The Frontstretch: Once Upon A Time In NASCAR by Mark Howell -- Thursday October 25, 2012

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Once Upon A Time In NASCAR

Professor Of Speed · Mark Howell · Thursday October 25, 2012

 

Change is all around. Summer has given way to autumn, which will shortly give way to yet another winter. As November approaches, so, too, does a presidential election driven by the campaign rhetoric of change and better days ahead. Many of us embrace changes because they shake us out of the doldrums of what has become our everyday life. Others worry about the uncertainties that come with a change in routine, a change in the status quo.

NASCAR Nation is rolling through similar changes. Over recent weeks, we’ve been told about revisions to next year’s guidelines for testing and qualifying, and even more recently we were notified that the Top-35 rule had been dropped to make way for a new-and-improved approach to setting the starting grid. Other recent changes involved new rules for the Nationwide Series, as well, where only 40 cars will be allowed to compete in races, down from the current number of 43.

Next season will look decidedly different in NASCAR. New models will take to the track, as will new driver/team combinations. How long will it take until the new Matt Kenseth/Joe Gibbs pairing becomes an afterthought? How about the teaming of Joey Logano/Roger Penske? Such is the nature of the late season – that pivotal time of year when deals are finalized and announced, and when the end of one era signals the advent of another. Media deals, crew chief assignments, rides, and sponsorships all seem to be up for grabs come late October. Change is both inevitable and expected, especially within the uncertain world of motorsports.

We’ve been hearing an awful lot about change lately, and not just from NASCAR Nation. As the aforementioned presidential election winds down (Whew!) to its conclusion on November 6th, the media has been running stories and editorials and features and op-ed pieces about changes (for the good and the not-so-good) in the economy. Car and home sales are up, as are national employment figures, even though the number of hires isn’t rising as quickly as many would like. Requests for building permits are on the increase, as are new home starts and development projects. All of this suggests better times lie ahead for the construction industry.

Despite these changing numbers, there’s still the specter of tax increases hanging over people’s heads. Proposed and impending changes to healthcare, education, foreign policy, and energy production loom on the horizon (as they always do) and still we forge ahead and go about our daily lives. We’ve learned to understand the promise of change, yet part of us is always a bit unsettled about what change might actually bring.

One thing that a career (so far) in cultural studies has taught me is that slow change is usually the most lasting change. Consider the evolution of social movements in the United States of America. Regardless of whether we’re discussing civil rights or women’s rights, both of these socio-economic movements evolved over many years. Quick change typically results in little more than a fad or a trend, and these are short-lived at best. For change to function at its peak level of influence and productivity, it has to take place over a lengthy expanse of time. People need to grow accustomed to changes in order for them to gain widespread acceptance.

So is there enough evidence for us to accept that our nation’s financial picture is improving? We’ve often attributed the slump in NASCAR race attendance and sponsorship deals to the sluggish economy, but now that it looks as though positive changes are occurring (and this is NOT in reference to the impending election), is it safe to assume that NASCAR will rise from the ashes of the Great Recession and re-assert itself as a sports marketing powerhouse capable of drawing large crowds and even larger profits? Are the changes we’re beginning to see driven by changes that have been coming for the past four (or more) years?

Recent events surrounding NASCAR Nation reflect newfound attention to change. Some of the changes have been seemingly minor, as with the resurfacing of tracks like Pocono and Michigan. Such physical changes are long-term since new asphalt brings with it added permanence (consider the length of time that passes between resurfacings).

Kansas Speedway underwent a similar change in surface this season which, when coupled with a hard new tire (as we saw in last weekend’s Cup event), resulted in all kinds of trouble. With nearly one-quarter of the Hollywood Casino 400 being run under caution (24.7% of the event, to be exact), we get the idea that sometimes too much change is perhaps just that: too much. As we’re reminded by Aesop in his fable of The Boy and the Figs, it’s not always wise to attempt too much at once.

