The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Bad Times In NASCAR's Big Apple, The Cost Of Brand Exclusivity And Chase Cinderella: 2010 by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 15, 2010

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Did You Notice? … That as NASCAR takes to the New York City airwaves today, the landscape in the Big Apple is markedly different for them than it was even five years ago? Back then, not only was the postseason banquet held at the Waldorf Astoria, but the sport was fighting valiantly to get a three-quarter mile track built in Staten Island, the lynchpin to reaching a major market it’s coveted for well over a generation.

Ironically, that track could have shifted momentum in the sport when you think about it. With plans in place for a Richmond-style oval, it could have shown prospective developers that you don’t need a cookie-cutter to pack 100,000 fans and deliver great racing to boot. It was a titillating opportunity for growth, a momentum shift at the right time that would have put NASCAR smack in the middle of Fortune 500 companies who would have no choice but to pay attention. An office on Park Avenue is one thing; selling executives on one of the best races of the year, armed with their very own suite to watch the race and hook them for life would have been a multi-million dollar caper that came courtesy a lifetime survival ticket on the sporting landscape.

However, a company used to totalitarian rule faced an unbreakable wall of its own in New York City politics. You have to play the game, attracting the right people to back a project that caused traffic worries and faced opposition from a confused community that was never properly educated how to love cars going around in circles. (Although, if I were stuck in traffic for two hours every day on my way to work, I wouldn’t be thrilled about cars, either.) Residents were forewarned of rednecks, not reasonable people, and responded in part as if the KKK was trying to take over part of their island.

I had just emerged as a full-time beat reporter in 2006 when this project got hot and heavy, the same time the first cracks in NASCAR’s armor were going public. In sitting with leaders of both sides over that spring, my notes from that time center around one word: disorganization. There was a clear disconnect between the local support groups on the ground and the sanctioning body itself, a tragic flaw that led to an angry, disgruntled town meeting with both sides of the issue in late April in which NASCAR’s Goliath-like machinery produced a classic underestimate of the opposition. Reports of a riot were overblown, but mouthy protests caught on camera afterwards allowed the story to take shape, one that caused a downhill slide that could only end with the sport getting run out of town.

And that’s exactly what it did, giving up in December 2006, one year after I did a story for Frontstretch polling random people on the street – including NASCAR workers at the exhibits – with a basic quiz about the sport. Just one knew all the basics: Who Jeff Gordon was, who won the Daytona 500 and that year’s Cup champion (both Jimmie Johnson). And that’s during the height of the sport’s popularity, a clear sign this metropolitan market was still uncharted territory for a sport riding the high of record national numbers.

The move of NASCAR’s end of season festivities to Las Vegas was a coup for Bruton Smith, but the result of a major missed opportunity for NASCAR in the Big Apple.

I bring this history up because the disconnect turned downright desertion from NYC follows an eerie parallel with how the sport’s continued to fade from the national interest. By December 2007, not only were the hopes of being in the No. 1 media market fading, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noticed that the Times Square Victory Lap, where the top Chase drivers did a circle around the middle of Manhattan, produced more angry calls about traffic jams to his office then actual fans in attendance. The special event was pulled the following year, limiting NASCAR’s presence in the city beyond the Awards banquet and, ultimately, the final straw to push a Bruton Smith-backed move to Las Vegas beginning last year.

That made NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Media Tour a bit more difficult to promote last September: among those traditions ended was an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman where each Chaser read the Top 10 list. Once placed right in the heart of Times Square at the Hard Rock Café, drivers will be interviewed inside the London Hotel in Midtown this year, several streets from one of the main tourist attractions and people-driven areas of the city. In the meantime, if NASCAR has its way the Staten Island property will be sold to KB Marine, used for deepwater harbor purposes instead of the automotive epicenter it was planned for. The sport doesn’t expect to make a profit on the sale, just cutting its losses and moving on from a traumatic relationship that ended with the ex-girlfriend getting the ring, the house, and all the goodies.

