The Frontstretch: NASCAR And The Drivers: Who Needs Who More? by Kurt Smith -- Friday June 20, 2008

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NASCAR And The Drivers: Who Needs Who More?

Kurt Smith · Friday June 20, 2008


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

When NASCAR holds a special closed-door driver’s meeting, you can bet it’s because they are not happy about one or more participants being critical, and it usually entails Mike Helton reminding the drivers that they should consider themselves lucky to be there. (Or they’re warning the drivers before a plate race that bump drafting is a no-no but that a certain amount will be tolerated. No kidding, Helton really said that once.) The irony of NASCAR’s sanctioning body not considering their own monumental luck in possessing considerable riches for doing virtually nothing—in the rare moments when they are smart enough to do nothing—is of course lost on them.

Did anyone get a look at Junior being interviewed after Pocono? He looked about as spent as MC Hammer’s fortune. Call them privileged if you like, but the drivers bust their butts in a dangerous, high-intensity arena every week, and most of them have paid considerable dues to get there. This columnist doesn’t think it’s too much for them to ask for a drivable car like most other racing series have.

Last weekend at Michigan, NASCAR’s brass again informed the drivers that “you need us more than we need you”, but when was the last time you saw a fan walking around sporting a Mike Helton T-shirt?

Maybe one of NASCAR’s “brasses” should sit behind a wheel and battle 42 other cars for 500 miles on a 90-degree day. The most physically grueling task Mike Helton performs on a weekly basis is grooming his mustache. He can let these guys blow off some steam after they’ve been sitting in a sauna of a racecar for four hours.

We’ve seen this sort of “consider yourself lucky” dressing down from NASCAR before. After Tony Stewart compared NASCAR to the WWE on his radio show last year, his hauler was forbidden from unloading that weekend until he was given a stern talking-to from the bigwigs. Out of concern for his team and sponsor, Stewart eventually caved and emerged contrite, chalk dust still lingering on his fingers from writing “I will not speak ill of NASCAR” 500 times. It would have been interesting for Stewart, or any other driver receiving a similar reprimand, to tell the bosses that he’ll say whatever he danged well pleases. What would NASCAR do? Fine him? Park him? And why, for complaining about racing in a heated boxcar?

NASCAR can blow the “they need us more” horn all they want. Paying customers know better. Wander around the grandstands, the concourses, the parking lots, or the merchandise haulers at any NASCAR event and you will not likely see any T-shirts, flags, or banners that bear Brian France’s visage, unless it is portrayed in a derogatory or insulting way. Certainly, it would be easier to find someone wearing, say, a Kenny Wallace or J.J. Yeley T-shirt. No one buys a ticket to see Robin Pemberton give a ruling. Who would be easier to replace, Jim Hunter or Jimmie Johnson?

NASCAR’s drivers have built up huge fan bases and their racing skills have made for all kinds of golden moments in the sport. NASCAR’s current management, by comparison, has managed to cut ratings and audiences almost in half, largely through showing the same lack of respect for their customers that they are now complaining about receiving from their drivers.

Jeff Gordon is one example. Gordon burst onto the scene out of nowhere and became an icon in the sport before he was 25. He fueled interest in NASCAR, not only by bringing in fans from outside of Alabama, but by piquing interest in anti-fans bent on seeing him fail…because he was that good. His ability to outduel everyone from Dale Earnhardt to Rusty Wallace won him four championships, second only to Earnhardt and Richard Petty. With all due respect to Bill France, Jr., it is Jeff Gordon that expanded the sport beyond the South. In his dominant years, Gordon was to NASCAR what Michael Jordan was to basketball…a head and shoulders above the rest superstar who put butts in the seats.

In turn, NASCAR implemented a ratings-motivated playoff system that has arguably denied two championships for Gordon, preventing race fans from seeing the 24 team pursue title number seven from 2008 forward, which would place Gordon side by side with the all-time very best where he belongs. That system also failed in its goal of higher ratings. Win-win.

