The Frontstretch: A Sneak Peek At The Future: What NASCAR Could Look Like In 2011 by Kurt Smith -- Friday November 5, 2010

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It would be difficult to tout 2010 as a winning year for NASCAR. Television ratings continue their steady decline, and events that at one time never saw empty seats now have huge advertising panels covering them. The playoff races especially have been whitewashed by the NFL, ratings down well over 20 percent on most weekends even as the customary points reset has somehow miraculously produced a close championship battle.

The continuing decline seems to have the sport in a mild panic. One wonders if Brian France really believes what he says about, “the racing is great and will carry the day,” which has replaced “People are watching on the Internet” as his blanket ratings comment. More changes are being discussed to spice up the package, with the hope that these adjustment will bring a new buzz to a sport decidedly lacking it at the moment— despite that very little recent legislation has helped much.

It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine what 2011 will be like. The ratings and attendance slide will probably continue as it has in the last five years, although that depends on a number of things. The economy is probably a factor in folks not attending races, so whether things improve may make a difference in attendance.

But I’m still of the conviction that it’s not the economy so much. The television ratings have almost been proportionate to the slide in attendance, and watching on TV doesn’t require gas money.

Is lackluster performance on track by NASCAR’s most popular driver really to blame for declining attendance and ratings? Probably not. Reaction in the stands to Jr. leading at Martinsville proves his fans are still coming to the races.

A Dale Earnhardt, Jr. resurgence would likely lead to a small bump in the ratings, no doubt. NASCAR enjoyed one of its few recent upticks in interest in the first half of the 2008 season, when Junior was running reasonably well in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. But this change in course is not likely. Rick Hendrick has replaced just about everyone on the No. 88 team with the same results, and even a new crew chief shouldn’t be expected to make much difference. There is always the public statement that “getting the 88 running well is the top priority for this team” (they said the exact same thing about Casey Mears, too), but if everything they’ve thrown at it hasn’t worked yet, it’s probably not going to.

Of course, it’s a shame NASCAR should probably not count on a renewed No. 88 team gathering back a lost audience. Remember that Junior led 90 laps at Martinsville and brought many in the crowd to their feet; more than ever, there are Junior fans still going to races.

Richard Petty Motorsports, the last bastion of the Petty name in NASCAR, is in dire straits, to say the least. No one doubts that King Richard is a figurehead at the company, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t sentiment among fans for the organization bearing his name. If they’re struggling to finish out this year, they will need a lot of luck to get going in 2011, already having given up two cars.

Not only would the loss of RPM bring out a slew of articles bemoaning the long, agonizing disappearance of the Pettys from racing, it leaves the field with a tiny few blue ovals on the track. There is talk of an Earnhardt-Ganassi switch to Fords, but for the moment that is just talk – the team has publicly announced they will stay with Chevrolet. Brand loyalty in NASCAR isn’t what it once was, but if it didn’t matter at all, Ford probably would have pulled out by now.

Is any other team going to experience similar troubles? At the moment, most established teams appear solid even with the sponsorship difficulties for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. But if two sure Hall of Fame drivers with six titles between them have trouble landing sponsorship, it is not going to be easy out there.

If there are at least four fewer full-time teams fielding cars, it stands to reason that there will be more field fillers and start-and-parks. It might be a good time for NASCAR to blow up the top-35 rule, since it isn’t likely to be needed. Or a good move might be to reduce the size of the fields if the networks allow it… although NASCAR admitting to shrinking isn’t likely to happen either.

NASCAR will race Sprint Cup cars at Kentucky Speedway next year for the first time, which will probably be one of the highest attended races of the season. A race moving from California to Kentucky will have some short-term goodwill impact in 2011. It probably won’t last too long once people see that Kentucky is another 1.5-miler, but at least the demographic is there and the first event will probably sell out.

There will also be another race in Kansas next year, and the Chase will open at Chicagoland. Will Kansas fill seats for two dates like it does for one? Doubtful. Nor do I think Chicagoland will see a bump in interest due to it being the opening playoff race. It certainly didn’t help the ratings for Loudon this year. Will fans miss two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway? Probably not; in fact, Atlanta should see a boost in attendance having only its Labor Day event.