For me, seeing any hope of an NYCNASCAR connection is poignant; having worked inside Manhattan for nearly two years, I was hopeful building that bridge would lead to the sport permanently ensconced in the national consciousness forever. Now, just four years after the heart of their business proposal fell short, they come to the Big Apple more of a blip on the radar screen than ever, armed with almost the same type of buzz as the national economist convention across the street (yes, there really is one going on, hosted by The Economist.) Whether you feel this sport is Southern or not, our absence there is hurtful in an era where you need to slap a potential new sponsor across the face and beg them to pay attention. So many Fortune 500 companies are based in Manhattan, and having no crowd-infested events in that city equals a missed opportunity for teams, drivers, and others involved with the sport.

NASCAR should have taken a bite out of the Big Apple when it had the chance. And now … I fear it’s years too late, making its long-term survival that much more difficult with new interest from corporate sponsorship needed to make the wheels go round.

Did You Notice? … How much brand exclusivity means for this sport? The big news of the week revolves around Verizon bailing as both a Cup Series sponsor (a deal they inherited by merging with Alltel) as well as its Nationwide Series deal with Justin Allgaier? The key quote in this SIRIUS Speedway story comes courtesy Penske Vice President Jonathan Gibson, disguising this “Oh, snap!” anti-Sprint nugget under the cover of political correctness:

“[They have] issues surrounding their ability to activate the sponsorship in light of Sprint’s involvement in the sport,” he explained. “Verizon has been hindered in what they can do. They can’t do much (at the tracks) and they can’t do anything with Sprint Cup Series drivers, which is difficult. They’ve been very creative in what they have done, and they would like to do more. It’s not the perfect world they’d like to play in, but Sprint obviously does a lot for the sport, so it is what it is.”

At this point, Verizon knows better to play with fire when it comes to cell phone exclusivity. Remember that ugly battle between Sprint and AT&T? I do, and it was a bloodbath that ended with an uneasy truce that still causes agitation across both sides of the coin to this day. At one point, the ultimate embarrassment of Jeff Burton winning the Sprint Cup title, only to have his sponsor pushed out due to the exclusivity rule nearly occurred.

That’s the nightmare among companies that push for exclusivity, worried their millions in title support funding would get undermined by a rival company that ends up champion. But in this world where sponsors are drying up like water in the Sahara, don’t you think it’d be prudent for NASCAR to try and work something out here? It’s not often lately we’ve had a company actually express interest in doing more and staying in the sport. The funny thing is even with this “exclusivity” agreement, Sprint loses out anyway because everyone and their mother knows the sponsor of the No. 12 Dodge on the Cup circuit is Verizon. In fact, FOX even had a Verizon Wireless in-car camera package earlier this season! As a title sponsor, you’re going to have ultimate control of how the brand is marketed over any individual driver in the series. Those words, “Sprint Cup,” are still uttered more and written in more places than any other brand – that’s why the world “title” is in the agreement, right?

At some point, greed needs to turn to compromise in order to preserve the long-term integrity of the sport. In my view, one more sponsor leaving is one too many – but don’t expect anyone at Sprint or NASCAR to take the hit. After all, Sprint got NASCAR to sign the contract and why should they voluntarily hurt their business? It’s battered enough by other outside factors and declining NASCAR viewership as it is.

What a shame.

Did You Notice? … It’s not that hard to figure out the Chase Cinderella? You know, the guy that makes some noise in the first half of the playoffs before falling back and taking his rightful place behind the real favorites. Let’s look at who it’s been the last four years:

2006 – Jeff Burton
2007 – Clint Bowyer
2008 – Greg Biffle
2009 – Juan Pablo Montoya

What’s the common thread among those four? 1) All were winless going into the postseason, although three of the four hit Victory Lane once we settled into the final 10 weeks. Just that qualification alone confines our Cinderella to one of five men: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth.

Jeff Gordon’s struggles over the summer do not speak well to his chances of playing spoiler in the 2010 Chase.

OK, let’s move on to No. 2. Each of these guys were consistently good in the races leading up to the Chase, just not good enough to make others pay attention. Each of the four men, over the last eight races of the regular season, never finished outside the top 20 more than once. That knocks out Gordon, who’s been 23rd and 27th over the last eight weeks, in the process showing little to no punch compared to a long list of several near-misses on wins at the start of the year.

