The Frontstretch: A Sport In Crisis: RPM Just One Card in NASCAR's Deck by Amy Henderson -- Friday October 22, 2010

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A Sport In Crisis: RPM Just One Card in NASCAR's Deck

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday October 22, 2010


Editor’s Note: For the latest timeline on the RPM / Gillett / Kasey Kahne saga, please check out our Breaking News section by clicking here to find out the future of RPM, how we got to this point, and so much more.

“The house of cards is finally falling for George Gillett’s Richard Petty Motorsports.”

These words, written by FOX Sports’ Lee Spencer, began what has become the biggest story in racing this week. As Gillett’s empire crumbles around him, RPM could be the latest casualty for the beleaguered owner of several different properties, including the soon-to-be-divested Liverpool FC soccer club. But Gillett’s financial and personal woes are really just the tip of the iceberg of a Titanic-sized problem brewing for the number one stock car series in America. The team’s potential demise is a microcosm of a sport in crisis, the joker in a NASCAR house of cards becoming increasingly fragile.

And now, the wind is blowing.

As ratings plummet and sponsors balk at the cost of entering a sport with a dwindling fan base, NASCAR continues to deny that there is a real problem. CEO Brian France said last week that the “…racing is great, and over time that takes care of things…ultimately the racing, which is phenomenal, will carry the day.” The problem is that right now, the racing isn’t enough.

France, who took the reins of the sport’s sanctioning body in 2003, has made several major changes to the sport, many of which have been widely unpopular. The ten-race playoff system that NASCAR dubbed The Chase failed to do what was intended: keep fans interested in the final weeks of the season, when NASCAR has to compete for viewers with the NFL. The revamped points system went over like a lead balloon with its audience, especially when the first Chase title went to a driver who had been just seventh in points before the Chase reset, while the driver who would have won under the previous system wound up third.

And if the Chase wasn’t a bitter enough pill for fans to swallow, NASCAR changed its qualifying system, replacing the old format in which 38 of 43 cars qualified on speed, while the remained of the field was filled with provisional spots, in part to ensure that the biggest names didn’t miss the race. The new system basically flip-flopped the old, in essence giving the top 35 drivers a weekly provisional while requiring the rest of the field to compete for the last few spots on the grid. That system is almost as unpopular as the Chase.

Finally, there was the four-car rule that took effect in 2010, limiting owners to four teams under a single ownership umbrella. While the rule does allow technical alliances between teams, it did result in the demise of one car. Those restrictions, and several smaller changes that have come down the pike, have done nothing toward their intent — encouraging new organizations to enter the sport on a competitive level. The small teams that do come in struggle mightily, and new sponsors are nearly nonexistent.

If RPM folds completely and new teams don’t enter the game, that leaves the Sprint Cup Series with just 29 full-time teams going into 2011. And even if they survive, RPM has stated that they will drop two cars next year. Start and park teams run rampant, but they seem, for the most part, content to stay as such; there is little incentive for them to do otherwise. Many weeks, those teams, had they managed to run all day, would likely often finish little better against the bigger teams than where they did by parking early, and they would have spent more on tires and equipment for a full race, in essence dropping their take-home pay some weeks. The start and park teams are trying to make it in an impossible situation, but many fans despise them. And whether the fans like the teams or not, the concept itself is a blight upon the sport.

The picture isn’t rosy, and NASCAR, like Nero, continues to fiddle as Rome burns. The racing isn’t going to fix it this time. The stakes are too high, and the fall from grace has been too far, too fast to right, especially with what is, essentially, the status quo. The racing is the same as it was a year ago, but the ratings fall anyway. There is still hope, but it grows dimmer every day.

George Gillett, Jr. is just one example of an owner that entered NASCAR not out of a love of racing, but just to make some big bucks.

One has to examine the picture of ownership in the sport today as well as the sanctioning body, though, in order to gain insight into the near-collapse of both RPM and the sport as a whole. Do that, and a pattern emerges quickly. The teams in the most immediate danger of going under aren’t owned by racers. They were started, or purchased, by investors. George Gillett is the perfect example — if he was in NASCAR for sheer love of the sport, he’s never let on. His team was an investment, made when times were good and business was booming. He teamed with Ray Evernham and later Richard Petty, hiring a string of people who understand racing to run the show, but racing wasn’t his passion. He was in it to make money, not for the joy or betterment of the sport. And he never quite got it.

