks. For example, when the Major League Baseball All-Star break comes each summer, run two or three races in one week to capitalize on the lack of competition.
But tracks are independently operated, meaning NASCAR alone can't dictate its desired schedule. Plus, jamming two races into a week deprives a track of a week's worth of festivities. Likewise, it takes away a week's worth of occupied hotel rooms and tourist revenue near the tracks.
The same issue makes it difficult to cut a race altogether. So if that's not possible, is there another way to shake up the schedule?
The season always starts with the Daytona 500. It always ends with the championship at Homestead. And in between, things are mostly the same year to year.
They shouldn't be, if you ask Harvick.
"Mix up the schedule every year," Harvick said. "I'm a firm believer in the fact that the championship race should rotate. The playoff races should never look the same year to year."
Harvick even proposed the idea of rotating NASCAR's All-Star race, held annually at Charlotte Motor Speedway, along with the championship race.
"Everybody's going to beat me up in Charlotte over the All-Star race, but imagine if you were in the mix to hold the championship race?" Harvick, who lives in Charlotte, said. "Imagine what that would be like here. You give up the All-Star race, but you're going to get the finale in Charlotte one of these years.
"To me, that's a big deal."
Of course, economic and contractual issues make schedule changes difficult.
But NASCAR has taken steps in this direction already, adjusting the first round of the 2018 playoffs to include Las Vegas and the new Charlotte 'Roval' course. Further changes are possible.
NASCAR is in a state of flux, as many of the top American sports leagues are. Its fan base is changing, it's business model is changing and the rules on the track are changing.
All of that warrants a broader look at the sport and where it is headed.