Aesop is one of the most famous storytellers in history, although his existence has been questioned for centuries. Like William Shakespeare, some have doubted that one person could have single-handedly created so many memorable and meaningful tales. Academics believe that a slave of either Greek or African origin with a name similar to Aesop’s lived between 620 and 564 BCE, and some histories of that era state that this person was an orator and assistant to the king of Lydia. The legend goes that Aesop was sent on a diplomatic mission to deliver gold to the Greek city of Delphi. According to folklore, upon his arrival, Aesop observed that the people of Delphi were clearly greedy and spoiled, so he refused on principle to hand over the gold. In retaliation, Aesop supposedly was arrested, charged as a criminal, and put to death.

Despite the fact and/or fiction surrounding Aesop, one thing is for certain: the fables credited to his name have entertained and educated audiences since the days of ancient civilization.

So what does a historical figure like Aesop have to do with changes in NASCAR? Certainly his influential tales and the lessons they teach extend beyond the nature of stock car racing. Aesop’s analogies addressed larger topics that were relevant to a broader context. That’s what these fables (at least the ones attributed to his name) were all about, and the lessons these parables taught have become eternal truths – even in regard to the modern-day sport/business/culture of NASCAR.

We all know the story of The Tortoise and the Hare which teaches perhaps the most eternal of all lessons: “slow and steady wins the race”. This may not sound like it pertains to NASCAR, but it does when applied to the inner workings of a team.

We often hear about “chemistry” and how the most successful teams enjoy this seemingly-seamless relationship where communication, cooperation, and comradeship merge to create an organization that thinks and moves as one. Such closeness doesn’t occur overnight; it takes multiple seasons with a consistent roster of participants for an organization to achieve such a level of efficiency. It’s a slow process of growth and adaptation, but the results are worth every bit of the wait. Study the rosters of NASCAR’s most successful organizations and you’ll see how slow-and-steady development has lead those teams to multiple victories and championships.

One driver who seems poised to win his first-ever Sprint Cup title is Clint Bowyer, who was at the center of perhaps the most interesting storyline to come out of Kansas last weekend. The media reminded us that Bowyer was – at this time one year ago – celebrating his new deal with Michael Waltrip Racing. The proverbial prodigal son from nearby Emporia had returned to announce that he would drive MWR’s No. 15 Five-Hour Energy Toyota in 2012, an announcement that had been months in the making.

Bowyer’s situation in 2011 is now ancient history: his dismissal from Richard Childress Racing due to a lack of necessary sponsorship leading to an uncertain future in an ever-struggling economy. Good rides were nearly impossible to find, even for a driver with Bowyer’s talent. Signing with MWR meant taking a huge chance on a new team with no sponsorship. Waltrip envisioned a bright future for Bowyer – a vision that grew a little brighter once Bowyer was able to bring some corporate funding to the table. The deal was made, a contract was signed, and all fingers were crossed as the 2012 season approached.

If the plight of Clint Bowyer over 2011 and 2012 was a fable, it might match the plot of Aesop’s The Bat and the Weasels, the story of a bat who outwits hungry weasels on separate occasions by convincing them that he is not what he appears to be (he tells one weasel that he’s a mouse, and tells the other that he’s a bird – the bat escapes with his life both times). The moral of this fable is “turn events to your best advantage”, and that’s what Bowyer did amidst a struggling economy.

Bowyer’s story could also fall under the lesson taught by Aesop’s fable of The Frogs Who Wished for a King, the tale of a pond full of frogs who wanted a ruler, but who didn’t really need one. Their ill-reasoned demands resulted in a king who made their lives terrible, prompting the moral of “before you ask for a change, make sure the change will make your life better”.

With four races to go, and Bowyer sitting fourth in points (25 out of the lead) with a career-high three wins for the year (so far), it appears as though the changes he made during 2011 have resulted in a better life during 2012. No one should feel so desperate that they can afford to make hasty decisions.