And for all Jeff Gordon’s help to grow the sport above the Mason-Dixon Line, Brian France has contributed almost as much to shrinking the popularity of the sport below it. We don’t need to re-ignite the feelings of Darlington fans rehashing that.

So who has been more beneficial to the sport?

Or try Carl Edwards, who started racing in Cup in 2005…and with his wins and subsequent gymnastic displays brought a whole new shade of color to the sport. He’s won 10 races and has executed his famous backflip as many times to the backdrop of thousands of popping flashbulbs. And thanks in part to Edwards, NASCAR audiences are still in the thousands.

The closest NASCAR will ever come to an entertaining backflip is its frequent flips on rule enforcement. What is more likely to bring out a caution—a multi-car crash on the last lap, or a piece of foam on the track on lap 30? Is a car being too low after a race in which the driver has won a “Car of Tomorrow” penalty? Is it legal to pass the pace car or isn’t it?

Kyle Busch, who through remarkable ability and unapologetic attitude, has made a big splash in 2008, winning four races in inimitable fashion. Busch’s occasionally Ali-style “it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it” persona has re-ignited some fan interest…for many of the same reasons Jeff Gordon’s success did. Kyle, by both winning and thriving on fan disdain for him, has also done his part to apply a tourniquet on the ratings bleed.

To listen to NASCAR and Brian France, though, the minuscule ratings increase from the sport’s mediocre 2007 performance has resulted entirely from their brilliant innovations. We frequently hear “the racing has been great”, as if the new car was responsible and not the best stock car drivers in the world and their teams and crews. And only Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s subpar performance last season could offset the excitement created by the Chase. France himself acknowledged that Junior’s not being in contention in 2007 may have contributed to sagging ratings…which, while asserting as such may direct attention away from their unwelcome meddling, would also seem to suggest that NASCAR needs Junior more than he needs them.

The next time you see a promo for the Nationwide series where NASCAR touts the skills of Joey Logano—who hadn’t even participated in a Nationwide race before being the focus of a commercial for a struggling racing series—ask yourself why they aren’t touting their own skills in handling sponsorship issues, which resulted in their accepting a third of the original asking price to sponsor the very series where the young phenom has just begun racing. One wonders if they would tell Logano to just shut up and drive if he brought that subject up to the press.

What had been the cause of NASCAR’s ratings plummet over the last few years, finally stabilizing this year, and a continued dive in attendance in a sport that was once recession-proof? Is it drivers complaining about the cars? Or is it advertising bonanzas masquerading as broadcasts, inconsistent rule enforcement, the unceremonious departure of key races from long-revered venues, or a new car design on which even the best teams cannot seem to get a consistent handle?

What has NASCAR done, exactly, to keep people watching that equals the contributions of Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, or Jeff Burton? Does an elitist crowd tune in now because they race near L.A.? Does the “they just go around in circles” contingent reserve spots in front of the TV for the last ten races? Would people who wear Miller Lite No. 2 T-shirts trade them in for Sprint T-shirts?

NASCAR’s sanctioning body is like every government. They have simple jobs with disproportionate compensation and prestige; yet they bristle at legitimate criticism, and they can never accept that those they govern would be better off if they were on a permanent vacation. As the Roosevelt quote at the beginning of this column suggests, this sport needs Brian France and Mike Helton about as much as it needs me. Maybe even less so; I had nothing to do with implementing the Chase.

Maybe NASCAR could spend some energy on reducing the unholy amount of commercial breaks and corporate logo-enhanced sideshows during green flag racing in their broadcasts, rather than on instructing drivers to be PC robots. There might be less concern about ratings then.

