I am currently watching the rain-delayed Daytona 500 NASCAR race and it has already made me think of an essay I wrote after the 2012 race. And though today's race is only a few laps on, nothing has changed since then.
From 2012, with edits for today; let's see if it still rings true by the end of today's race:
Saw most of the rain-delayed 2012 Daytona 500 Monday night, and I have to say that it was an incredibly boring race - except, of course, when driver Pablo Montoya blasted into a jet-engine-blower truck and everything blew up. No one was injured, incredibly, and so I can guiltlessly say that the episode was the only truly entertaining period of the race.
The problem is not new. NASCAR races became boring when NASCAR mandated that every Sprint Cup driver had to drive the "Car of Tomorrow" racer beginning in 2008. That means that all the Sprint Cup races - the big leagues of NASCAR - are basically just one big IROC series, a now-defunct racing series in which, "Drivers raced identically-prepared stock cars set up by a single team of mechanics in an effort to make the race purely a test of driver ability."
The problem with using the COT in NASCAR is that brand distinction (Ford, Chevy, etc.) now means nothing at all. It did back in, say, Richard Petty's day. The cars now are all the same except for very minor and immaterial differences. In Daytona there was a field of 30-plus cars that all had almost exactly the same performance envelopes and so most all the race looked like this [and this is exactly what I am looking at on the screen right now]:
This is only a giant clump of cars in which almost none of the drivers are actually racing except for the handful at the front. Inside the gaggle there is no real racing, just each driver awaiting a screwup by someone else to leave an opening. The problem is that the screwups turn out this way - this was on the 5th lap today:
In the 2012 race, there were several such wrecks. Again, no one hurt, thankfully. In the old days it was rare for NASCAR wrecks to wipe out eight or so cars at a time. It happened, but not much. Now, it's rare when wrecks don't do so. All this does is stop the race (well, what little racing there actually is) for many laps under the yellow. What it does not do is make the race a race when the green flag gets waved again. There are fewer cars to clump together at 195 mph, but it's still just a clump. And so: another such wreck. In fact, the last of these wrecks of the evening in 2012 took place mere minutes before the end, and when it started I thought for a moment that Fox was replaying a wreck from earlier in the race.
NASCAR blames its multiyear attendance drop on the 2008 recession. Problem is that attendance peaked in 2005 and has shrunk every year since. Both 2009's and 2010's attendance were less than 2003's.
Why? Because the drivers aren't racing anymore; the winner usually just turns out to be the luckiest of the last men standing, having missed being wiped out in a pile up. That means the "race" is boring because viewers are not actually watching a competition, just a high-speed game of Russian Roulette.
Even the wrecks are not entertaining, not because drivers don't get hurt (that's a good thing) but because they are so predictable and frequent that there is no longer a surprise factor in them and all they do is interrupt what little racing there might be. "Look, honey, twelve cars are spinning out of control again. I'll go get that popcorn for you now."
Update: Surely to no one's surprise, this happened today with eight laps left in the race. Seventeen cars were removed from the race. As I said, NASCAR races are now just endurance and luck to be the last man standing. And there was another wreck with two laps to go, taking out four or five cars.