Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday April 5, 2013
NASCAR has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in 2013. Ratings are up, and, perhaps of equal importance, people are talking about the sport even during an off week. But we’re just five weeks into what is a very long season. NASCAR will have to compete with other sports; racing will go up against three of four major sports’ playoffs and championships as well as much of the NFL’s regular season. Can the sport hold its momentum all the way until the end?
Well, maybe. Can people, and especially those checking out the sport for the first time on the wave of publicity it’s enjoyed, expect the excitement we’ve seen in 2013 so far every single week? Probably not; the nature of the sport is such that there won’t always be a thrilling finish. The sport’s history tells us that. But that doesn’t mean that NASCAR can’t capitalize on some of the things we’ve seen so far in 2013. What the sanctioning body needs to do going forward is to not rely on any one aspect to keep fans’ interest, because if they do, it almost certainly will fail; we live in a society where people get bored easily.
NASCAR needs to take a multi-pronged approach to the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Where should the sanctioning body focus their marketing efforts?
Cars and racetracks can come and go, but the one thing that NASCAR and its fans always have is the men and women behind the wheel. Most fans have their favorites and are fiercely loyal to them, even when they are in the wrong on a wreck or conflict. Fans stick with their drivers through long winless droughts, and support their sponsors by using their products. At the racetrack on Sunday, almost every active driver can be found on someone’s t-shirt, along with many drivers of the past. In other sports, fans have their favorite team, and players come and go, but in NASCAR, they tend to stick with the driver no matter where he goes.
And while NASCAR does know this, they don’t take advantage of it like they could. If new fans are going to stick around, they most likely will pick a driver to identify with, and NASCAR would be well-served to make sure that fans know the myriad of choices they have. Instead of trotting out features and advertisements with the same limited driver lineup, NASCAR and its mass media partners should recognize the potential for growth that lies with the entire field.
Here’s the thing: the more drivers fans get to “know” via the media, the more diverse the following will be. And that’s good for business. Getting fans to pick up on some of the lesser-known personalities of the sport would be smart business. Sure, a lot of fans are going to jump on the bandwagon of the guys that are winning, or the ones their family or friends follow, but a lot of people love an underdog. That’s why teams like the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox have such a huge fan base-people want someone to pull for besides the ones winning all the time.
So, why not capitalize on that? Market some of the lesser-known drivers. Create a buzz about some of these drivers that potential sponsors can’t ignore…and that’s good for everyone. The better funded all the teams are, the better the racing can be. How many fans, especially those just learning the sport, really know enough about say, David Ragan, Regan Smith, or Aric Almirola to make an informed decision to follow them? That’s an area where NASCAR and the media consistently fall short. And why should sponsors court those guys? They don’t get much coverage and there’s little fan excitement. If that changed, the sport would regain some of the health it had a decade ago when there were sponsors on almost every car, every week.
Also, if NASCAR wants to make its drivers more appealing, it needs to make them more accessible. There was a time when fans could meet a number of drivers at their souvenir haulers each and every week without having to purchase an item or get a ticket. The hardest part of meeting many drivers was sometimes deciding which ones to select, as times often overlapped and the lines got long. Now, it’s rare to see a driver at the hauler and rarer still that fans don’t have to purchase an item before receiving a ticket for the signing.
NASCAR does hold autograph sessions at some tracks for the Nationwide and Truck Series, and they’ve been a success, as has the season preview held in Charlotte that many drivers participate in. But NASCAR could do more when it comes to holding events for fans to meet their heroes. That’s how many fans used to choose their favorites-they often sided with a driver they got to meet and speak to who was nice to them and treated them like more than just another autograph. NASCAR needs to find ways to get back to the accessibility that fans enjoyed ten or fifteen years ago to ensure that new fans have the chance to meet and talk to the sport’s participants.
Finally, it means marketing the regulars in the Nationwide and Truck Series more effectively. They need to be the stars of their own shows. If NASCAR can get fans excited about those drivers, it gives them more options as far as scheduling those series and limiting the participation of the Cup drivers in them. In the long run, NASCAR and the fans benefit because those drivers will be the Cup stars one day, and they will bring fans with them. That helps them come in with sponsor dollars, and when teams have sponsor dollars, the racing will be better. See the theme here?