On the other hand, Rick Hendrick, by most accounts the most successful owner in the sport for the last twenty years, eats, sleeps, and breathes for his race teams. Hendrick owns dealerships to make money for them; he didn’t build race teams to tap into the bandwagon that was NASCAR racing for much of this decade. He built them because he wants to go racing.

If you look at the other top surviving Cup teams — Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing — that pattern holds. These owners put everything they have into their cars. Their other ventures support their racing, not the other way around. That’s not a quality that George Gillett shares, and it doesn’t appear it’s one Brian France does as well. France’s grandfather founded NASCAR because he was a racer himself, and saw how organized racing could and should be. He was a harsh dictator, but his zeal was forever rooted in the love of the sport. It’s hard to see any of that same passion in Brian France, who grew up in the ivory tower that Bill France laid the foundation for and Bill France, Jr. built onto.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as passion when it comes to finance, and that outlook gets bleaker every day. It’s no longer the lower-tier teams struggling to find sponsorship, it’s everybody. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon doesn’t have full funding yet for 2011. Only a handful of primary sponsors sign on for a full season anymore, muddying the waters when it comes to filling financial commitments. It now takes several mid-level sponsors to support most teams, and that hurts a rapidly evaporating NASCAR middle class. Where once a single company could sponsor a competitive car for $10 million a season, now it takes two or three at that level. That means that even if there are sponsors to be found, they’re sponsoring fewer races and fewer teams.

A few years ago, there was so much young talent coming through the ranks of the sport that it seemed as though there was an endless supply of development drivers in the Nationwide Series. That’s all gone now, too. Even if there were Cup seats for the few who are left, there aren’t enough talented drivers ready to take them. As some Cup stars grow older, is there anyone to fill their seats and be competitive? The Nationwide Series has few true development drivers anymore, where a decade ago, it was thriving on this young talent and with teams who chose to run that series exclusively with healthy sponsorship.

That series is now a wasteland of underfunded veterans running among a few young drivers with nowhere to go. The ones talented enough to move up have no seats to move up into, while the ones not ready stagnate midpack or disappear altogether after a season or so.

The Camping World Truck Series may just be the healthiest in NASCAR. Sponsorship is hard to come by, but it’s less expensive than a Nationwide or Cup deal, and above all, without the superfluity of Cup drivers rampant in the Nationwide Series, sponsors get the exposure they pay for during the broadcasts. The series is, however, undermarketed and underexposed. Purses are woeful, and the TV package lags far behind the other two series.

So many factors have combined in NASCAR to create this perfect storm, and before it’s done, the destruction in its wake could be devastating. Some will ride it out, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Short fields could force a renegotiation of television contracts, and as Cup stars retire, the caliber of racing will suffer as there are currently too few talented young drivers being groomed to take over. The way the sport is being run is turning fans away faster than the excuses they make for the declining numbers.

At this point, things need to change, and they need to change at the top. The sport’s health is in serious jeopardy. If sponsors don’t get exposure or get priced out of the market for a competitive team, they will leave. If sponsorships can’t be found, more teams will fold. If teams fold, NASCAR’s television contracts are in jeopardy. And if the fans are unhappy with all of this, they won’t watch, meaning the sponsors won’t get their exposure, and the other dominoes will fall. NASCAR is a sport in crisis as a new decade dawns.

There is hope, but it’s becoming apparent that drastic changes are needed, and to make those changes, there has to be a dramatic shift of thinking from the top down. Mistakes need to be admitted and made right. Richard Petty Motorsports is merely a refection of something much deeper. The grand façade is crumbling around the sport, and the wind is blowing hard on NASCAR’s house of cards. This time, the racing might not be enough to save it.

Contact Amy Henderson

Friday on the Frontstretch:
Who Gave Up on Whom? In the End, Kahne Did the Wrong Thing
Kenny Wallace Driver Diary: Across The Country And Back
Gateway Disappearance A Sign Of The NASCAR Times
Driven To The Past: Getting Detroit’s Attention…
Tearing Apart the Trucks: Bodine the Unbeatable?

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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10/23/2010 06:57 AM

First of all, Amy, let me say that this article is well written. Sometimes I am derisive of what you say, but this article is among the best that I have read from you.

I wonder why, though, that you didn’t mention that na$car has laid off 40 employees in a “cost cutting” move? And, apparently, na$car has decided to close The Daytona 500 Experience (formerly Daytona USA) next month. Both of those moves are designed to save na$car $30,000,000.00 in annual expenditures.
That shows that na$car is aware of the dire situation it faces. Even though the powers that be REFUSE to make the necessary changes.