Declining ratings of 2010 will probably continue to do more damage to the quality of races and broadcasts. The current television contracts pose a big problem for NASCAR. The networks paid huge money for the rights to broadcast races, and as lower ratings lead to lower advertising rates, they will need to saturate their coverage with marketing to make them profitable. That, in turn, has been a reason for ratings dipping in the first place. Moreover, as fewer people watch and marketing budget dollars become scarcer, potential sponsors will need serious coaxing to put their logos on race cars. The timing couldn’t be worse.

The lack of sponsorship problem is already bad enough in the Nationwide Series. Justin Allgaier has been running with the Cup boys all season long and has lost his sponsor with no known prospects of a replacement. Steve Wallace has the benefit of his father’s backing, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but few other Nationwide-only participants are that assured of staying in the race. We’ll probably see more Cup drivers in a series with too many of them in 2011, when the Danica Show is not in town. In an era where the once hardcore fan is tuning out, two days of Kyle Busch racing Carl Edwards for 34 weeks with no future prospects for them to race against may be too much even for Kyle and Carl fans.

Then there is the matter of dropping ratings as the playoffs commence, unheard of in any other sport. ESPN/ABC has already moved Chase races to its cable network, one year after most of them were featured on ABC. The network insists that the switch has not been a factor in declining ratings, even though cable television is one thing people scale back in tough times. The question now is what ESPN is going to tell NASCAR with regards to the Chase. Will there be pressure to change it?

Pressure or not, Brian France is already talking about it, meaning a 15-driver, elimination format playoff with just two drivers standing at Homestead may be on the horizon. I can’t tell you how accurate most of the predictions in this article will be, but I can almost assure you that such a format will be met with derision and further egress of NASCAR fans.

My guess is that the Chase isn’t changing. If there’s anyone up high in NASCAR with some sway with France, he’ll let him know that the sport would be best served not reminding people how they perverted the championship. Unfortunately, it is going to stay, as NASCAR continues to entrench it and promote it no matter how much the dogs don’t like the dog food. If Kevin Harvick fans watch their driver lose a title to Jimmie Johnson, who once again got hot at the right time, chances are NASCAR may lose a few of them, too.

So we’ve got all that as a landslide of potential possibilities, not to mention the rumblings that may be heard surrounding the future schedule and the annual rumors of Martinsville possibly losing an event in 2012.

Between a hugely popular driver not making any splashes, a vicious cycle of declining ratings leading to decreased sponsorship, no future stars on the horizon, and the perception that the sport is worse off than it actually is, it’s doubtful that 2011 will be better for NASCAR than 2010.

But who knows. Maybe the sport really has bottomed out. Maybe Junior will make a comeback. Maybe the economy will improve. Maybe NASCAR has taken enough of a beating, although, like with the Democrats this last Tuesday, for some it won’t be enough.

Time will tell.

Contact Kurt Smith

Friday on the Frontstretch:
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Driven To The Past: Two More Old Friends Gone…
A Slap On The Wrist? NASCAR Chooses Inconsistency Over Fairness… Again
Tearing Apart The Trucks: Kligerman Set To Make Debut, More News ‘N’ Notes
Nuts For Nationwide: The Top 10 Moments Of The 2010 Season … Two Weeks Early

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The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
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Ghost of Curtis Turner
11/05/2010 08:15 AM
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Will somebody be left to turn off the lights?

If you want to see racing, go to your local short tracks and help out the little guys that still run for the trophies. You’ll see beat’n and bang’n, flaired tempers, emotional outbursts, and side by side finishes….

If you want to see “Racetainment” tune into “ESPN 8 de Ocho” if your cable subscriber carries it…….

