The Frontstretch: NASCAR Limps Home, Its Future Uncertain by Kurt Smith -- Thursday May 20, 2010

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NASCAR Limps Home, Its Future Uncertain

Kurt Smith · Thursday May 20, 2010

 

Jeff Gordon said in his memoir that in 2003 NASCAR was drastically different than it was when he came up in 1993, and that in 2013 it would look nothing like it did in 2003. Even three years out from his prediction it’s safe to say he was right, but it’s doubtful that this is what he meant.

As NASCAR comes home to Charlotte nearly halfway through 2010, it’s difficult to remember so many empty seats at NASCAR events. Bristol Motor Speedway’s 28-year sellout streak has ended—and not by a small margin. Tracks everywhere else are offering astoundingly cheap tickets in an effort to put butts in seats. Entire sections have been covered by ads at many tracks, even at Dover, one of the sport’s most exciting venues—and a place surely close enough to major markets and gainfully employed people with disposable income. Whatever the economy’s role, it’s rare that a recession alone has this much of an impact.

The sport’s standing in people’s homes is even worse. The television audience has been steadily shrinking for nearly half a decade now. Efforts to create more exciting finishes and a new attitude of virtually zero punishment for putting another driver on his roof have done little to spark ratings. More and more, broadcast teams in the booth seem eager to sell the on-track product with phrases like “shootout-style,” in the apparent belief that the racing needs talking up. Rumblings from insiders strongly suggest that networks are not happy with the cost of broadcasting the sport, as it becomes less and less profitable.

Since the last time Gordon took home a championship trophy, a superstar driver has won four straight titles, a feat heretofore unmatched and extremely rare in any sport. Yet rather than heralding him as one of the greatest drivers of his or any generation, fans yawn at the uncontroversial, well-behaved champion. He simply doesn’t generate anti-fans like his teammate and mentor once did. Nor has he attracted a whole new crop of fans to root for a proven and devastatingly efficient winner.

Meanwhile, the most beloved competitor on the track continues to struggle mightily, out of excuses and sometimes, it seems, out of desire. Instead of stories documenting an occasional win for the son of a legend or his standing in a championship battle, the news about the sport’s favorite son rehashes an endless parade of questions, accusations, and theories regarding two and a half years of performances that have been unremarkable at best and unworthy of a Cup driver at worst. And so a chunk of fans grow weary and tune out, as with any underperforming team in any sport. It’s not wrong or right, it’s just what is.

Well-funded companies like DeWalt, Jack Daniel’s, Kellogg’s, Old Spice, and perhaps soon even DuPont no longer see the benefit of paying millions to put their logos on a racecar. New teams fighting to get footing in the sport and existing teams fighting to stay alive start races each week only to run a few laps before bringing the car into the garage, unable to afford new tires.

Articles relating to the state of the sport are heavily commented on by disgruntled fans, who often list a litany of reasons why they no longer watch, even as they care enough to still read about and comment on it. It’s as if a part of them still wants the hard-nosed racing they loved to return, and is willing to forgive all if it does.

A sanctioning body that once laid down the law with an iron fist, disallowed criticism from press who wanted to keep their credentials, muzzled their drivers and dismissed objections from fans are now seeking out the same folks to whom they once dictated the terms without regard or reservation. Drivers are summoned for town hall meetings. Writers with little more on their resumes than an Internet connection are welcomed into a Citizens’ Journalist Corps. A Fan Council is formed to offer suggestions. After refusing to hear what anyone wanted for decades, now NASCAR doesn’t even seem to know.

As if all that weren’t enough to contend with, the two most exciting events of 2010 were pushed to Mondays, and much smaller audiences, by Mother Nature.

Just a few years removed from seriously challenging the NFL as the nation’s pastime, a perfect storm of unpopular leadership decisions, lesser performances from popular drivers and a national recession have combined to put a sport on the ropes, desperately trying to stop its free fall.

Since Brian France took the reins, NASCAR has slipped into a decline, and Kurt Smith says without some serious thought, it’s likely to get worse.

