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Motorsports world needs to revitalize disgruntled base

The Indy 500 used to pack in 300,000-plus fans. But two warring factions led to a split and both the sports and the race lost fans because of it. Al Bello/Getty Images

"This will be great for the sport ... "

That little sentence, a seven-word would-be mission statement filled with such well-intended hope ... how could we have possibly known that it would become a torpedo, set on about-face course, ultimately returning to blow holes in the hull of those who fired it?

"This will be great for the sport ... "

In two-plus decades spent in press boxes and media centers around the world, I've never heard that phrase uttered by anyone in football, baseball or basketball. I've heard it only within the realm of motorsports. And I have heard it a lot.

It's been recited and repeated ad nauseam by competitors, fans, media and particularly the executives who steer auto racing. Less a statement and more an obsession, it's been a prefix for every move, no matter how large or small, good or bad.

"This will be great for the sport, expanding into markets where we've never been."

"This will be great for the sport, adding another 50,000 seats."

"This will be great for the sport, so-and-so driver doing a walk-on role in that so-and-so movie."

"This will be so great for the sport (fill in the blank)."

During this week's State of Racing series here in the motorsports corners of ESPN.com, there have been three common themes.

The first: Nothing is as great as it was 20 years ago.

The second: The audience is shrinking, and thus the money is drying up.

The third: The people in charge know all about those first two issues, but seeing as how they were the people who were also in charge when all of that started happening, they don't really seem to know how to fix it ... but they're going to keep on smiling and claim that they do.

It is an unenviable task, to say the least.

So, where did it go wrong? How could an industry that had experienced steady growth for more than a half-century and explosive growth in the quarter century after that find itself here, in a looping spin like a too-loose car coming off the fourth turn?

Because the people holding the steering wheel made that single most common of auto racing mistakes. Their ride was running so well, it was so fast and their lead was so large, that they started believing that they were the reason for the speed. They started believing they could do it themselves. So they began ignoring the people who built that car, paid for it and installed that original can't-miss setup.

The drivers of the sport tuned out their pit crew.

For the metaphorically challenged, the "crew" I'm referring to is the fans.

Not the newbies who showed up in the 2000s and have all but vanished now. Rather, the old-school original supporters of motorsports, or as NASCAR chairman Brian France has long referred to them, the "core fans."

At some point along the apex of the business-room charts that track cash flow, those core fans were at best perceived as a group that would gladly gobble up anything they were served, no matter how spoiled it might turn out to be.

At worst, they were perceived as no longer good enough. The search for those who might be more worthy -- the so-called "mainstream sports fan" -- is what ultimately steered the sport off the speedway and into the wilderness.

NASCAR was certainly not alone in casting this net, but no one's efforts were more blatant. A decade ago, at the height of stock car racing's boom, the internal strategies to recruit that mainstream audience included everything from telling racetracks not to book country music artists for prerace concerts and national anthems to erasing all mentions of its moonshining history from sanctioning-body-backed television programs.

Marketing mandates were handed down, demanding all efforts be focused on the Cup series drivers who ranked 1 through 5 in souvenir sales and not to waste time on the lower divisions, the Nationwide (now Xfinity) and Truck series.

During this time, NASCAR's track ownership group went into battle with local governments in places such as New York, Denver and Seattle to try to build facilities in those untapped markets.

Meanwhile, the cookie-cutter Car of Tomorrow was being rolled out, complete with a big black wing to try to appeal to the X Games/"Fast and Furious" youth. All of this took place while a new postseason Chase format was in its infancy and proving to be more polarizing than expected.

Not all of the ideas were bad. But when they were bad, they were spectacularly so.

However, thanks to outrageous ticket sales, two rounds of lucrative TV contracts and a booming economy, the money was flowing in at such a rate that no one noticed when those self-inflicted bruises were administered.

When they were, they just rubbed a $100 bill on it and moved on.

"This will be great for the sport ... "

That same false sense of security -- OK, invincibility -- is what led CART to believe it didn't need the Indianapolis 500 and for Indy to think that it didn't need CART. Hey, the ragtag Indy Racing League had the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, right? It would always be able to draw 300,000 people, no matter if they had no idea who was in the race, right? Hey, CART had cooler cars and bigger names, so it didn't matter if they were banned from the Brickyard and started to feel more like Formula One Lite, right?

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Speaking of F1, it is the most recent series to be led by an emperor with new clothes ... actually, it's plural, emperors with new clothes. One of them was even actually caught naked.

Yes, even the largest racing series of them all, once considered second only to soccer in worldwide popularity, now finds itself caught in a backslide. Its leaders' assumption was that even if they flooded the sport with bloated bills, boring cars, circuits of sameness and overbearing politics, the fans would keep showing up. They haven't.

So, what happens when all those younger, cooler fans everyone worked so hard to recruit in the 2000s suddenly dematerialize?

What happens when the millennials and their coveted demographics pack up and move on to whatever replaced auto racing as being on fleek?

What happens when every edge of every envelope -- ticket prices, grandstand capacity, souvenir costs, advertising rates, sponsorship asks -- has been pushed so far that it all goes over the cliff like Wile E. Coyote into the canyon?

What happens when an economic crash eight years ago yanks down the curtain and exposes an antiquated business model that was being propped up by stacks of cash that no longer exist?

I'll tell you exactly what happens. I've seen this movie before. We all have. It's the storyline of nearly every teenage high school angst flick ever made.

The nerd has it pretty good with his fellow nerd friends but longs to sit with the cool kids in the middle table at the cafeteria. Impossibly, those cool kids invite him over. Even more impossibly, he becomes one of them, abandoning his old friends.

But inevitably, the cool kids are the ones who do the abandoning. Embarrassed, the nerd swallows his pride and returns back to his original friends, hat in hand. They're hurt and they make him suffer, but ultimately they take him back and he realizes, oh damn, his friends were never the nerds. They were the cool kids all along.

The people who run auto racing were lured away by that seat at the middle table. Now they've been abandoned and they're turning back to their old friends, the "core fans," and praying that they'll take them back.

But what exactly would those fans be coming back to? This is a sport that now holds its events in smaller venues in primarily medium "traditional" markets.

It's a sport that is now televised primarily by a quilt work of cable networks. A sport that is cutting costs, reducing its sponsorship asks, reeling in ticket prices, bringing back cars with brand identity, once again promoting young drivers and redoubling efforts to sell the long-neglected lower feeder series.

A sport that is no longer afraid to sell camo T-shirts and book country acts for the prerace shows. And it's a sport that has worked diligently over the past half-decade to showcase its history, not try to act as if moonshine and death didn't happen.

It all feels very 1990. That's no accident. Sure, this new/old approach might have been forced on the powers that be by failures, but it is happening. While sifting through the wreckage, they've dug so deep they just might have rediscovered their roots.

This will be great for the sport.