MJR in Springfield Va
11/05/2010 08:17 AM
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There’s an old business caveat: “The man that takes a company form zero dollars to 100 millions dollars is not the same man that takes that 100 million dollar company to a billion dollar company.” And the inverse exists also: “The man that takes a billion dollar company down to a 100 million company is not the same man that can save it.” Perhaps NA$CAR will figure this out and put the right man in the position to save their company. Personally, I do not believe that Brian France is that savior. Hopefully, NA$CAR will figure that out before it’s too late.

Gordon82Wins
11/05/2010 08:21 AM
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Well said, although I think you’re being kind. It isn’t that the timing of their decline is bad…NASCAR caused it with poor broadcasts and an unpopular playoff.

I agree with MJR, Brian France should go. It’s not all his fault, but he is the face of the decline. And the Chase needs to go and Brian will never get rid of it.

Jacob
11/05/2010 09:13 AM
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Well said, Kurt. Here are a few more thoughts:

  1. With Congress divided following Tuesday’s election, don’t look for any major economic reformation in the next year. Political gridlock will likely result in the current trend of a languishing economy and stagnant unemployment numbers continuing.
  2. Kentucky might sell out, but don’t count on it. Seeing as to how Kentucky was a hot bed of racing talent in the 60s, 70’s, and 80’s you have to believe that there are a LOT of diehard fans there. na$car’s reluctance to give Kentucky a date at all might have soured some fan’s moods towards na$car itself. I predict that these two reasons will see a respectable sized crowd turn out, but anybody that wants to show up race morning will still be able to buy tickets.
  3. the chase will change before next season. brian france is not one to see something broken, and avoid trying to break it further.
  4. My final prediction is that 2011 will see a huge increase in nausea at the tracks as the AARP groupies come out to have Jeff Gordon autograph their breasts and panties.
Craig
11/05/2010 09:31 AM
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You reflected my thoughts entirely. I see some hope though. The deal that will keep 2 dates at Martinsville the next 5 years. The new nose on the COT and the coming changes in 2013. Remember in 2007, 08 the standard line was “No changes to the COT.” While not perfect the schedule changes were a positive step. Most fans hate Fontana (I hope it falls into a sink hole), and at least Kentucky is still in the South. Thankfully, I am hearing the elimination Chase is losing steam, but they may still go to 15 drivers. Apparently, there will be some restriction on Cup guys running for the Nationwide title.

Though, they need to do more and if ISC and SMI could get along they might accomplish real schedule change. Some suggestions: Invest in both N. Wilkesboro and/or Rockingham for Nationwide/Truck racing, especially with more stand alone non-Cup tracks closing (RIP Gateway). Also, find a way in 2012 to get Iowa a Cup race, we want more short tracks. I hope things have hit rock bottom, but they probably haven’t. NASCAR needs to reconnect with traditional race fans again before it’s too late. I’m from NY but I liked it more when NASCAR had that Southern feel. It doesn’t anymore.

pepper
11/05/2010 11:22 AM
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To the best of my knowledge, your statement, “Rick Hendrick has replaced just about everyone on the No. 88 team with the same results”, is untrue and you are spreading misinformation. If you have knowledge other than 1 change, please give names. Otherwise, please just state the facts. Fans just want the truth.

Ken
11/05/2010 12:55 PM
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Pepper—Ask Mark Martin what happened to some of the best people on his team. They have changed everything on the team except the problem. The unhappy problem will drive as long as he can stand it. He is clearly unhappy and it shows.

Kevin in SoCal
11/05/2010 01:07 PM
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Craig said: “Most fans hate Fontana (I hope it falls into a sink hole),”

Actually, that was Charlotte that had a sink hole. And how would you like it if I said I hope your state falls into a sink hole?

If NASCAR changes the Chase yet again to be 15 drivers and an elimination format, I’ll join the rest of you in hating it.

Steve
11/05/2010 01:22 PM
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With the Chase being so close this year, I’m sure Brian France will use the slogan “See, I told you so” throughout the offseason to tell fans how stupid they are not to think the Chase could ever be exciting.

What does it say that the points race is the closest its been and people still aren’t watching. The championship could be won by one point this year and people will still hate the Chase.

