Over the last few years we've witnessed a great exodus of legendary NASCAR drivers. After careers of driving in thousands of races, legends have walked away, leaving behind legions of fans that had followed them for decades.
Once a NASCAR driver has his 45th birthday, he is phased out, and as depressing as that is, the evidence shows this is a young man's sport.
After all, since Bobby Allison won the championship in 1983, no driver over the age of 45 has accomplished the feat.
The recent retirement of several top veteran drivers have fans wondering who will replace them. Within the next decade, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart will each be right at or over 45 years old. A new generation will have emerged by this time, forcing the current champions out the door.
Along with losing popular drivers, yet another problem exists: the ever-shrinking fan base.
Over the past several years, NASCAR has tried implementing several rule changes to give the people what they want. However, the recent televised finish of fans throwing bottles and cans on the track in dispute was certainly not the image NASCAR wanted to make.
Other major sports conclude the season with playoffs and championship matches, so why not NASCAR? Adding the Chase to the last 10 races of the season, when first implemented, only included the top 10 points leaders and any driver within 400 points of the leader.
On paper it sounds good, but when you don't have your fan base drivers like Dale Jr., Gordon and Stewart in the finals, you need to make a change to provide that opportunity.
Dropping the 400-point portion of the rule and making it the top 12 drivers in points, tweaking the point system for winning a race during the regular season, and NASCAR will have given fans what they want.
But fan loyalty with ticket sales and television ratings has dropped over the past several years. NASCAR has tried to develop the right mix of older fans who take credit for giving it the foundation needed to be a viable American sport, while younger fans want to enhance the sport simply to meet their needs.
Elder fans have felt like they have been forgotten, while all they really ever wanted was to have a good time and watch some good racing. NASCAR admits this is a challenge, and is willing to continue giving fans what they want.
This year NASCAR has even added county music entertainment for pre-race events and adjusted several of the race times.
But the real question is whether or not it can reach total inclusion of all fans.
By reinforcing these sentiments, while on a recent trip through
Who better to ask if NASCAR will continue to grow?
His name was Jeff Smith, and he was indeed a Jeff Gordon "super fan." Smith has been a Gordon follower since the early 90s when Gordon arrived on the NASCAR scene.
"I love to hear people ask what could be fun about cars going in circles," Smith said. "My only reply is I don't question people who listen to opera; you either get it or you don't."
Smith and most fans agree that by the end of the day, NASCAR will survive and continue to evolve. For now, it must focus on the older generation. Trouble is, they are finding it more difficult to relate to a 22-year-old kid behind the wheel than the battle tested veterans who have been loyal on Sunday afternoons for decades. Once their driver steps out of the car for good, will they pick a new one to follow?
Only time will tell.