I don't think most Europeans can ever truly understand and appreciate NASCAR like Americans do. Most of our English friends see the sport as a bunch of hillbillies who aren't capable of driving sophisticated road courses and the best that our I.Qs can handle is left-turn circle-track racing. If we are honest with ourselves and use the lens as the outsider looking in from across the pond, I can see why they might think that... and nothing is farther from the truth.
There is a world of difference between an F1 car which is almost 3 times lighter and has tires almost 3 times wider than a stock car.
The rulebook makes all cars as equal as possible which means it's down to the talent of the drivers and the cunning of crew chiefs to gain the upper hand in every race. The cars are so close that sometimes a piece of grill tape blocking a grille vent to gain more heat on a cold day can make the difference between 1st and 2nd place. Most southern tracks hold races in the spring and summertime, which means both driver and car endure extreme heat. Cars in the past have no power steering, run in packs of 10-15, 2-3 wide for 4-5 hours a race. Cars are inches apart from one another, front to back and left to right and all this while running at average speeds up to 190-200 MPH for 95% of the race.
You can think what you want to, but you have to have your balls screwed on tight to have those types of mental and physical facilities. That bravery only gets you halfway there though – it also requires an extreme amount of natural talent to even begin to be halfway competitive.
What went wrong?
This is the type of racing that used to pack 125,000 capacity speedways and made it a TV ratings juggernaut, so much so in fact that TV networks would bid ridiculous amounts of money to be the ones to host NASCAR racing on their networks. NASCAR was the most popular and most watched sport in America history. So we have to ask ourselves "why the hard fall from grace?" "what in the hell happened?" The sport ruled with a heavy hand from the time NASCAR association was founded to the late 2000s. Then as if someone flipped a switch in the late 2000s, all of a sudden we started witnessing a steady decline in TV ratings, fan attendance, and sponsorship interest.
Well the answer is not as cut and dry as one might think it is. A ton of contributing factors, bad timing, and panic has unfortunately sealed the fate of NASCAR. At this point the sport has been so mucked with, if they pulled a 180 to change what needs to be changed, even then I don't think it can be saved, in the long run anyways.
The Death Of Dale Earnhardt
I think NASCAR's downfall started with the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. There have been many talented drivers in NASCAR but not one can be compared to the driving ability and personality of Earnhardt. His driving skill was bar none that of legendary status, if it wasn't witnessed by millions of people it would be the stuff of folklore and urban myths. People would fill the seats to either root for him or root against him. It seems like half the fans thought he was the messiah of motorsports and the other half just loved to hate him. So when he died during the 2001 Daytona 500 race, needless to say it was a grievous and horrible shock to anyone remotely involved with the sport from the drivers to the corporate levels of NASCAR but especially to the fans. Then it goes downhill from here. I can't honestly attribute the start of the downfall because of one driver, however, it's is a notable start to the decline.
Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 race.
Winston Tobacco Leaves NASCAR
This was a big blow and right before the recession. In 2003 Winston had to end all motorsport sponsorship due to new government regulations. Winston was NASCAR's money cow because the company had literally never ending resources of money it could pour into the sport. When they had to exit stage left, that is when NASCAR executives got panicked. No other name sponsor of the CUP put anywhere near into the sport than Winston did.
Drastic rule changes
NASCAR's racing rules used to be simple. If a driver crashed and can no longer continue that driver received a did not finish (DNF) stat for that race. If their car was deemed dangerous due to damage or the driver was deliberately trying to take a competitor out via wrecking them, they received a black flag and was marked as a DNF. Driver in first place that crossed the finish line while under green flag or caution flag racing was the winner of that race. Driver's received so many points for finishing a race, placing in a race, leading a race etc. The rules for the car was simple, all NASCAR stock cars had to be uniformed in safety roll cages, body design specific to that car's manufacturer, engine specifications, etc. Crew chiefs can adjust the suspension and other minor things to get the best edge on handling. These rules were simple, everyone could follow them. Long time fans could predict what their favorite driver and team needed to do to win and the newcomer to the sport could easily pick up on them. It made the sport fun to watch and made the race competitive.
Then for whatever reason that no one can quite explain, the NASCAR CEO decided it would be better to throw out rules for motorsports and incorporate rules from football. Instead of normal points and flag finish systems they have used for over 50 years they went into all this crazy half time points and breaks during the race, if you finished under caution you had a shoot out, it was just absolutely bat shit crazy. and turned fans off immediately and did not draw new ones in. What happened is NASCAR executives got greedy. The core fan base just wasn't enough, the number were down because of the recession during 2008 so they decide to go lunatic fringe. They site the rule changes are for better racing but here's what it comes down to and sometimes you just have to cut the shit. They increased high safety standards and made the cars poorer handling so drivers would wreck more bringing in higher viewership. This is evident with the aerodynamics package from last year where the splitter and spoilers were such that the car would go incredible speeds but when it came to passing another car it was highly dangerous and the car was unpredictable. This makes drivers not want to be competitive.
Changes to cars
NASCAR had all the American manufacturers and those cars would in the very least look like the cars that the race car was based on. The Gen 3 NASCAR was probably the best and favorite of fans.
Probably the generation 3 NASCAR CUP car is the fan favorite.
This was a complete roll cage chassis but had to use the factory steel body panels. With the GEN 7 NASCARS it no longer even resembles what NASCAR used to be. It's so foreign that I can't even watch the sport anymore.
The new generation 7 NASCAR CUP car.
Drivers, drivers… drivers everywhere
It seems these days really young drivers have no issues jumping into racing in cup series racing. It used to be that in order to reach cup status racing you really had to put in your dues. Most would start with ARCA stock car racing or NASCAR winged sprints, work their way up into the Bush Grand National series, then would graduate to cup racing. This made the driver more experienced, in their 30's, and it made it harder to get into the sport. It just made for better racing and it also kept the field of cars down to something watchable. Now there are so many new drivers, cars, number and sponsor changes that you can't keep up with your favorite driver. The car you are used to watching for has changed and it just makes it a total mess to even begin to watch.
In closing, I don't think even going back to the old rules and car styles would save NASCAR at this point. They are dug in so deep and trying to unload the franchise. I don't know what happened with the leadership at NASCAR but it is a shame they took such an iconic part of our heritage and flushed it down the toilet. Not to worry, as they say "This too shall pass" and we will have another motorsport or style of racing that will captivate us all again.