The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: Getting The Big Guys to Stop Picking On Little Guys by Kurt Smith -- Thursday April 28, 2011

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Greetings, Race Fans! Kurt Smith here filling in for the inimitable Matt McLaughlin this week. In case you’re wondering what happened to “Happy Hour” on Fridays, I’ve been forced into an early retirement from covering racing. Seems I did a little clapping at seeing Jimmie win another championship, and then I tweeted about it, and…well, I won’t go into the details.

You get the idea.

Actually what has happened is that I’ve struck out on my own, with a blog and Web site dedicated to making life better for baseball fans called “Ballpark E-Guides.” With the attention that requires, I just don’t have the time or energy to cover the sport full-time anymore, even at the salary of untold millions that the Frontstretch paid me. And hey, if you’re a baseball fan who enjoys going to ballgames, check out the link at the end of this article.

Anyway, since the ever-curmudgeonly Mr. McLaughlin generally devotes this space to the history of the sport and detailing where things have gone wrong in its current state, in that vein I thought I’d examine the Nationwide Series.

There’s been lots of grumbling about NASCAR’s Junior Circuit over Cup stars moving down a level to mercilessly beat up on lesser drivers (come to think of it, the beatings may have be the reason for the past term “Buschwhacker.”)

The last full-time Nationwide driver to win the championship was Martin Truex Jr. in 2005, when it was the Busch Series; and he was practically crowned before the season started that year because the rest of the competition was already weakening. Since then, non-Cup drivers win maybe three races a year, four or five if a road course ringer takes one in Montreal.

Lots of fans and media have suggested solutions for this problem, and NASCAR attempted to address it with its latest rule of drivers declaring a series to run for a championship, and running for points only in that series. (Hey, remember when Brian France said that NASCAR has had all the change it could stand for a while? I’m hard pressed to think of any aspect of the sport that’s been left alone since then.)

A change to the way points are awarded was supposed to keep Cup drivers out of the Nationwide Series. Tell that to Carl Edwards, or Kyle Busch…and so on.

So much for the exciting possibility, however remote, of Kyle Busch winning three series championships in one season. But more to the point, not only does this make the points standings look very awkward, with no race winners anywhere in the standings as Rich Allen pointed out, it has done nothing to address the issue, as has quickly become obvious.

A sponsor doesn’t give a whit that Kyle Busch isn’t running for the championship in the lesser series. If they’re forking over considerable greenbacks, they want to see some return on investment; like people seeing the car they paid for appearing on TV frequently, preferably in victory lane, or at least driven by a swimsuit model. If the owner wants to put the car on the track, he’s going to have to give the sponsor what they want, and if a Cup driver wants to help his owner out, he’ll race the car for him.

Anyone’s fault in particular? Not really. In the end everyone wants something in return, and you can’t necessarily blame people for that. You may not like seeing talents like Justin Allgaier not getting much of a shot, but not letting Carl Edwards score points doesn’t make a difference to a sponsor.

So what to do? Darrell Waltrip suggested a year ago in a tweet that NASCAR put some more short tracks on the schedule, putting results more in the hands of drivers and not engineers, and enabling drivers to have a chance at passing the stars without having to make up two miles of ground and grapple with “aero push”. He has a point. On the big tracks aero rules the day, and in the shop funding rules the aero.

But that isn’t the whole of it. Sponsors might be willing to spend cash on an unknown if they could count on a larger audience in the stands and watching on television. Like the Cup series, the Nationwide Series has seen a downturn in ratings, for many of the same reasons.

In reality I think that this situation is probably a by-product of reduced interest in the sport in general. Who watches minor league racing? It’s not the same as college football or college basketball, where there are more meaningful championships and for most of the participants it’s the biggest mark they’ll make. There isn’t local city or alma mater pride involved in auto racing, for the most part. Unlike college, minor league baseball or NASCAR is where the seeds of future stars are planted, but are still unknowns until they prove themselves. So the audience is likely to be real hardcore fans interested in what the sport’s future will look like.

I expect you know where this is headed. The hardcore fan base, as we all know since many of us were a part of it, has become far less devoted to seeing every race of the season and spending their dollars on ridiculous hotel rates. In the past they tolerated it, but the deliberate departure from many established traditions have turned them off. Fewer short tracks on the schedule is a part of that, but only a part. We all have a favorite whipping boy of NASCAR changes that have irked us, and it’s been apparent that a large part of the core is, at the very least, not planted in front of the TV every Sunday.

The new Hall of Fame has a similar problem. Attendance is low enough at the Hall that it has yet to turn a profit, to the point where they’re cutting the budget to meet a worst-case scenario. I won’t sit here and say I know what’s causing the low attendance. I’m sure the economy has something to do with it. But I’d be willing to bet that disenchantment of the core fan—the type of person who would shell out $19 to see shrines of past heroes—could be a factor too.

So yes, DW is right in that more short tracks need to be added to the schedule—but not just in the Nationwide Series. NASCAR needs to recapture or rebuild a fanatical fan base again. Rather than look for quick fixes with rule changes every season, or hope against hope that Danica or Junior performs, NASCAR might be better served by undoing the many and unpopular changes that got them here in the first place.