As far as the Gillette fiasco goes, this is where you contradict yourself from yesterday. And I am glad you do so. Everything you said today is true, and it shows that Gillette quit on Kahne, before Kahne quit on RPM.
You are absolutely correct that the best car owners are former racers. Joe Gibbs is the exception, but nobody can doubt that man’s passion for sporting competition, and he doesn’t do anything half-assed!
George Gillette’s business model belongs in a parody movie, or possibly a tragedy of Shakesperian proportions. He bought into Ray Evernham’s nearly bankrupt business, and it was nearly bankrupt or it wouldn’t have been up for sale. Then it swallowed Yates’ bankrupt team, and Petty’s bankrupt team.
How could anyone have believed that combining 3 bankrupt teams would somehow turn into a profitable alliance? That’s like buying all the clothes at your church rummage sale, and thinking that you will open a store in Malibu with them.
The only intelligent business decision this team has made was to hire A.J. Allmendinger, although signing with this team will be the death of his career (unless he gets the 6 car as a SpeedTV reporter speculated). But, even if this team survives the season, what then? They have TWO teams, and ONE sponsor for 2011, and they are even leaving open the possibility of running a third car.
For years I have wanted Petty Enterprises to become a respectable team again. But as it stands, I change my mind. There is nothing heroic about keeping the Petty name in na$car. Since 1984, the Petty team have brought us maybe 6 wins, and unmeasurable disappointment. An entire generation has grown up since this team was anything other than an irrelevant field filler.
It is like watching an olympic champion being kept on life support. There comes a time when pulling the plug and letting them die, becomes the more humane choice. For the Petty’s in racing, that time was 15, or more, years ago.

10/23/2010 07:04 AM

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that the Gillette’s and Petty were conspiculously absent in Martinsville on Friday. THAT says a lot about this team, it’s owner’s and their management style.

Carl D.
10/23/2010 09:27 AM

Great article. I’m starting to think that the house of cards has to be completely blown down in order for something more sturdy to built. You didn’t come right out and say it, but management at the top has to change. If Brian France were a real CEO, the board would have dumped him a long time ago.

10/23/2010 10:28 AM

Nice article, I think you hit all the major issues on the head. Sadly I agree with you, it will get worse before it gets better. I think it might take more dramatic ratings drops, attendance drops and maybe losing a TV deal to force dramatic changes. Also, I feel NASCAR still has its head in the sand. That is why this “elimination chase” idea scares me so much. If they go to this, it will only alienate long time fans more.

NASCAR shows some signs of caring. They have taken steps to improve the COT platform (spoiler, new nose). Moving a race out of California instead of Martinsville, but they won’t admit they’re wrong about the Chase, the glut of 1.5 mile tracks, and the dying Nationwide Series.

I’m glad NASCAR fans have a site like this because when you listen to NASCAR sanctioned media (Sirius NASCAR radio, Speed, ESPN) they are afraid to take on the big issues facing the sport. They go out of the way to defend the Chase, denounce anyone who says “cookie-cutter” track, etc.

10/23/2010 12:03 PM

It will trully be a sad day in NASCAR when RPM does not have a car in the CUP race. Makes you wonder where they would be if Adam had not met an untimely death.

10/23/2010 12:59 PM

Amy, while you make many valid points for how and why NASCAR is at the point it’s at I still contend that one needs look a few years prior to King Brian taking the helm. Once team owners such as Roush and Hendrick started expanding their teams to 4 cars the die was set. Look at where NASCAR is today; A few large team owners, a bunch more “satellite” teams. The big teams are suppling or leasing engines, frames, tech support to other teams. Let’s be realistic here. NASCAR the sport has turned into NASCAR the corporation with every team being an “employee” in theory. Before anyone tosses out the teams should be able to own and build anything they want because it’s a free market the glaring fact would be that we are talking about participants in a sport and not guys building widgets somewhere. NASCAR was built on guys building cars in their shops from the ground up. There were engines being supplied from guys like Yates, Petty, or Wood buty there were also other conpanies that supplied engines for teams. Point being that teams used to be individualistic not the blur of one large company that all the teams appear to be today. I prefer that there was 43 individual teams out there but at the most a team should have no more than two cars. No satellite teams and build your own stuff. If I wanted to watch IROC..well I couldn’t because that failed and it looks like NASCAR is heading down that same road.