How did we get here? How did NASCAR go from being the fastest growing sport to arguably the fastest shrinking sport in the nation?

NASCAR, in a way, became too big for itself. It’s difficult to imagine how a sport could become decidedly less popular by going mainstream, but NASCAR is a case study in just that. Television contracts totaling billions of dollars resulted in race broadcasts far too frequently disrupted for obscene profit breaks, in the one sport where commercial timeouts are not feasible. A top series title sponsor shelling out hundreds of millions was rewarded with a playoff that has been decidedly not well received. The sport has moved out of the Southeast, where it was regarded with slightly more devotion than God, and into markets where it has encountered an audience that has proven to be much more fickle.

Rather than continuing to let fans come to them, which had been working very well, NASCAR disrupted a core fan base in search of a casual one. Both have been slowly disappearing. Granted, some recent changes were necessary, like safety measures in the new car, and some were understandable without the benefit of hindsight, like accepting billions in broadcasting and title sponsorship revenue without thinking of the implications. But the weight of that combined with some radical and unnecessary alterations to the competition collapsed on a foundation already weakened by disgust over disregard for the most devoted of fans.

It’s hard to say what NASCAR’s future will look like, but at the moment it isn’t bright. With a playoff that strongly encourages points racing still firmly in place and the prospect of even less variety in the schedule on the horizon, it’s hard to expect that the racing will become more exciting, no matter how many green-white-wreckers attempts there are in a race.

One shudders at what will become of the sport when Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs up his gloves. As well below expectations as Junior has run, the loudest cheers in the stands by far still ring out when the 88 car takes the lead. The last link to the sport’s tobacco-chewing roots isn’t going to be around forever. Joey Logano’s a great kid, but he isn’t going to replace a fan base that large.

Certainly, networks will still take on the task of broadcasting NASCAR, but the sport isn’t going to be able to command the price it once did. Will they be smart enough to arrange contracts that make for better broadcasts, even if it means taking less money? It’s doubtful that the sport can swallow such a bitter pill. They weren’t willing to accept less money for title sponsorship of the Nationwide Series until they had to. But it may be necessary. The last thing NASCAR needs now is to alienate remaining fans.

Reversing the damage done is going to be difficult and costly. It’s going to take more than double-file restarts to bring back fans. NASCAR needs to be willing to accept some short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s also going to take the discipline of knowing when to leave something alone.

It’s not an easy thing. But nor is watching the current state of the sport.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I’m still laughing at the events in the Dover Nationwide race. Did anyone catch Clint Bowyer making a masturbatory gesture on his way to the hauler after his turning into Denny Hamlin during the caution? And here I was watching it with my in-laws in the room; fortunately none of them were interested. Who says there’s no old-school racers left?
  • It’s a bummer for Brian Vickers to be out for three months, but blood thinners aren’t something you want to take a chance with. I’m sure anyone close to him would prefer he do what is necessary to get himself well.
  • This Sunday the kind folks at the Carey and Coffey Show on ESPN radio have invited on yours truly to talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr. of all things. Can’t imagine why they chose me; I don’t know anything about him. But you can listen in Sunday morning here. I’ll take questions via e-mail afterward.

Contact Kurt Smith

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Bad Wolf
05/20/2010 11:45 PM
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It all boils down to the stupid money Fox paid for the broadcast rights, and the installation of the Child King Brian Z. France.

Adam
05/21/2010 12:27 AM
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Greed has ruined NASCAR and it’s a bell that cannot be “un-rung”. We’ve gone so far down this crappy road that we won’t ever get our good racing back. NASCAR/ISC/Casa de France has too much greed and pride, along with too little class and integrity, to ever overhaul the system and make it right.

Mrs Goodman
05/21/2010 01:57 AM
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Well said! The NASCAR Party is so over. Pretty soon, the stands may be completely empty…..
One has to wonder how long the “Powers That Be” and the “Doting Media” will continue to delude themselves. Racing has become a tragic anachronism.

jim
05/21/2010 05:00 AM
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Yea money ruins everything, drivers have agents, Nascar on the up swing in the 90’s over marketed the sport, hell they even had Hip Hop commericals, the chase, the 35 point rule, Nascar cared about the new fans and forgot about the core based fan, so ticket prices went up, not as fan friendly as it was when there where show cars coming to town and drivers meet with fans, and the announcers to talk to fans as if we are stupid and they act ridiculious, Nascar was a mature sport and they dumbed it down, trying to be like stick and ball sports, anything for a buck!

