NASCAR needs jaws of life

CRASH CAMERON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:32 AM ET

Has NASCAR jumped the shark?

If you're not familiar, that's a term used to determine when a TV show has hit the wall -- lost touch with its original charm and its audience.

The term was coined from a latter-years episode of Happy Days when the once "cool" Fonzie literally jumped a shark on skis in a water tank. In other words: The show was done like dinner, but the servers were the last ones to know.

NASCAR isn't strapping on the skis. But the sharks have sensed something.

They've been circling.

Erik Tomas of Raceline Radio agrees.

"I think they are going through an awkward period of transition that was started before this economic crisis hit," he said. "I think they've probably plateaued."

Long story short: During the past 15-20 years, the long-running stock-car series builds up from a die-hard, largely southeastern U.S. fan base into one of the few national sports entities that makes a regular dent in the NFL's dominance, eventually striking a TV deal that Gary Bettman would sacrifice goats for.

Twenty years ago it was far-fetched that a NASCAR race would be a prime property on a network such as ABC. Five years ago, it would be unfathomable that ABC would cut away from a NASCAR race.

They did just that last Sunday. While Jimmie Johnson was on his way to all but clinching his third consecutive driver title, the network switched to ... America's Funniest Home Videos. Jaws would have been more appropriate.

"I think they rode the top of a wave," Tomas said. "NASCAR is still very, very popular, make no mistake. But I think they started to get the idea that no matter what they did, the fans would still be there."

Tomas has been fighting the good fight for 16 years, getting the motorsport-word on the air past the blinders that sports media have worn so long: There's hockey and football, there's golf majors, baseball, the Olympics, and then there's "Other Sports." (Check raceline.ca to see their nationwide schedule.)

"I don't think they've lost a tremendous amount of their audience, but I think they need to do something ... all of a sudden (a dropoff has) been accelerated by the economy and the fuel thing.

"Coupled on top of that, I still think the tickets are too high-priced for the general public."

Tomas agrees that a significant part of NASCAR's TV prominence has been the product they've put on the air.

"I think the sport televises better than any other sport out there," he said, pointing out specifically the in-car camera. "(Broadcasters) have tried it before and it hasn't worked. You can't televise a football game or a hockey game, even a baseball game, and give the exact eye-level view of what the athlete is seeing.

"They tried it on football helmets and it just made viewers dizzy!"

A NASCAR race does share something with a baseball game: It can go on seemingly forever.

"That's one of my pet peeves: I think the races are too long," Tomas said.

"And I think I could get some drivers to agree with me on that.

"You can watch the first 25 laps, go and cut the grass, watch the last 50 and feel like you haven't missed anything.

"I don't think we need to be sitting in front of the TV -- or even sitting at the track -- close to four hours to watch an automobile race. And I'm a die-hard fan. And I make my living covering this sport. But can we not make the same point after half the number of laps?"

Cue the theme from Jaws.


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