By Toby Christie, Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie
*NOTE: This is just a fraction of the conversation with Kyle Petty from this week’s The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. To hear the entire interview with Petty, click here.
As Kyle Petty was getting ready to hit the road for the 25th annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, the eight-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race winner and current NBC Sports analyst hit the media cycle to talk about the upcoming ride. In an interview with The Final Lap Weekly Podcast, Petty also was asked about how NASCAR can gain the popularity that it saw back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s back.
“You know what that’s an excellent question with no answer,” Petty explained. “Here’s the thing, I don’t think you can create popularity. I don’t think you can wake up one day and go to Junior High [School] and say I’m going to be the most popular kid in school. And if you do it’s fake and it won’t last long. Whatever you do you have to stay authentic. You have to be authentic.
“I tell people this all the time. This sport and where it was at in the late 90’s and even into the early 2000’s it was growing. It was continuing to grow. Then it went through a growth spurt that was unheard of. But when you started really in depth talking to people, why aren’t we popular now? We are doing the same thing we’ve been doing since 1949. We’re just riding around in circles, you know what I mean?”
For Petty, the key to unlocking how to regain the sport’s popularity stems from understanding how it became so popular to begin with.
“Yes we have sponsors, but we are doing the same thing. The game itself didn’t change, but all of a sudden over night it became popular,” Petty said. “And nobody can give you a reason on why the popularity just took off. Why it just took off. When it went back down the other side of that mountain nobody could give you a reason for why it was going down the other side. If you don’t know how you got up the mountain, you sure as crap don’t know how you fell off the mountain. You know what I mean?”
So, what could help NASCAR’s level elevate again? What could bring the sport to the masses and make it a can’t miss part of the average American’s hectic week? Kyle Petty believes the drivers themselves — or their personalities — are the real key.
“I think the product that’s on the race track right now with the aero package is probably the best place we can be at this point in time. I’m not saying it’s the end all end all. They’re constantly looking at power shifts and power changes for the engines and stuff,” Petty said of the racing product. “Somehow what makes the sport popular are the drivers. And until the drivers — I have to put some of the onus back on the drivers — there is not a Jeff Gordon out there right now. There is not a Dale Earnhardt. There’s not a Richard Petty, a Cale Yarborough. There’s not a Mark Martin. Until we get a guy — or two or three — who really transcend and jump out at you then it’s just cars running around in circles. I think that’s the issue we have with the sport right now. We are making the racing better. Now the personalities have to get bigger.”
Perhaps, Petty is correct. Maybe the hardcore fan tuned out when passionate drivers that the common man could relate with were traded and crafted for the now modern corporate spokesmen who happen to hold a steering wheel on Sundays.