Gordon82Wins
05/21/2010 06:45 AM
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Jeff Gordon should have been champion in 2007. But at least the finish to the season was exciting…not.

noel_w
05/21/2010 07:35 AM
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Well said Kurt. Your article mirrors what I said earlier in the week (almost).
What are the odds that the France family will realize that their greed is killing the sport? I don’t think they are very good.
Even if NASCAR decided that they would keep the COT, but immediately adopt all rules and policies from 1990 (just a random year) most hardcore fans would just see it as another gimmick and continue to tune out.
As the baseball strikes of the ’80s taught us, solving the argument doesn’t bring the fans back. It is only through a period of slow growth that new fans come to the sport, and some of those that were alienated will, eventually, forgive the transgressions and return.

Tom
05/21/2010 08:08 AM
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The good ole boys were the ones that put NASCAR on the map in the past years ticket sales have gone in way to favor corporate buying tickets in hte blocks of grandstands well that forced the good old boys to stay home. Now corporate America can’t buy the blocks of ticket and the good old boy have said Hell no I ain’t comming back. Even on TV you cannot watch over 20 laps unless you have 10 laps of commericals, So everyone gets ticked off and changes the channel, when they change the cahnnel they soon loose interest in the sport, and the cars are not like anything we drive on the street, More like late model at your local tracks, with out decals all would look the same, So wake up NASCAR before ice skating takes over your glory in the sport

DansMom
05/21/2010 08:28 AM
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Wow Noel. We agree.

Slow growth and attract NEW FANS – you must work for NASCAR PR.

I’ve been saying on this website for MONTHS that NASCAR needs to attract new fans and forget about catering to the “old school” fans. They aren’t coming back, they’re stuck in the past, they’re too old and too stubborn to spend their money/fixed incomes on this sport.

NASCAR has been a punching bag for fans who seem to love to hate this sport. Well guess what, NOEL paraphrased NASCAR best:

“Thanks for your money, you keep the memories, we’re going to move on to bigger and better things without you”

Bill B
05/21/2010 08:35 AM
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This downward spiral all started with the change to the Chase format. Subsequent changes just increase the exodus of long time fans. The lesson here is don’t F with something that isn’t broken.

Bill B
05/21/2010 08:44 AM
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Dan’s mom,
I think you are missing part of the point. The only reason NASCAR needs to attract new fans now is because they did such a wonderful job of alienating the old ones.

NASCAR was not broken before BF took over. In fact it was thriving. What is your take on making changes that aren’t necessary? Please explain to me what exactly happened in 2003 that necessitated drastic changes? Are you saying this sport was going to fall apart without them? Did you ever notice how the NFL and other sports make changes slowly and rarely do they make changes that turn the basis of the sport upside down (which is what the chase did).

Sometimes it seems you view this sport from 3 inches away. Back up a little bit, you might get a bigger perspective.

turn2racing
05/21/2010 11:11 AM
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NA$CAR got GREEDY for $$$. They choose who can sponsor your car/team. I know of a situation a few years back a start up team got a Sponsor, went to NA$CAR for approval. NA$CAR said NO, due to a conflict of interest, then turned around and ask the company if they would like to be an “Official NA$CAR sponsor” being on the inside I know that the comp[any said, Sorry NO our money was for the team if they can’t have it we will spend it elsewhere. Which they did. The team had to close. It has become all about how much MONEY NA$CAR can put in their own pockets. I am sure this is not the only time something like this has happened.

Kevin from PA
05/21/2010 11:42 AM
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I hope everyone realizes how rare it is for a sport to be popular for the masses for an extended period of time – even baseball and football have had their down years. Tradition has helped baseball remain popular; fantasy football has helped football.