The Gen-6 racecar looks more like it’s showroom counterparts than NASCAR race cars have in probably 15 or 20 years, maybe more. The manufacturers recognize this and NASCAR does, too, but more could be done. Race fans enjoy being able to identify with their drivers in one way: the cars they drive. Some kind of partnership with the manufacturers to showcase all of their drivers would surely be mutually beneficial. After all, there is a faction of fans that roots for a manufacturer rather than a driver, and don’t care who is in a Ford, a Chevy, or even a Toyota as long as it’s winning. It may not be a majority of fans, but as long as there are car fans in the sport, they should be remembered-they buy stuff too!
However, NASCAR perhaps overstated their optimism for the newest incarnation of race car early on, and when the racing wasn’t exactly what fans wanted from the first lap of practice at Daytona, people were quick to criticize. Let’s be realistic—no car can make every race what every fan wants it to be. It would be unwise to make it seem otherwise. Talk up the car for what it is—a car that has raced pretty well at most tracks so far and that looks like the cars that you and I can drive away from our local dealerships. Don’t hype it as something it can never be—the one thing that magically makes every race like Bristol or Martinsville.
This one is a bit tougher, because while NASCAR does race at a diverse group of tracks, the majority of the schedule is still made up of the type that races the worst-the 1.5-2-mile ovals. However, there are four short tracks, at least four different mile circuits and a handful of road courses in the three national series. There’s even a dirt track race in the Truck Series.
Where NASCAR is missing out is in advertising the races better. Yes, most of the marketing is up to the tracks, but NASCAR would do well to either partner with tracks or create its own ad campaigns for the races, regardless of whether their sister company ISC, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., or someone else owns the track.
NASCAR ultimately owns most of the historical footage from its races, and just imagine how well it could be used in conjunction with the media to showcase the racetracks where they have raced for many years. And such promotions should start early—airing past highlights on the day of the race is too late, because people have bought their tickets already. Show fans, say Dover, now, in a series of ads and features, and maybe that will motivate them to check it out in person. Like team sponsors, when the tracks flourish, so will NASCAR. But there has to be a concerted effort to change the way they’re presented to fans.
Bottom line, this is what NASCAR has to make work. Right now, it has. The new car and some well-timed action even made Fontana exciting. But NASCAR needs to take a long hard look at the product it produces if it wants to sustain this momentum.
Part of that is carefully considering the schedule and how races are awarded to tracks. And it might mean some hard choices with both ISC and the other track owners as far as being bold enough to remove races from the schedule and add new ones, regardless of who owns the track. That might mean taking a hit in the pocket via ISC in order to make a long term gain. It might mean angering Bruton Smith or another track owner. But NASCAR can’t lose sight of what, ultimately, brings fans to the sport and keeps them there.
If that means that NASCAR has to remove, for example, a Cup race from ISC-owned Michigan and award it to privately-owned Iowa, then NASCAR needs to consider doing that. If it means the Nationwide Series races at South Boston or Myrtle Beach while the Cup Series is at Charlotte and Fontana, they need to make it happen. It can’t be about who owns what track, because in the long run, that hurts everyone involved. It has to be about the racing. NASCAR must remember what the R in its own name stands for and not back down when it comes to making that happen.
That also means dumping the Chase, because it’s hurt the racing for too much of the season. Too many teams are racing too conservatively in order to ensure a Chase berth, and that’s not fair to fans. The Nationwide and Truck Series have the same points distribution but no Chase, and drivers in those series drive more like every point counts than their Cup counterparts do. Plus, the majority of fans have said time and again that they don’t like the Chase system. NASCAR needs to start listening.
And what about sponsorship? NASCAR would be well-served to funnel those “Official Something-or-Other of NASCAR” companies to teams. The more teams that have money to race, the more teams can be competitive. And a few surprises in among the perennial favorites will make people watch. It happened in IndyCar—they had some surprise race winners and even an unexpected champion in 2012, and their ratings went up significantly to kick off 2013.
NASCAR has some great racing. If they were to make the best racing the focus of everything they do, above all else, the sport’s popularity has the potential to soar. The surge they’ve seen this year has been fantastic, but NASCAR needs to do some things in order to sustain it. And they can sustain it if the sport is formatted, scheduled, and marketed right. And that means simply putting the focus on good racing. They have that now…they just need to figure out how to use the media and their sponsor and track partners to make it be that good all the time. They need to find ways to make every driver popular and every race count. If they could do that, the sport would be great…and on solid ground for generations to come.
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