The Frontstretch: In NASCAR These Days, Listen To The Money Talk by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday May 25, 2010

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In NASCAR These Days, Listen To The Money Talk

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Tuesday May 25, 2010


“Come on, come on, listen to the money talk.” AC/DC

I’m calling my 2010 the year of the NASCAR complaint. Since being commissioned for an SI online mailbag this year, my inbox has increased exponentially along with it; but the sheer number of emails I receive isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Not only are fans seemingly disillusioned by a number of problems that have dogged them for years – political correctness, the Car of Tomorrow, the Chase – that rebellion includes an unwillingness to give the sport its due for being proactive on trying to correct them. With this group, if NASCAR were a Congressman, based on one week’s worth of reactions alone not only would it be impeached, a group of Tea Party activists might be burning its office in effigy right now.

What’s ironic about the movement is in some ways, the NASCAR bleeding is not as bad as it may appear. TV ratings are down just 4 percent, its season average of 4.9 still higher than the 4.4 the NBA received for its last NBA Conference Finals game. It just concluded a $163 million project for a new Hall of Fame, warmly received by the fans and a potential cash cow for the next few decades. Lawsuits versus Kentucky Speedway and Jeremy Mayfield have both ended in their favor, although the latter may end with a tell-all book that might make us all hang our heads in shame. That leaves the sport without a legal black eye, better than even the NFL can say just hours after a Supreme Court slap on the wrist that changes the way they do business forever. Let’s add in some “boys will be boys” philosophy for dessert, and if nothing else, a once-dictatorial regime is leaning a sympathetic ear toward its critics.

So, does that mean we’ve finally bottomed out on contraction? For four months, I tried to figure out whether NASCAR’s 2010 glass is half empty or half full. And then, like an epiphany it came to me, the reason why we may be just on the precipice of falling off another cliff.

Your wallet.

Not happy with NASCAR? Didn’t buy a ticket? That’s one way to force a change!

I know you’re sitting there with a puzzled look going, “Huh?” But it’s true. For the last decade, fans have talked a big game until it’s actually come to taking action with their dissatisfaction. For example, NASCAR threatened to pull dates from Rockingham and traditional fans “revolted” at the possibility through emails, petitions, and angry phone calls to officials down in Daytona Beach. Yet when the 2003 Subway 400 rolled around, just 40,000 sat in the Rockingham stands in a race whose death came at the hands of poor attendance.

You see, when it comes to sports you can open your mouth and complain all you want, but this isn’t Congress we’re talking about. If you don’t like something that’s happening, there is no re-election to vote leadership out. NASCAR is at its core an independent business, looking to make money the same way in which Pfizer gives quarterly shareholder reports. Corporations live or die on those statements, financial lifelines that are the unforgiving indicator of success or failure.

So if your rant against the Rockingham debacle didn’t come with your support in the form of helping the track sell out, well … it’s going to fall on deaf ears.

Companies cut underperforming parts of their infrastructure all the time in order to make more money. A few angry letters don’t really work to white out the red ink on that Rockingham budget, does it? It seems cruel, but it’s pure capitalism that makes you understand why NASCAR made some of the choices they did.

Darlington worked in a similar way. Fans complained about tradition, but when fans filled more seats at Fontana – and they did at first – did the shareholders really care? Others threatened to walk away at the start of the Chase, but in its second season of 2005 every economic, attendance, and ratings indicator increased. So the fan protests against it were left as an empty movement, seemingly full with a bunch of poker table bluffing when you’re busy holding a 7-2 offsuit Texas Hold ‘Em Hand the whole time.

With that type of history lesson in place, you’re conditioned as a sportswriter to breathe in that negative tone in emails but take them with a grain of salt. After all, we live in a society where people are far quicker to criticize then compliment. And then … came the reality of 2010. The number I’m watching is at-track attendance, down over 13.5 percent from 2009 numbers alone. Economic freefall aside, no other major sport comes close to that dropoff, and that’s with average ticket prices down 3 percent in ’09 and even more now with tracks desperate to gets butts in seats. Add in lagging souvenir sales – ISC and SMI-controlled Motorsports Authentics is on the verge of bankruptcy – and suddenly, angry letters come with a vicious consequence of closing up the wallet and saying, “No.” Now that’s the power these fans were seeking.

At the same time, the movement has expanded to small-time owners sick of a failing NASCAR business model in which start-and-parkers have all but pushed them out of town. A handful of them not only didn’t show up at the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow test, but sources have told me they’re threatening to keep away from the July race, period, with enough of them joining ranks behind the scenes that the sport could risk a short field with no compromises. If they follow through – easier said than done – it would be the biggest middle finger since Talladega’s track opening in 1969, on the same day the sport’s supposed to be charged with a momentum boost of cars that actually look somewhat normal.

Joining the rebellion are perspective sponsors, too. Have you noticed on the No. 5 car lately? Companies are checking the $25 million requests by Roush and Hendrick, looking at the current landscape of an economic bubble bursting, and saying thanks, but no thanks. Perspective new owners, as well as old, are also sticking to the sidelines and refusing to sink into debt until there’s incentive for them to jump in and be competitive with teams that have ten times the money and resources in comparison. Between my four plus years inside this sport combined with my 20 years of being a fan, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Right now, there’s only about ten, twelve at most, financially solvent Cup owners that can survive without any help; and all of a sudden, NASCAR can’t find anyone, manufacturers, investors, or plain old rich car lovers to take the bait of an investment that’s overvalued.