NASCAR will not be the first sport to explode in popularity only to shrivel down in size. Horse racing was huge in the 1920’s – where it is now? Boxing – big in 60’s and 80’s – now? Even the US Open Wheel – when was the last time you remember people wanting to know the results of Bump Day. Even Wrestling (sport or entertainment) has seen its glory wane.

All of these are still around and so will NASCAR.

It was interesting to see NASCAR explode in the late 90’s; it might be even more interesting to see how everyone (NASCAR, Fox, ABC, sponsors,and owners) reacct to the decline.

Don Bishop
05/21/2010 12:28 PM
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PUT STOCK BACK INTO NASCAR! AS IN (STOCK CARS)GET RID OF LOOK ALIKE (COT) CARS. BETTER FAN CHOICE!

HankZ
05/21/2010 12:50 PM
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Its simple – Brian France (and all of his stupid ideas) has to go, thats all there is to it. Once he’s gone, it’ll take another decade before Nascar is cool again.

Even Harley got rid of AMF once they found it wasn’t working anymore. And now look…

Don Mei
05/21/2010 02:22 PM
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Hm..you know I really do love his/her/its logic. The sport is spiraling away down the toilet and we hear bleatings about how great things are now and who the hell needs those old fans anyway. Look at all the new ones we have going to the races!!! Um..dont we?

DoninAjax
05/21/2010 02:22 PM
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Brian France should watch a different movie.

Greed is NOT good.

midasmicah
05/21/2010 02:25 PM
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It’s bad enough that nas$car has lost a lot of it’s hardcore older fans, but that’s compounded by the way that they went out on a limb to attract the newer “bandwagon” fans. The result is a huge loss of the former and disinterest of the later. Also the sheer amount of commercials and the crappy commentating hasn’t helped. I’ve loved this sport for a long long time and it hurts to see it in it’s present shape. Let’s hope they powers that be wake up before it’s too late.

DoninAjax
05/21/2010 02:34 PM
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ESPN Classic is showing the 1988 Checker 500 tonight at 7. Maybe some of the new fans can watch it and get an idea of what it is like back then, if they can get it.

turn2racing
05/21/2010 02:37 PM
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I turned on my TV to see commercials and they kept interrupting every 5 minutes with a follow the leader parade at a race track!

DansMom
05/21/2010 02:39 PM
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WOW can’t wait to watch the 1988 Checker 500!!! 5 cars finish on the lead lap!
Ricky Rudd getting pass for the lead because a radiator hose came loose.

MAN! Those were the days.

Oh, and the TV cameras will STILL only show the leaders.

Fred S.
05/21/2010 03:47 PM
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Fans cannot blame Bryan France for being greedy without looking at his dad. He demanded so much money that companies like Union 76, Bush beer and others dropped out because they could not afford it any longer. Bryan is just following dad’s example. If major changes are not made in NASCAR soon it will continue to decline and who knows what next.
By the way when Bill Jr. died he was a billionaire. And whose money made him that rich?

no Spin
05/21/2010 06:15 PM
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when football starts it is going to be bad

noel_w
05/21/2010 06:16 PM
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@ DansMom You are sooooo sweet! I guess you missed me pointing out how foolish every single statement you make is. But I have to tell you, don’t get your hopes up. I am a happily married man. Besides, it would never work out for us anyway. I need a woman that doesn’t require a helmet and seatbelt to ride the toilet. And of course that coach following you around reminding you to’ “breathe in…breathe out” is a complete turn-off.

Richard in N.C.
05/21/2010 06:28 PM
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As a long time, and still, NASCAR fan I am glad that NASCAR’s management is far superior to that of the newspaper industry.

wingcars6970
05/21/2010 07:16 PM
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WOW can’t wait to watch the 1988 Checker 500!!! 5 cars finish on the lead lap!
Ricky Rudd getting pass for the lead because a radiator hose came loose.
MAN! Those were the days.
Oh, and the TV cameras will STILL only show the leaders.”