“Shut up and drive”? How about: “Shut up and count the till”. The drivers are hardly the only ones who should consider themselves fortunate to be millionaires.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I like road courses, but two such races a year is enough. It definitely challenges a driver’s skills, but if it’s so radically different that some teams put a different driver in the car, then keep it to a minimum. Kinda ironic that they are called “ringers” at the only tracks that aren’t shaped like a ring at all.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya scored his historic first Cup win here a year ago, but I’m betting that Hornish, Franchitti, or Carpentier aren’t going to duplicate that feat. Nothing against those guys, but they haven’t really even mastered turning left in stock cars.
  • I predicted Jeff Gordon’s first win of 2008 this week, which is probably as easy a pick as any. But he needs to run well Sunday, because he’s too low in the standings right now the way the team has generally been running.
  • Speaking of Gordons, this is a chance for Robby to recoup some of the losses that his team frequently takes on Sundays. I don’t know how the guy does it.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


©2000 - 2008 Kurt Smith and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

mad-dog 20/20
06/20/2008 06:46 AM

Confusious say “popularity don’t need sport ,sport need popularity! “

06/20/2008 09:10 AM

Faast foreward to 2010. Bruton Smith signs a contract with a major tv network to cover a series of 36 races at his tracks and other independent tracks. Running in direct competition with Nascar and with each race paying at least $500.000 for first place. Wonder how many drivers would make the switch,especially if you could drive what ya brought? Just some food for thought.

06/20/2008 09:16 AM

Thank you Kurt….Nascar needs to realize I dont spend money to watch nascar officials….I spend money to watch drivers,teams and good racing.Without those drivers and teams we have NOTHING!!!!!

06/20/2008 09:26 AM

Well said, well put Kurt. I wonder who at NA$CAR has the tedious job of reading all that is written each week about this “great” sport and then reporting back to the head shed about how the massed really feel. I bet it’s a scream sometimes. Or even better, do they even know we exist?

I can see it now….. Court Jester to BF “Your Majesty so-n-so wrote such-n-such about last weeks blunders” His Majesty “off with his head…no wait….they’ll know it was us…..give another bad week of racing…that will fix ‘em good….”

That’s it; maybe we should just “shut up and watch”

06/20/2008 11:04 AM

Mark, you can bet that someone reads and reports. That’s why writers like Matt Mclaughlin are not given press passes. NaXcar sees itself as omnipotent. Brian the Lesser rules with an iron fist and is doing his best to cut off the hand that feeds him. It’s a typical case of the spoiled brat children inheriting a thriving business, and using it as a plaything until it is driven into the ground. The empty seats each week are not all directly due to the economy.

06/20/2008 12:48 PM

the fact of the matter is they BOTH need us fans EVEN more than they need each other ,racers will always race (someplace)and na$car will always be able to find someone to be a part of the legendary series…BUT without US the FANS ,AINT NOBODY GETTING PAID !! So instead of bitching about all the negative attention brought to the series (and COT ) MAYBE it might be worth listening to some of those lifelong fans that basically funded the evolution of NA$CAR !

06/20/2008 01:03 PM

Preach on, Brother Smith! Preach on! :o]

06/20/2008 02:54 PM

You are exactly right Kurt. I wonder how many “sodas” King Brian would spill trying to drive the COT. The other members of the France family need to “park” HRH Brian for violating Section 12-4-A (actions detrimental to stock car racing) before it’s too late.

06/21/2008 08:04 AM


And when NA$CAR tells the drivers to “SHUT UP!

That just drives myself and lots of other fans further away from the fence!


That should be embarrasing to Brian & Company! But then again you have to be sober to be embarrased!

Welcome to Brian’s world!

06/21/2008 07:48 PM

When I was racing the payout used to be. 35% to the track, 35% to the Car owners. (Split 60-40, with the driver) & 30% to the promoter. I have no way of knowing what the split is with NA$CAR. But I paid particular attention when they signed the mega $$ TV deal a couple of years ago. It didn’t seem like the payout was increased that much. What NA$CAR needs to understand. Is that they aren’t the show. They just put on the show.

06/21/2008 07:55 PM

Wish this site had a “forward to” link. I would love to see everyone flood Nascar offices with emails of the article to Brian and Mike. “Reality Check, guys”

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