Professor Of Speed · Mark Howell · Thursday February 23, 2012
The afterglow of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has shined on what we’ve seen for 2012 thus far. Last November’s tie-breaking battle for the title gave way to this year’s exciting Budweiser Shootout, the introduction of the 2013 entry from the Ford Motor Company, the advent of electronic fuel injection, and Danica Patrick’s arrival to the Cup Series. It all adds up to a hopeful promise of what should be another successful year for NASCAR. Consider that television ratings for last weekend’s running of the Budweiser Shootout were up over those for last year’s broadcast; the appeal of NASCAR remains strong thanks to exciting competition and compelling storylines. At the moment, the sport of stock car racing – and the Sprint Cup Series, in particular – is riding on the coattails of 2011’s “once-in-a-lifetime” calendar of achievements.
Saturday, Kyle Busch emerged as the star-of-the-Shootout, his actions earning him the hipster-like moniker of “Wild Thing” based on his driving skill and Sprint Cup-caliber reflexes behind the wheel. Kyle’s gelled, nearly “faux-hawk” hairstyle was coupled with an all-too-expected, aggressive/evasive Shootout performance that involved not only avoiding mayhem in showers of sparks, but that also saw him capitalize on a two-car, tandem run to the finish where he snuck past Tony Stewart to take the win in a thrilling manner. So as the 2012 NASCAR season begins to unfold, it appears as though we’re in store for more of what we saw in 2011: close finishes, near-misses, and bent sheet metal that made last year one for the history books. If there was ever a time for NASCAR to grow, attracting a larger, more loyal audience, it’s now.
FOX seems to be wrestling with its idea of just who NASCAR fans really are. We all understand that the coveted 18-to-34-year old male demographic is the “holy grail” of sports marketing and media coverage, but how – exactly – you should approach this much-needed audience seems to be a point of confusion. As an example of such a conundrum, look no farther than FOX’s pre-race coverage of Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout.
FOX’s use of musical montages is a nod to classic motorsports television from the “golden era” of ESPN, but the extreme close-ups came off as more annoying than alluring. If I want to see a driver coming at me in a hurry, let it be from the perspective of an in-car camera under race conditions. Such is the inherent danger, however, of trying to track-and-trap an assumed audience – everybody knows how much 18-to-34-year-old guys like quirky music videos, especially ones featuring attractive women in form-fitting attire, even if it is in the form of a firesuit (an ever-present Danica motif, by the way). Look at Danica mugging in front of the camera. Look at Danica striding confidently in sunglasses along pit road (did I mention she’s wearing a form-fitting firesuit?) Look at Danica playing pool in a roadhouse/tavern/bar somewhere (in a black tee-shirt – no firesuit this time, that’d be unrealistic). If this is how FOX Sports sees NASCAR, Version 2012, then it appears that the sport is sliding ever-so-precariously toward the always-awkward “Days of Thunderization” condition. This approach might work nicely for the unindoctrinated, but for those of us who’ve spent our lives addressing/dealing with the often unkind stereotypes surrounding the sport, it’s a jarring sight.
The same is true for FOX’s use of the “pool hall/roadhouse” theme in regard to showcasing its announcing team. Seeing supposedly-candid footage of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, et al standing around a pool table, leaning on their cue sticks and shootin’ the breeze (I’ll bet they’re swapping racing stories!) comes across as off-the-mark regarding an implied audience. Sure, I have students every semester who fit the “18-to-34 male” demographic, ones who enjoy shooting pool with friends at local pubs, but therein lies the rub – these guys are actually 18 to 34 years old! Having the FOX broadcasters shooting pool/hanging out at the TV tavern (the same one Danica frequents, apparently) makes the footage more closely resemble a Dockers advertisement. The intent may have been to connect the FOX announcers with fans of a certain demographic, but the end result looks more like a “Fish Fry Friday” at the local Elks’ Club…
This approach to attracting NASCAR’s most-coveted audience relates back to the “Days of Thunderization” concept mentioned earlier. Missing the mark regarding today’s approach to stock car racing means falling back on the tried-and-tragic stereotypes of “old school” NASCAR. In the 1990 movie “Days of Thunder,” audiences got to watch as a then-Winston Cup stock car capable of winning races (if not for its pesky, egotistical driver from out west) was crafted by two men in a rundown tobacco barn (complete with holes in the siding for added realism). Never mind that the film’s two main characters – driver Cole Trickle and crew chief Harry Hogge – were “borrowed” directly from NASCAR’s history (the successful pairing of the late Tim Richmond with the legendary Harry Hyde). Looking deeper, the primary problem with this motion picture was its dependency on stereotypes that made the sport of stock car racing look exactly as the majority of Americans back in those days assumed. The “redneckery” depicted in “Days of Thunder” was a difficult pill for NASCAR Nation to swallow, but something tells me that, if Saturday night on FOX was any indication, we’re dangerously close to heading in a similar direction as a “marketing tool.”
That it’s happening under NASCAR’s watch is surprising; at times, the powers-that-be can be vigilant about fending off possible misconceptions regarding the sport. When PGA golfer Bubba Watson offered to make parade laps around Phoenix International Raceway next month in “General Lee” – the iconic car from the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard” and purchased earlier this year by Watson at auction – NASCAR politely refused his request. It was not because of the car itself, but rather because the car’s roof is emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a stereotypical symbol too-often tied to the sport of stock car racing by the population-at-large. Regardless of the fact that NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough made cameo appearances on the CBS program a couple of times, it was an overall fear that the Confederate flag might be misconstrued as being indicative of today’s NASCAR that prompted the sanctioning body to say thanks, but no thanks. It’s dangerous to mess with success.