Are you watching the same race? Challenges among the top 5, wide angle shots and excellent commentary to name a few pluses from what I see. I am I guess one of the “old school” fans. I watched Nascar (and any auto racing) back when we only got snippets of races on Wide World of Sports. I am 51 years old and have a bunch of of disposable income…The kind of fan that spends money on races etc. Why would Nascar want my money? Hmmmm

Jonathan from Chicago
05/21/2010 07:49 PM
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a have you been watching the ratings??? Nascar Nbeat the NBA Playoffs big time and that was with the Lakers! Nascar is doing just fine its people like you who want to see this sport die and its not and your not happy so your going to try to stir up something to make it seem so. Yeah attendance but not by much, there still getting 80 90 100,000 people a week and thats saying something in these times! Heck some teams here in Chicago cant even give tickets away and you see maybe 10,000 people in the United Center that holds 60,000. SO Im happy to know and say Nascar is doing just fine and will countinue! Just wait for Danica then you will those stands jammed to the gill! Nascar all the way

Happy Nascar Day everyone

Bad Wolf
05/21/2010 09:47 PM
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Dans Mom, I hear the Poopsicle truck comin on down the lane. Better get your money out and get you some geniune bonifide modern day Nascar Poopcicles before they are gone. Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm. Brian says they taste so good, and DW agrees.

Bad Wolf
05/21/2010 09:51 PM
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John from Chicago;

I was around for the implosion of open wheel, and Nascar is in the same death spiral. Just keep clicking the heels of your ruby slippers and tell yourself everything is just fine.

thomas dalfonzo
05/21/2010 10:04 PM
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I would honestly like to know why no effort is being made to get rid of him, right now or several years ago. Brian France will be the reason that NASCAR dies in the near future. I can’t believe that people are sitting around and letting his destroy the sport like this.

DansMom
05/22/2010 12:16 AM
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@wingedcars…. how many cars finished on the lead lap?

Give-me-a “5” Up high?… down low… TOO SLOW!

noel_w
05/22/2010 11:36 AM
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@ John from Chicago: You, Randy, and DansMom all seem to want to hang NASCAR’s future on Danica. None of you seem to realize that she is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. She doesn’t have the time, talent, or aggression to come up to speed in a stock car. It took her five years to get comfortable in an IndyCar. Those have less power, are lighter weight, have sticky tires, and huge amounts of downforce. She still couldn’t keep the car pointed in the right direction.
The only people that will tune in to watch her in NASCAR are the people that are betting on what lap she will wreck, this week!!!
After three Nationwide events this season, she seemed to lose her ability to run an IndyCar at speed. The only reason she still has a ride is her willingness to drop her clothes to keep immature teenagers and men interested in women that look like pre-pubescent 12 year olds frothing at the mouth. I’ve got 2×4’s with more curves than Danica Patrick.

Mongo
05/23/2010 04:28 PM
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DansMom is Brian France folks.

don
05/23/2010 08:41 PM
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Plain & simple folks..Before Brian & his chase, NASCAR tickets at Bristol..VERY EXPENSIVE…Now..1/2 price & less, some scalpers were selling for 30 cents on the dollar of face value this year & they still couldn’t sell most of them,Jimmy Johnson is probably a great driver but will never know because his whole career has been with the fake championship rules…& yes Dansmom is brian france, just read his comments every week…You can tell hes never acually watched a whole race since he changed it to staged racing …

dewayne
05/23/2010 10:18 PM
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An example of why stands are empty: Used to go to Michigan, before they sold to ISC. Camp $75 before, immediately up to $100, $125 within a couple years. Ice from 3 for $5 to 3 for$11. Campgrounds was also purchased, all sites redone (smaller of course) Ticket prices went up also. Used to have 38 tickets, and 10 camp sites. Now only a couple people still go. It is the little tyhings that keep adding up!

Ron
05/27/2010 07:55 AM
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How ‘bout this …… the very things that go around those tracks …… cars. Nobody really cares about those anymore. Being a licensed driver for well over 40 years I remember a time when people were very passionate about the cars. Then of course what followed …… who was driving their favorite car. There used to be a saying ‘what raced on Sunday, sold on Monday’. Now ? LOL

Contact Kurt Smith