10/23/2010 02:23 PM

Sadly,It looks bad for both Petty and NASCAR.Hope things change before it is to late.

10/23/2010 06:39 PM


RP spent Saturday at Na$car Days in Randleman.

Bad Wolf
10/23/2010 08:15 PM

The racing is not that great, with so much emphesis on points and the Chase, and the COT is a rolling turd.

Nascar is at the point Open Wheel was at in about 1995, and unless this sucker is blown up and taken back to its roots it will meet the same fate. Brain France failed to take the pulse of the core fans and now is reaping what he has sown. I have not sat down to watch a Nascar race this year, only occasionally catching a glimpse while channel surfing, and I feel like I am missing nothing. I come to Frontstretch to get caught up, and that is all I need now. It used to be I planned my weekends and vacations around Nascar, but thanks to BZF’s ineptitude and the fear of his toadies to point out that “His Emminence” has no cloths we are stuck with this debacle and sham of a racing series.

Get the “Stock” back in Nascar, get rid of the Chase and Top 35 rule, let the teams test all they want and ban the 7 post shakers and computer monitoring during testing and practice. Put the driving back into the hands of the drivers, and make the teams run stock blocks and heads with unlimited modifications. Bring back the rule that states that for a car to be Nascar legal for the track at least 500 copies must be produced and sold to the public. Do this and the fans can go into the showroom on Monday and basically buy what won on Sunday again.

Hell, the cars now are carbon copies of each other, and the engines and drivetrains are not stock but purpose built to a set of specs. (Thanks Toyota) Bring back stock and they will once again be twisting them to their limits, and when a team is 2 laps ahead we can wait with baited breath for the engine to expire into a cloud of blue smoke, and if not the rest of the teams will go back to the shop and tweak theirs just a little more for next week.

As it is now Nascar is just the failed IROC series on steroids, with the cars prepared by the teams instead of the sanctioning body.

R.I.P. Nascar. I’m glad I knew you back in the day when it was raw and real.

10/23/2010 08:29 PM

I’m a long time fan who has followed the same driver for many years. When he retires I don’t know if I will have any interest left in the sport I was once fanatical about. Once Bill France Jr. and Dale Earnhardt departed, nas$car became a rudderless ship with two idiots at the helm. That would be Brain Fart and no clue Helton. I don’t see the sport surviving without some drastic changes in the leadership dept. The rpm story is just one symptom of a widespread problem.

10/23/2010 08:39 PM

I have one last thing to add. The dire straits nas$car finds itself in just saddens me more then anything. I’ve tried to hang in there and hope things will get better, but a sense of doom hangs over the sport. Let’s hope someone wakes up before it’s too late.

10/23/2010 09:33 PM

Come on Jacob; where are your P’etty death-trap’ comments? Isn’t that a hallmark of your posts? I’m still trying to remember someone who died driving for/with him. Maybe injured like his father? Yeah, like going over the wall at Daytona back in that era was a sure thing to walk away from. Maybe it was Richard rolling his Superbird at Darlington in ’70? Oh yeah, he raced the next day. Or maybe Sadler earlier this year at Pocono? Oh yeah, he walked away. Man, for death-traps a lot of people seem to walk away alive.

10/23/2010 09:52 PM

The first of the dominoes was the moronic, contrived playoff system.

10/23/2010 10:50 PM

Great report from a journalist that sees and smells the TRUTH and Not one to follow and believe the False Leader of the sport.
If things weren’t bad enough, but if Petty leaves this sport then the spiritual life support of Nascar will go with him. They will try to make some artificial pep rally smoke screen, probably with one of their artificial minions that they have thrown in our face for the last ten years, and they will never realize that we have been seeing thru this FAKE BS all along. We have been the real fan base and their novice have quickly grown tired. I still watch but not near as much and if there will be No Petty then I will find something else to do….it wont be hard at all.

10/23/2010 11:16 PM

Got to agree with you Jacob. If my wife was sick with cancer I’d say ‘tough luck I’m heading to the track’.

I’m still waiting for that list of drivers killed in his ‘death traps’?

phil h
10/24/2010 12:55 AM

as for Brian France?

in the words of Bugs Bunny! “what a mah..roon!”

10/24/2010 01:29 AM

I know it says—Amy Henderson—but I was hanging on to every word— and only Matt does that to me.

10/24/2010 06:27 PM

Jacob, where are you?


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.