Embracing roots racing may be what NASCAR needs most

Winged sprint cars of the ASCS Sprint Car Dirt Series race at the Texas Motor Speedway Dirt Track on Friday. Bob Pockrass

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sprint cars and modifieds whipped around the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track Friday night, allowing several drivers from Texas and Oklahoma to show off their skills to NASCAR fans likely more familiar with what goes on at the big track across the parking lot.

All but two of the top 12 drivers hailed from Texas or Oklahoma. The other two: Danny Lasoski and some former NASCAR driver named Tony Stewart, rank among the most notable of all sprint-car hotshoes.

While the event Friday night, and the one schedule for Saturday, probably served as a win for the 0.4-mile track only used for select events, it also possibly created a few converts. But the glaring takeaway from it should focus on an alternate theory, one that works in reverse: NASCAR needs dirt-track and sprint-car fans more than the short-track racers need NASCAR fans.

With all the talk this week about how much Texas used a "tire monster" to grind tire rubber into the newly repaved surface, the same amount of talk should center on how NASCAR can immerse itself into the soil of grass-roots racing at tracks that run on a weekly basis.

NASCAR can't ignore the glaring ratings and attendance declines, confirmed by International Speedway Corp. this week. Viewership continues its freefall, down 10 percent this year. Since Daytona, ISC has seen attendance tumble 7 percent and has similar projections for its upcoming weekends.

Why? Theories abound. But it appears clear that people feel less emotionally invested and connected with the sport and its drivers. NASCAR appears to have lost that passion among fans, some through no fault of NASCAR (the decline of the car culture), some through growth (opting for bigger markets), some certainly self-inflicted (Car Of Tomorrow, anyone?) and possibly even having different sponsors for NASCAR's biggest series and the weekly tracks it sanctions.

"I race 70 dirt races a year all over the United States, and what the dirt racing fans say to me all the time is that they feel disconnected from NASCAR," said former NASCAR driver and current Fox Sports analyst Kenny Wallace, who raced a modified Friday night. "When [former NASCAR sponsor] Winston cigarettes sponsored dirt tracks, they would put up a Winston scoreboard, and the fans felt connected like, 'NASCAR cares about us.'

"There's a disconnect. Every dirt track I go to, it feels like NASCAR has left them. ... They feel left behind."

Wallace loves NASCAR and he wants NASCAR to succeed, so don't take his words as a bashing of the sport, but more of an honest assessment. The bigger question: How does NASCAR get those grassroots fans who love to go see sprint cars or their weekly short-track programs?

NASCAR must return to the short tracks that run on a weekly basis with much more than just a sanction, a coat of paint, uniforms, and insurance for drivers. It must do it with appearances from Cup drivers or, better yet, run the trucks or Xfinity Series at a handful of those tracks. Eat a sanction fee? Possibly. Have to pony up for SAFER Barrier for these facilities? Absolutely. NASCAR built the R&D center because its drivers died. Now the sport appears to continually see its fan base wither away, and the NASCAR industry needs to invest more into the sport's backbone.

Maybe NASCAR should give Cup teams an incentive to run a local track champion -- maybe say if it wants to run a third or fourth car, it must give an opportunity to a track champion in a truck or Xfinity car; or possibly require NASCAR teams run two cars at a NASCAR weekly racing track for other benefits.

Local fans for other sports have plenty of opportunities to watch through high schools and colleges. In NASCAR, up-and-coming drivers don't play four years for their high school team, and then one or two or three or four for a college team to build up a fan base and energize people for the sport.

In Texas, 12 minor league baseball teams will play this year. There are 22 Division I colleges, including 18 that play football -- 12 in the top NCAA division. Local asphalt oval tracks? It's somewhere between one and four, depending on which ones are open.

That makes it tough to excite fans from the grassroots. Athletes competing in hometowns or adopted college towns make their names there -- not by hopscotching across the country on in-and-out two day trips such as Xfinity and trucks.

