Cracks beginning to show in NASCAR

The headline this week on NASCAR's Web site said the circuit is "looking to expand into the hip-hop lifestyle," which, to some people, might sound like St. Elmo Steak House looking to expand into vegetarianism.

Such is the reality at NASCAR, where, as in most sports, organizers are searching for new fans. But because of stock car racing's explosive growth, and its origins as a regional niche sport, questions have arisen about whether appeal has peaked.

NASCAR has a long record of leaving highbrow skeptics in its dust, and a crowd of 240,000 is anticipated at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Yet there are warning signs. NBC declined to renew its television contract, TV ratings have been down since last year and empty seats are dotting venues that used to boast sellouts.

It's a noticeable difference from the high standard NASCAR set for itself by blasting not only into the mainstream of American sports, but into the orbit of the NFL.

"It's sort of like the stock market until the late '90s," said Mark Yost, author of "The 200-mph Billboard," a recent book on the business of stock car racing. "NASCAR had incredible growth over the last decade. People got into a mentality where they're used to that. It's too early to raise a red flag.

"Yeah, there are some empty seats out there, but they still average 125,000 per race."

But even the "King" of NASCAR royalty has expressed concern.

"You always hear the deal, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " former driver Richard Petty told the Miami Herald earlier this year. "It ain't broke completely, but it's not (going to grow), either, if we don't make changes." More at Indy Star

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