Craig
11/05/2010 02:01 PM
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Boy some people can’t take a joke. But almost all NASCAR fans hate Auto Club Speedway, and would prefer to see it completely off the schedule. The racing is consistently boring, the grandstand is almost always half-full and the Spring 2008 race is the biggest fiasco I’ve ever seen at a race track. This was the track that was supposedly worth moving the Southern 500/taking a date from Rockingham for. I know it’s your local track, but Pocono is the closest non-road course to me, and I wish they would take it off the schedule for the sake of good racing. I heard even SoCal fans will drive to Las Vegas to avoid Fontana. It wasn’t even designed for stock cars, Penske built it primarily for Indy Cars. NASCAR finally got the message and took a Fontana date for Kansas instead of taking it from Martinsville (the rumor for the last few years).

DRx1947
11/05/2010 02:25 PM
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I had to drop my cable so now only have regular TV so I listen only on 99.9 radio so unless you get NASCAR back on real people’s TV nobody is ever gonna watch except for two races a year.
Thanks and Heres watching you on the radio

Earner
11/05/2010 02:48 PM
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I Don’t believe the constant reporting of everything negative is helping either. I Sure it’s not bringing in the sponsor $ which creates the next negative report. I’m sure all of these reporters will find another sport to write about when it’s over.

Kevin in SoCal
11/05/2010 02:55 PM
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Funny how I dont hear these same “the racing sucks” comments about Michigan, when they’re almost the exact same track. That’s what gets me the most. Why does Michigan get a pass while Fontana doesnt? And yes, I’d rather go to Las Vegas for the environment than Fontana, who wouldnt? I’d rather go to Las Vegas for the environment over Martinsville or Richmond, too. That argument is not saying much.
Yes I agree that NASCAR was stupid for taking away Darlington and Rockingham, but remember that’s a NASCAR/ISC decision, not a Fontana decision. I dont remember Fontana asking for a second date.

MSW
11/05/2010 03:57 PM
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Seems like I always hear people complaining that the races at Michigan suck. There are several tracks that have boring races, Fontana is not alone in this. Kevin, do you seriously think that Fontana was not asking for a second date?

Jacob
11/05/2010 05:41 PM
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Craig, I have to disagree with you on one point.
Was it Indy ’08 or ’09 where the tires blew out every 10 laps? THAT was the biggest farce in racing. Running 152 laps of parade followed by an 8 lap race was the lowest moment in na$car by far.

Lou
11/06/2010 01:15 AM
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Like some have said on this thread , go to a local short track to watch racing or WORLD OF OUTLAWS race , I have been attending races since 1983 and I actually enjoy the camping world series the most , I go to Vegas and dover every year along with Richmond and the coke 600 , down from about 10 races a year , for several reasons not just economics , but the racing has really sucked , wasted caution laps for a piece of paper really burns my butt for one , nascar tried making the sport into somthing it never was , docking drivers for cussing , slapping guys on the wrist for aggresive driving HELLO , DOES ANYBODY remeber dale sr , Cale , the silver fox and even King Richard could rough guys up and then they say have at it boys , this ugly cot car , we are seeing the same garbage in the NFL , you can never make things perfect , another thing that ticked me off Nascar would change rules in mid season , Just Race the Damn cars and if they add drivers to the chase Im done , all you are doing is watering down the chase , it’s like the NHL 16 teams make the playoffs , reg season doesn’t mean a whole lot

jamiefan
11/07/2010 02:20 PM
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Jacob, I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t been back to the Brickyard since the tire disaster even though they fixed the problem. I just have a problem with giving them my hard earned money when they haven’t done anything to earn it from me. There were all kinds of articles and letters to the editor in the Indy paper right after that race saying that NA$CAR, Goodyear or IMS should have given at least partial refunds to the fans who had to sit through that. And of course, nothing came of that, since they already had our money. I’d rather go to ORP for the truck races (it’s better racing, anyway – and it costs about a quarter of what a Cup race ticket costs).

gopapa
11/08/2010 12:18 AM
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Great column Kurt.

Contact Kurt Smith