The sprint-car guys can attract fans by racing twice as many times -- and sometimes in multiple divisions -- than the up-and-coming stock-car drivers. They race against some of the stars who have raced for decades such as Lasoski, Stewart and Sammy Swindell on Friday. They can do that on a budget that probably would rival, if not be cheaper, than a NASCAR K&N car.

At dirt races, fans can watch a driver adapt to the surface each week. At most local tracks, both asphalt and dirt, the rules are not as complicated as in NASCAR. Each race is more a race rather than a quest for a championship.

Stage racing and aero push don't seem to fit in these fans' wheelhouse. What they need is a physical connection, a reason to have that passion.

The crowd Friday night appeared as a mix of sprint-car fans and NASCAR fans, if the T-shirts were any indication. They didn't see many NASCAR stars -- the only current NASCAR driver who raced a sprint car was Christopher Bell, a driver many believe will follow in the footsteps of Kyle Larson.

Larson has a contract that allows him to run 25 sprint-car races a year and he plans to run all 25. He built his fan base at those dirt tracks around the country.

"I get asked that question all the time [of] when are they going to shut you down," Larson said about the pressure from the outside to concentrate on his NASCAR ride. "But I feel like everybody needs to encourage me and others to go race at your local short track and all that because I feel like we've lost touch with our grassroots race fans.

"And, I really think with me going back and doing that stuff and Kyle Busch running Late Model races throughout the year, it really kind of gets the local fans back excited about NASCAR."

Sprint-car racing isn't without its flaws for sure. In just the last couple of months, the tragic death of David Steele and the scary scenes of cars flying over the fence at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida make one question (rightly or wrongly) the commitment to safety. The dust kicked up and having to Q-tip dirt out of one's ears after a race won't attract everyone.

But if people are willing to wait until 11 p.m. for the main event and get pelted by clumps of clay to watch cars at incredible speed, then certainly they might be willing to sit on the couch during a Sunday afternoon and watch a stock-car race. While the crowd had appeared to have thinned by the time of the main feature, it appeared about 7,500 or so were in the stands -- a good crowd for this show (where tickets were more expensive than some for the Xfinity race today).

One of those hanging out watching the races standing outside the backstretch fence was Clint Bowyer, who drives a NASCAR Cup car for Stewart and owns a couple of dirt late models.

"My obligation racing at this level is to still go back and visit these grass root short-tracks all across the country," Bowyer said. "Weekly racing is what put me on the map and gave all of us a chance to showcase our talents to the teams we are racing for today.

"That is the level that gets everybody here, not just drivers. It is crew members and engineers and crew chiefs and over the wall guys. Everything you see that makes up the Cup series all starts in one way, shape or form at a weekly series across the country. I love being a part of that. My guys ask me every year if they have a job and I tell them as long as they see my ass in a Cup car, don't you worry about your job."

Brad Keselowski said one of the reasons he wants midweek races is to help those local short tracks. He didn't say this, but as he says it, one would think -- would it be great if NASCAR did a midweek race, let's say on a Thursday, and required all its drivers to visit a nearby short track in the next few nights? Maybe even race?

"We make a lot of our sport's weaknesses and we forget sometimes that we have a lot of strengths," Keselowski said. "One of our strengths is if you look at the models of the football leagues, the basketball leagues and so forth, ... you don't see a lot of 40- and 50-year olds playing football.

"What NASCAR really has going for it, at the grassroots level, we do have the 50-year-old that loves racing and has a passion for it and races at his local short track and that exists for us. It's as important for NASCAR to embrace the local levels as it is for the professional sports stick-and-ball wise to embrace the collegiate levels."

Wouldn't it be cool if that 50-year-old could race against a NASCAR star? Just race. Not meet. Just compete, like a real racer on his turf with, at best, even equipment.

Stewart said when he was at an appearance at the big track Thursday, everything stopped for about 10 seconds as the sound of the sprint cars practicing on the dirt track bellowed through the air. It is a unique sound.

Now NASCAR needs the roar of the stock cars to do the same. It needs its roar to stir passion of people wanting to see both stars and cars. It won't happen in this climate without some help, more seeds and more tilling to create more roots.