Opinion: NASCAR's 'Gray Area'

M.Martin

Veteran drivers like 54-year-old Mark Martin have been successful on the track, but the sport also needs younger competitors to lure younger fans. (Photo: Getty Images)

NASCAR is facing a challenge in trying to attract a younger audience while the Sprint Cup Series garage keeps getting older.

The average age of the 43 drivers in last Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International was 36.  The field included four drivers over the age of 50 and six older than 40.

Compare those numbers with the average player ages in the four major professional sports: NFL (26), NBA (26), Major League Baseball (27) and the NHL (28).

While there are a number of younger drivers competing in NASCAR’s second and third divisions, and a slew of youthful talent on the horizon, don’t expect to see them in the Sprint Cup Series any time soon.  Unfortunately, these kids are staring at a glass ceiling with no immediate hope of breaking through.

At last glance, open seats in the Cup garage are few and far between.  Veteran drivers have their heels dug in and there are no indications of any planned retirement parties.  Any movement that takes place before the first green flag of next year will simply be a reshuffling of existing faces.

Kevin Harvick will move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing, Kurt Busch might jump from Furniture Row to RCR, or perhaps Ryan Newman will land at Richard Childress’ team after being forced out at SHR.  The common thread with all three veteran drivers' scenarios is sponsorship.  Harvick took Budweiser and Jimmy John’s to Tony Stewart’s team.  Newman has Outback, Quicken Loans and others to offer; and Busch’s career reclamation should help attract a potential backer.

But unless a multi-million-dollar sponsor falls out of the sky, no team has a plan in place to add an additional entry to its stable for a young driver to challenge Austin Dillon – who has a seat waiting for him at the family-owned RCR operation – for 2014 Rookie of the Year.

The situation is a blow to NASCAR’s attempts to pursue the elusive 18-24 age group, which simply cannot identify with most of today’s drivers.  Social media, digital initiatives and marketing campaigns don’t mean anything if young people are unable to connect with the actual product.

Much was made about Travis Pastrana’s NASCAR entry and how the wildly popular action sports star would bring his legions of fans – most in that sweet-spot younger demographic – with him to stock car racing.  While there might have been an initial burst, the reality is that just hasn’t happened.

Until there’s an influx of fresh faces that provide a younger fan with a rooting interest, the graying of NASCAR will continue.

It’s tough for a sport to connect with a younger fan base when more of its competitors subscribe to "Senior Living" Magazine than "Rolling Stone."

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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