Asking racing fans to watch 70-plus races a season is an awful lot, and that’s not even counting Camping World Truck Series races. Asking a fan of any sport to watch that many events in a season is an awful lot. I don’t know many full season ticket holder baseball fans that aren’t downright fanatics. The NASCAR fanatic isn’t as common as he used to be, and he (or she) isn’t watching as much. And with less of an audience, a sponsor is going to take less risks. And so the big name gets the seat, and the unproven talent sits on the sidelines.

It took some years for NASCAR in general and for the Nationwide Series to get into this position. They’re not going to get out of it overnight.

What’s Kurt Smith been doing these days? He’s been fanatically dedicating himself to you the consumer…or more correctly, you the baseball fan consumer…with Ballpark E-Guides, your comprehensive and inexpensive guides to major league ballparks! Learn how to get tickets, where to sit, how to get there, what to eat and much more, and save a bunch doing it! If you’re headed to a game in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia soon, check out Ballpark E-Guides!

Contact Kurt Smith

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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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Russ
04/28/2011 11:21 AM
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Good luck with the blog. I agree that it took years to get this way, and it wont be turned around overnight.
Seems like a major part is a decline in interest in automobiles in general.
I work in the public sector, and come into contact with new recruits going into the service. One made an interesting observation recently. “None of the kids going to college are interested in Nascar, only the r—neck kids who aren’t”. Valid or not, I thought that was a hugely interesting point.

midasmicah
04/28/2011 11:26 AM
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Due to the domination of cup drivers in both junior series’, I don’t watch either anymore. If I want to watch cup drivers I’ll watch the cup series. And I’ve even lost a lot of interest in the cup series. Mr. brainlock france has done everything possible to tear down what it took decades to build up. I’m a long time fans and if I’ve lost interest then I’m sure a hell of a lot of hardcore fans have left for the above reasons. It’s pathetic and sad to watch the continued demise of “stock car” racing.

Scott
04/28/2011 03:23 PM
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The lack of sponsorship money for full-time NW drivers can be traced to two things:

1. Cup drivers in the NW series taking sponsorships from the full-time NW drivers. Sure, there might be some sponsors who would leave the series completely if a Cup driver was not driving in the NW series, but there are plenty of sponsors who would gladly sponsor a lesser-known driver. They would do this because they know that this driver would get more attention in the series and more wins because the Cup drivers were not taking over the series.

2. It is also traced back to NASCAR and Brian France stealing many of the sponsors of the series (both NW and Cup.) Many of the people who are “the official” whatever “of NASCAR” originally approached with the intent to sponsor a driver. Instead of putting them with a driver and helping them, NASCAR got them to sponsor the series. Then, Brian France speaks out about the lack of sponsorship when he is to blame for it.

AnnieMack
04/28/2011 04:10 PM
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I agree with Susan that arrogance is Nascar’s worst enemy and biggest flaw. Nascar grew at such a fast pace that the track owners couldn’t build grandstands fast enough. Now they sell advertising space to cover entire sections that haven’t sold. Had they not been so greedy on the upside, they wouldn’t be looking so pathetic on the downside.

I do have a problem with Kurt’s baseball season ticket holder analogy, though. I have season tickets to our minor league baseball team but they play “x” number of home games in the same home park, a certain number of times a year. I don’t have to buy expensive hotel rooms or eat meals at jacked up prices or buy several tanks of gas to get there. I also only pay a few dollars per ticket so if I can’t make the game, I’ll gladly give them to someone who can and never feel any pain in my pocket.

That analogy is comparing apples and oranges. Two Nascar tickets at Dover (my home track) costs $160 for two, $20 to park in the mud or dust, and I have to drag a cooler in with me because I can’t afford an $8.00 bottle of water once I get there. And forget about the food, you need a second mortgage for that.

I can go to a minor league baseball game and park for free, have dinner, buy souveneirs all for under $50 for the whole family.

Please name a track that where you can do that!

Steve
04/29/2011 12:34 PM
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Another big reason for the lack of interest:

Nascar is spending so much time trying to attract the casual fan that it has alienated the people it should be trying to keep. Its hardcore fanbase.

Now they are losing both. Diehards because they are fed up with what Nascar has become. The casual fan because something new and better comes along.

If nascar wants to begin righting the ship, they need to start paying attention to what their hardcore fans want. Ever since brainfart brian took the helm, they have been completely ignored.

Funky D
04/30/2011 07:19 PM
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I agree with a many of the previous respondants that all of this can be laid at the feet of Brain Fart France. Problem is he knows nothing about what made the sport the great thing that it was.

- His greed is what siphoned off sponsor $ and redirected it to the organization.

- Cutting Nationwide purses across the board just killed the chances of the little-guy Nationwide operations to keep up with the major Cup operations.

- Turning off hardcore fans by deleting Rockingham from the schedule, screwing up the Southern 500 tradition, the contrived Chase, the IROCesque template car, etc.

Sadly, I see no hope in turning things around until new blood is in leadership.

Contact Kurt Smith