Yes, race attendance increased slightly last year. Yes, television ratings increased as well during 2011. The excitement of last season attracted some new fans, while drawing back some old ones who had become disillusioned with NASCAR during the first decade of the 21st century (the period I refer to as “NASCAR A.D.” as in “After Dale”). So why, then, do we see FOX’s reliance on generalizations about the sport that have more to do with popular assumptions than with racing reality? Why the need to hearken back to days-gone-by when the NASCAR of 2012 looks pretty darn good on its own accord?
Maybe the fault lies with more than FOX Sports and its effort to bring NASCAR to a younger, more hip audience. Perhaps accusatory fingers can be pointed in the direction of the sanctioning body itself. Take last week’s “media day” at Daytona, for example. In addition to all the interviews, sound bites, press kits, and overall “buzz” regarding Speedweeks 2012, there were also photo shoots involving many of the drivers who will be competing in various NASCAR divisions this season. Now, there’s nothing wrong with drivers posing for publicity photographs; these have been regarded as a necessity in motorsports for 100 years. Where the new PR photographs took an uncomfortable turn was when a closer look was taken at the choice of background in use. Think back to the custom of proms and homecoming dances when couples would (and still do) pose in front in a standardized setting that matched the evening’s theme; no doubt there are hundreds of thousands of such photographs squirreled away in steamer trunks, scrapbooks, and dresser drawers, pictures of smiling couples in an “Island Paradise” or enjoying a “Night to Remember.”
So what was the backdrop for drivers preparing to market/promote NASCAR’s upcoming 2012 season? Drivers from all three national touring series were posed in front of a garage-like setting that propelled our sport into the 1950s, complete with a dirty box-type fan emblazoned with a NASCAR decal, assorted hand tools scattered about, and a Goodyear baseball cap hanging from the diamond-plate wall above a cluttered workbench before which the drivers stood. Most of the drivers looked stone-faced and/or serious, which is appropriate if you want to show that NASCAR is a dangerous business practiced by no-nonsense competitors. You had the whole “I built my race car in my brother-in-law’s garage” theme at work here; however, that sends an anachronistic message about today’s NASCAR.
Never mind that engineers with laptop computers are a primary part of modern-day Sprint Cup racing, especially with the introduction of electronic fuel injection that renders traditional carburetion to the pages of history. No matter that NASCAR race teams use technological advances gleaned from NASA. Instead, the implicit message within these pictures is that today’s NASCAR is yesterday’s version – only needing more money to finance bigger-name competitors with more specialized equipment. The image being projected by these promotional photographs ties stock car racing to its generalized roots… even if they’re no longer there. How odd it was, then, to see an up-and-coming driver like Travis Pastrana – who’s coming to NASCAR from the Gen-Y/”hipster” world of extreme sports – posed before a messy workbench that resembled something out of an old issue of “Popular Mechanics.” The backdrop used for these media day photo shoots at Daytona looked like something created if you gave Martha Stewart a twelve-pack of Miller Lite and a Home Depot gift card. I’m not saying the idea here was wrong; I’m just raising some questions about implications of identity and audience. How does NASCAR want to be treated by its obviously growing fan base? With what image do they more closely identify?
Maybe the issue lies within us: the longtime members of NASCAR Nation who want all of today’s technological advances alongside the cherished memories of an antiquated yesterday. Last weekend’s running of the Budweiser Shootout was a good example of this nostalgia in that people by-and-large enjoyed the race because it offered the pack racing that was missing in last year’s superspeedway events. Pack drafting is for the show, while tandem drafting is for the dough, as we observed at Daytona on Saturday night. The close competition, the aggressive runs to the front by various drivers, the exciting saves, and the horrifying accidents… all this competition was a throwback to the more romanticized notion of what NASCAR racing used to be. It wasn’t until the final lap, when Tony (“Smoke”) Stewart and Kyle (“Wild Thing”) Busch broke away from Marcos (“The Tasmanian Devil”) Ambrose and the rest of the field that the more-contemporary strategy of the tandem draft was used to set up a dramatic last lap scramble. The result was an at-the-checkered-flag pass by Busch to win the race and cap his already nearly-mythic evening. In the end, Saturday night’s Shootout provided the thrills of yesterday (complete with cool nicknames right out of NASCAR’s early days) with the competitive demands of today’s sport (complete, ironically enough, with new rules designed to reduce tandem drafting).
It is dangerous, however, to resolve ourselves to the idea that the NASCAR of now is trying to be more like the NASCAR of then. Recent developments by the sport, and its partners in both industry and the media, seem to focus more squarely on the audience so badly needed to insure stock car racing’s future. Streaming NASCAR events online, for example, is an obvious attempt to attract the web-savvy, techno-audience of the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic. The successful streaming of last year’s Chase races live over the internet proved that such a gamble had distinct advantages. With networks like MRN now streaming all of their race broadcasts live over the web, perhaps we’re seeing a paradigm shift that acknowledges the relevance of this new audience. Certainly, if NASCAR hopes to keep growing their “Gen Y” fan base, such distribution of events will be a necessity. Once this need becomes readily accepted by all parties involved within the sport (the sanctioning body, the media, and corporate sponsors, too) we’ll see NASCAR’s audience evolve and grow in a much more natural – and much less stereotyped – manner.
And, as Martha Stewart says, “…that’s a good thing.”
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