With outspoken drivers like Denny Hamlin keeping the discussion about the new Gen-6 car out front and very visible, it seems that every race weekend involves a test of sorts – like students filing grimly into the gym to take the SAT.
“Every weekend is a big weekend for our sport,” said defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. “Everybody is on egg shells. Drivers are on egg shells. I think the fans are on egg shells. The media is on egg shells. The sanctioning body is on egg shells.
“You get the collective sense in this sport that everyone is feeling a lot of pressure and if we don’t have a perfect week every week everybody just kind of shakes down in their boots. So, I think, right now every week is a big week in this sport.”
Keselowski is one of the garage’s go-to personalities for incisive commentary on the state of the sport, even after being called on the NASCAR carpet for critical remarks last month.
“I think there’s more pressure right now in this sport,” he said. “I’m just frustrated that I wasn’t around in this sport in ’05 and ’06 when it seemed like there was a license to print money and there was no such thing as a bad race. That would have been really nice.”
Although attendance at many tracks has been an issue, Keselowski said the sport is hurt by frequently being in the same sentence with the National Football League, the acknowledged gorilla of professional sports in the United States.
“I think the measuring stick we put ourselves up against, whether it’s right or not, is the NFL,” he said. “But, if you look at some of the other major sports, they’re struggling, too. You look at the NHL and the issues they had with the lockout. You look at MLB, and, if you go to one of their games, there’s nobody there.
“And then I’ve gone to several NBA games this year where attendance has been dismal. Maybe we should be comparing our sport to them, instead of the NFL. I don’t know, but I think things are probably not as bad as they seem, and they’re probably not as good as some people would like to make them out to be. It’s probably somewhere in-between.”
Keselowski said communication between competitors and executives is a positive.
“I think the better the relationship can get from the highest level of the sport to whatever level you would consider to be a driver, I think that’s probably better for everyone,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any different than a major corporation. You see these shows like Undercover Boss, and I don’t think it’s any different than that, where you see a CEO that lives in New York and makes $30 million a year – can he really relate to the guy that is on the factory floor?
“That’s difficult, and the only way for him to do that is to really dig down deep and talk to those people that make it happen, and that’s how you turn things around when they’re not going as well. If that’s what happens out of those situations, then certainly that’s going to be a huge positive for everyone in this sport.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.