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How NASCAR is working to put a spark back into races

Peter Dawson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram on

Published in Auto Racing

NASCAR is in trouble.

The sport's attendance and TV viewership numbers have been in a free fall for almost a decade. The lengthy list of reasons includes the Great Recession, the rise of cord-cutting, the comforts of home-viewing, confusing rule changes and the supposed political correctness of the drivers.

And even though Sunday's AAA Texas 500 is a critical race in NASCAR's playoffs, the crowd at Texas Motor Speedway won't approach the 191,000 who turned out for the spring race 10 years ago.

NASCAR has turned to its drivers, fans (the most brand-loyal in sports), and listened to criticism from the media to address the downward trend. They're even willing to listen to one another.

Sam Flood, an executive at NBC, recalled conversations with NASCAR officials a year ago about how to get fans to stick with an entire race.

"The idea of stage racing came from these meetings," he said. "To have all those groups come together I thought was a great signal of how the league works."

Before the season, NASCAR introduced stages within the races for all three NASCAR series. The goal of the complex format was to reward drivers who were more aggressive during the regular season by presenting an opportunity to accrue points that would carry into the playoffs. That aggression would, in turn, provide more excitement for the fans.

"In the garage area, I think people think the format is better than it used to be ... the stage racing is better and has rewarded the better teams throughout the year," said Kyle Larson, a NASCAR driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Some fans still need a bit more convincing.

"I don't really care for the new format because when my driver blew out an engine last week he's out of the playoffs, done," said Steve Burns, a fan who customized his limousine for the weekend's festivities at Texas Motor Speedway. "Some of the rules are just hard to keep up with."

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