At the same time, fan support works the other way too. A longtime love of Darlington was finally rewarded with the biggest ratings increase of any event this year. The Hall of Fame, universally lauded, has had a strong early turnout, thousands backing up their support of the project by filing in to see the final product. Suddenly, years of hollow words have been replaced by the power of dollars and cents.

It’s a simple case of putting your money where your mouth is, learning the only way to change a corporate philosophy is to create a board meeting filled with mountainous downhill graphs filled with red ink. Now that everyone’s figured out how to do it, in my opinion the question of if more major changes are on the horizon isn’t a matter of if … but when.

Contact Tom Bowles

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05/25/2010 06:12 AM

It took a while, but fans finally figured out how to get Nascar’s attention…and you’re right, it’s in the wallet. I didn’t renew my season tickets to Bristol this year. Since the ‘chase’, the racing there hasn’t been ‘Bristol quality’. I finally decided that I could save the money required for the trip, and watch the race on TV if I chose. It’s now like a race at MIS but with traffic, and since I’ve never felt inclined to travel the 2 hours to go to MIS, I’m staying home.

05/25/2010 06:48 AM

NASCAR would do well to s***-can those exclusivity agreements, especially the ones that have to do with car stuff like Goodyear and Sunoco. That could bring in a lot of potential sponsors.

Man, Tom, you could have picked a better AC/DC song to quote than their biggest sellout!

05/25/2010 09:57 AM

Yet popularity of anti-NASCAR websites and anti-NASCAR columnists are at an all time high. What? There’s no such thing as an anti NASCAR website – there’s just NASCAR websites… Oh yeah. Then popularity on NASCAR websites are at an all time high. Maybe that’s a reflection on the changed way that fans view and participate in the sport. (Of course Frontstrech is a racing website, so it doesn’t count. Just check out the quality writing in the IRL section linked at the top right of the homepage… Go ahead, check it out)

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the best team in baseball but no one goes to their games. I HATE McDonalds food, you have to agree the quality is terrible, but MAN look at the profit margin.

As you pointed out Tom, NASCAR is still leaps and bounds ahead of the NBA and is still THE most popular motorsport in the country so I guess it aint all that bad.

Bad Wolf
05/25/2010 11:09 AM

I think the fans were holding on to and renewing their race tickets each year holding out hope that Nascar would change back for the better, but are finally coming to their senses now and giving Brain France the finger. They have givin up on waiting for things to get better, and this is the year the chickens are coming home to roost for Nascar.

How hard do you think it has been for long time fans to drop their tickets that they had been renewing and upgrading for decades? If you have ever been there and finally got to the point of having great seats you know what I mean. The old school fans have been talking a good game for the last few years, but now are swallowing hard and giving up the seats they worked for years to get. That says a lot about the state of Nascar.

Back in the day the races were not too long, and we would gladly give an afternoon to the races, but we had real announcers in the booth who called the action instead of schilling, and they kept the action flowing and gave us all the storylines of the day. We saw all the action throughout the whole field, and the emphasis was not on the sponsors but the on track action. Today the show is disjointed and all about product placement and paid sponsor mentions. The in car cameras are used basically as a revenue generating tool by the networks to get the sponsor stickers and cars on the screen and add nothing to the show. Basically back before 2000 it was about quality race coverage, but is now all about generating revenue for the networks.

05/25/2010 03:33 PM

Bad Wolf
I have to agree 100%, I had tickets to Bristol and finally gave them up, I had talked about it for years and held out hope that nascar would listen to the fans that “brought them to the dance” instead of the newer, fair weather fans that nascar started courting(who for the most part have also left).
I understand needing to grow the sport, but you do not forget what got you there, the history, fans, tracks, and towns that were there for nascar when NO FEW OUTSIDE THE SOUTHEAST, wanted anything to do with this “hick” sport.
Then new nascar(Brian France and Co.), new owners and sponsers saw they could make tons of money off these “hicks” and descended on the sport.
I am 45 and have followed nascar and stock car racing (ASA) since the mid 70’s and have seen more chances in the last 10 years then I saw in the first 25 years I followed this sport.

05/25/2010 08:00 PM

Tom you have mentioned in another post the likelihood of a movie, documentary, tell-all book by Mayfield, and you repeat it here about a tell-all book. Who cares? what makes you think there is some boogeyman story out there? Who will believe Mayfield anyway. He has stiffed everyone from Mooresville to Highpoint and to Charlotte to DC. What is it about Mayfield’s tangled web he weaved that you think is interesting. His tawdry story will be full of lies like everything else out there he has put out. Bet he will titled it” “If I Did It, Here’s How” like an OJ. It’s just tragic and not one single sentence of the book will be true. So who cares? Let him write on go on Jerry Springer and Biggest Loser and Dancing with The Stars. Let him be fired by Trump do a reality documentary tell all yappin sleeze bag Web-based trash blog article teatise or dissertation on NASCAR. who cares.


Contact Tom Bowles

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