I watched the Martinsville Sprint Cup Series race at home with my dad on Sunday afternoon, the first time we've watched a NASCAR race together this season. This is remarkable because what used to be a Sunday tradition is now an anomaly.
The first thing you need to understand is that Dad doesn't follow the sport on a week-to-week basis anymore. He's an old dirt track racer and mechanic turned off by the modern NASCAR product. He calls the drivers "vanilla midgets" and prefers short tracks like Bowman Gray and North Wilkesboro to the speedways that dominate the schedule in 2012.
But Sunday was different. Martinsville is a throwback to the way racing used to be: Hard-nosed, tight-quartered and aero-stupid. Sunday was a far cry from the status quo, so he sat down and watched a race with me.
In return, I put down my phone and shut off the computer and allowed myself to become a fan, shouting at the television and cheering as one driver put the bumper to another. There wasn't any favoritism. We just wanted to see good racing and Martinsville delivered.
It was the kind of racing NASCAR was founded upon. It’s no surprise that as NASCAR’s popularity has waned in recent years, Late Model racing has really taken off. Short track racing has a major following and NASCAR is failing to cater to that niche.
The sport was founded on short tracks like Martinsville – not only on the exciting racing but on the intimate atmosphere that tied families together and to the sport itself. The big leagues mirrored the same excitement you could find around the country on Saturday nights and the popularity of NASCAR boomed as a result.
But Dad doesn't watch anymore. He prefers the dirt Late Models that air on SPEED or the local grassroots racing that takes place in his backyard – and he's not the only one.
Just take one look at the empty grandstands that have plagued this season and you'll see the ghosts of fans who used to attend but no longer care to. Some financial experts will blame the economy, but that's just a crutch. Fans will make the effort and spend the money to attend if they really find value in the product.
Look no further than the NFL.
There is a disconnect between the fans of grassroots racing and what fans see on national television, and until that link is reestablished, Dad isn't coming back. And neither are those like him – at least not until the landscape of NASCAR begins to closely resemble that of Sunday’s race at Martinsville.