TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It was four years ago that Katy Veal first brought her children to Talladega Superspeedway. And when the earsplitting stampede of 43 cars first roared past at nearly 200 mph, just a stone's throw from the Veals' infield camping spot, the kids screamed, "Mom! This is awesome!"
"I thought, 'Gosh, I have erased all 12 years of anything I've ever done wrong!' " Veal said Saturday, perched on a lawn chair in Talladega's massive infield.
NASCAR's TV ratings may be continuing their slide, and race-day attendance is down. But from the vantage point of stock-car racing's core fans, who congregate en masse twice each year at the sport's biggest, most hair-raising speedway here in northern Alabama, there's nothing wrong with the sport.
It was nearly two years ago that NASCAR President Brian France, facing signs of growing discontent among stock-car racing's famously loyal fans, sought to shore up relations with ticket-buyers by promising to get "back to the basics."
For France, that was something akin to a mea culpa for the furious pace of change during his first five years as chief executive of the sport his grandfather founded.
Among those changes: The introduction of a 10-race postseason that changed how the annual champion was crowned; the debut of Toyota as the first foreign nameplate in a sport previously restricted to "American-made cars;" a reworking of the 36-race schedule that stripped several events from the Southeast and moved them to shinier speedways west of the Mississippi, and a radically redesigned racecar that was safer but not as sleek or slick.
Howls from the grandstand soon erupted. NASCAR was getting too corporate, longtime fans said. NASCAR didn't care about the common man any more. NASCAR had forgotten the small markets that had helped it go big-time. NASCAR's new speedways were cookie-cutter copies of one another, and its politically correct drivers were no better.
To veteran race promoter Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, it was more perception than reality.
"It's the nature of society: Once something becomes popular, everybody starts tearing it down," Gossage said. "It was trendy for awhile to say NASCAR is on the way up, and then it was trendy to say it's on a death spiral."
Regardless, perception is reality in the business world. Once a product is deemed not as good as it once was, it's no easy feat to keep sales from slumping.
So NASCAR starting paying more attention to what its fans were saying. And the results are showing -- at least in incremental ways, such as the decision earlier this year to switch from single-file to double-file restarts (a move that spices up the competition at critical moments) and last month's announcement that starting times in 2010 will be earlier and more uniform (an acknowledgement that NASCAR misread its audience in delaying starts to 3 p.m. or later in hopes of cultivating a West Coast following).
"That's not the conventional way you would schedule your start times," France said in a telephone interview this weekend. "Typically, you want to go later in the day. But as we develop policy for the sport, we're taking our core fans into account as much as possible."
To that end, NASCAR created a 12,000-member Fan Council in 2008, recruiting a pool of volunteers that mirrors its national audience in terms of gender and geographical distribution.
The panel isn't queried on every rule change, and only targeted subsets are interviewed on a given issue. But Fan Council members have been asked to weigh in on a host of competition-related issues, as well as perceptions of specific racetracks, drivers and sponsors. The feedback is used both to help NASCAR officials brainstorm and to confirm that contemplated changes will be well received.
With Fan Council interviews conducted over the Internet, NASCAR can get real-time feedback from a segment of its most knowledgeable, emotionally invested fans far more quickly than it could by hiring an outside research firm, according to Brian Moyer, 38, NASCAR's managing director of market and media research, who supervises a Charlotte-based staff of six.