If being steady results in success, maybe this year’s Sprint Cup championship is not entirely out of Clint Bowyer’s reach.

NASCAR, in its own right, has been making decisions and undergoing changes in light of recent events. Many of these changes are intended to improve competition by giving the fans what they’ve wanted for some time (like a return to more liberal testing, the return of Friday qualifying, and dropping the much-maligned Top-35 rule, for example). Others have been precipitated by developments that challenge the sport’s position within “mainstream” popular culture (like the adoption of more rigorous criteria for diagnosing and treating concussions and encouraging social media to bring stock car racing to a younger and more technology-focused audience).

Such changes have been, I’m guessing, rather difficult for NASCAR executives to swallow. The sanctioning body has never comfortable with allowing folks outside the business/family to call the shots and influence decisions, yet it appears that this is the path that Brian France is taking.

Maybe Brian should put a collection of Aesop’s fables in the executive break room at NASCAR headquarters in Florida. Everyone could then read the parable about The Mice and the Weasels – a story about field mice who named themselves to be army generals and decided to show their importance by wearing tall feathers on their heads that symbolized their authority. The only problem was that the feathers were so big that the mice couldn’t reach the safety of their nest, so they were eaten by weasels. The moral of the story teaches us that “leadership often comes with its own set of problems”.

So here’s NASCAR dealing with debacles at Daytona and Talladega and Kansas and too much rain and exploding jet-dryers and too many cautions and tandem drafting and too high speeds and maybe not enough cautions and too many wrecks and not enough competitive races and issues with fuel mileage and Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger and Junior missing two Chase races and lousy TV ratings and mediocre attendance numbers and too many commercials and rising costs and….

Yeah. I’m thinking that Brian France knows a little too much about leadership and its own set of problems. Maybe all those recent changes will do him some good….

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DonMei
10/25/2012 02:39 PM
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On a positive note, let me say that a championship win by Clint Bowyer would be well received. He seems to be a decent guy with his head on squarely. Definitely nice to see.

Now, on a less positive note; the changes in Nascar and declining attendance. Lets look at declining attendance first. We can all see the vast numbers of empty seats at every Sprint Cup race, but blaming that all on a bad economy is, in my opinion, wrong. If what I have read here is correct, Nascar’s TV ratings have also declined this year. Think about it: if all those people who used to attend a race stayed home for economic reasons, it seems to me that they would all be watching their favorite sport on TV. Apparently that is not the case, they are out raking leaves, or watching baseball or football or going for a ride. So attendance AND viewership are both declining. Why? I dont think theres much mystery there. The races are boring. The chase format
contributes to boring points racing. The races are used to run conservatively, qualify for the chase, do some testing, etc. Does anyone really care about pre-season baseball or football? Why should they care about pre-season Nascar? The point system contributes to the lack of interest too. Why knock yourself out to win? Not worth the few extra points.

Here’s a silly example: assume a ten event chase. I win nine events so my max points are 423. I DNF the tenth but I led one lap so I get a total of 424 Points.You finished second in all ten (driver XXX won the tenth)so you get 420 points plus you led one lap in each..total 430. You are the champion and I am not.(I’m ignoring most laps led points) Does that seem like an equitable result? Hardly; its simply not worth going for wins in Nascar. Increase the bonus for first to 25 points and watch out! My point is simply that Nascar events are going to continue to be boring despite the tweaks about grilles, and body shapes and qualifying until first place is worth racing for and 65% of the season stops being a pre-season.

Jamie
10/25/2012 05:00 PM
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Most folks have NO IDEA what’s about to happen in this country. I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to know because it’s not good. But you better start planning for it now.

And Nascar, like any other business, will have to change as well. Talladega, one of the pillars of nascar, has seen it’s attendance slowly decline. Wait until people find out they will have even LESS money than they already have.

Chris Fiegler
10/25/2012 08:04 PM
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Which Sprint Cup Series Drivers will have the Most DNQs in 2013?