NASCAR can learn from Eldora truck success

It’s no secret that the grandstands are not quite as full as they used to be on Sundays, and TV ratings are not what they once were either. NASCAR is in a well documented transition phase from the fan-favorite mainstays to a new, younger generation of drivers, and some of the long-time fans are simply leaving along with their drivers.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart each stepped away the past two seasons, Carl Edwards surprised everyone by leaving the sport this past winter after competing in the Championship 4 at Homestead in November, and then perhaps the biggest blow came a few weeks into the current season when 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced this campaign would be his last, too.

NASCAR has plenty of talented young drivers filling the spots with 24-year-old Kyle Larson having a breakout season, as is 23-year-old Ryan Blaney, and you can add rookies 21-year-old Erik Jones and 25-year-old Daniel Suarez to the list as well. Coming next year will be 24-year-old Alex Bowman, who has the biggest shoes to fill taking over Earnhardt’s No. 88 after filling in last season with some success.

The young talent is there, but the interest from fans is still on the decline.

It has become a big business requiring high dollar sponsorship deals to be competitive more now than it ever has been, leaving a lot of talented drivers without much of a fighting chance unless they snag a ride with one of the big name teams, which requires having the backing of one of those big sponsors. This has become the case not just at the sport’s highest level, but also the Xfinity and Truck series and even on down to the local levels of racing to some extent, too.

There is one place NASCAR’s top three series go, where more than any other track on any of the schedules, the underdogs can compete with the big dogs; the annual NASCAR Camping World Truck Series stop at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, where the trucks compete on the famed half mile dirt track.

This year’s race took place Wednesday night, the fifth year of the event, and just like in every other edition, when the checkered flag flew there were some teams not normally in the mix in the thick of the battle for the win.

For a third straight year dirt late model ace Bobby Pierce was in contention late in the race, bringing home the Mittler Brothers No. 63 truck home in sixth, running as high as fifth in the final 10 laps. The Mittler Brother’s MB Motorsports team has been around since the truck’s inaugural season in 1995, but has never won. Pierce has their best finish, a runner up result at Eldora in 2015. They are not a team that usually is in contention, but when they go to Eldora, they are.

Pittsburgh area driver Norm Benning, a 65-year-old who has been racing for 50 years and has competed at various levels of NASCAR for a long time, piloted his own truck, which he works on himself along with small crew of mostly volunteers, to a career series best 13th place finish on Wednesday night.

The fans at Edlora get behind the underdogs. In general, sports fans like rooting for the underdogs.

Outside a small team occasionally having a good finish at a restrictor plate track, the underdog stories are not regularly found at the Cup level.

Is it practical or even possible to run a Monster Energy Cup Series race on dirt? Probably not, however I wouldn’t go as far as to call it impossible and there are a large number of fans that would welcome it.

The two types of tracks the top series currently run on that are often considered the equalizers for the small teams are short tracks and road courses. Last year in the Bristol Spring race Matt DiBenedetto scored an unlikely top-10 finish, a sixth place result with his underfunded team, and the fans reacted. The racing on the short tracks is popular among fans even without the aspect of the underdog story, why not run more of them?

Another aspect of the Eldora event that is unique is the local short track style heat races and last chance race. A small team can compete much easier in short races, compared to the 400-500 miles that make up the typical cup race. Even if their run in the race itself isn’t memorable, the fans will leave remembering the underdog mixing it up in the heat race or last chance race. Case in point is Benning fighting his way into the inaugural Edlora event on the last lap of the last chance race, something fans still talk about even though he went on to finish that race 26th, four laps off the pace.

That type of racing, a form of which was used last year in the Xfinity series, is something that would create more exciting moments and more memorable moments for the small teams than the current segment racing system.

The bottom line is NASCAR is losing stars, and fans along with them, in a hurry. They have to do something, so why not look to what a dirt track in Ohio has shown them can work?