On to point No. 3: None of these guys endured a crew chief change during the season. Just too tough to readjust in time to become a Cinderella. So buh-bye, Mr. Kenseth! Thanks for playing; you never really have figured out how to run under this format, anyway.

4) None of them finished better than ninth at Richmond. It’s almost like running too well in the regular season finale gave away the hand they’d been hiding for the better part of six months. So much for Mr. Bowyer and Mr. Edwards – the latter finished tenth, but he won the pole and led 95 laps in the race early on.

So that leaves us with Jeff Burton, Mr. Consistency, who earns the sentimental favorite label with Mark Martin sitting on the sidelines. He just so happens to be on the same team that produced our regular season points leader, Kevin Harvick. He’s part of an RCR resurgence that’s seen all three teams make the Chase again, has three years of Chase experience on his side and, oh, did I mention he would have won the race at Loudon in June if not for a bad pit strategy call late in the race? And moving on to Dover, that track gave Burton his first victory in over five years in September 2006 – en route to him taking an unlikely point lead at the Chase’s halfway point before mechanical failures caused him to fall right into Jimmie Johnson’s clutches.

Yes, history does have a way of repeating itself. And while I don’t expect Burton to win the title, after sitting here and crunching the numbers it’s clear he’s going to head into the Chase making some noise.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before I take off:

  • The word I’m getting from sources out of the Allgaier situation is he’ll still be in a Penske car “if a sponsor can be found.” Funny how that works; Mike Wallace and Travis Kvapil can tell you all about it …
  • One other thing that makes you go “Hmmm …” Verizon claims they’re increasing their open-wheel involvement with Penske. Well, the organization already runs two “Team Penske” cars and just one sponsored outfit with Will Power; there’s easily room in the series for them to go from three teams to four. No matter how much Sam Hornish, Jr. may protest, you better believe that phone company is inquiring just how much money it would take to bring the American open-wheel darling back where he really belongs.
  • So the Richmond ratings were down 11.5 percent. Honestly? I thought it could have been worse; the real test will come during the first race of the Chase this Sunday on ESPN. Interesting point, though: if the ratings decreases continue at their present rate, it’s not going to be hard for the IRL to mount a comeback against the stock car series under the right scenario the next five years. You can only absorb that 10 percent suckerpunch for so long until you’re vulnerable.

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
Beyond The Cockpit: Kenny Wallace Worries About Future Of Nationwide Independents
A Trio Of Favorites: Why This Chase Is Not As Close As You’re Being Told
Mirror Driving: Final Grades On The Nationwide CoT, Chase Surprises, And ‘Favorites’
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Richmond
Top Ten Reasons People With No Sense Of Humor Write In And Complain About These Lists
Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Richmond, September 2010
Carey And Coffey: That Ever-Changing Chase Feeling

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
Beyond the Cockpit: Brittany Force, the Fastest Force
Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities


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09/15/2010 07:29 AM

I think I am going to be sick!!

09/15/2010 07:48 AM

I watched (and enjoyed) the IRL race in Chicagoland a few weeks ago. Remember when Cup cars could put on a decent show at a mile and a half track? I do, but it’s been a long time. I won’t waste any money next month going to Charlotte. Instead, I’ll be sitting in the stands at Rockingham where some real racing will take place. Y’all enjoy the Chase for the Chumps.

Sherri T
09/15/2010 09:38 AM

Why do so many people talk as if Jeff Gordon is all washed up when he maintained a 2nd place in the points for a large part of the “pre-chase” based on CONSISTENCY?

09/15/2010 10:27 AM

CONSISTENCY will win you a championship but wins won’t.

Why do writers keep typing “perspective” when they probably want “prospective”? Keep things in perspective.

09/15/2010 10:41 AM

“At some point, greed needs to turn to compromise in order to preserve the long-term integrity of the sport.”

We are dealing with Brian France here. He is too busy being greedy to see anything else. It’s time for Brian France to go on Oprah and beg forgiveness for sinking NASCAR. Third generation at work.
Very interesting article, but you are mostly preaching to the choir.

Managing Editors
09/15/2010 10:43 AM

Hey Don,

You’re right on this one. Thanks for catching; it has been fixed.

Appreciate you reading and being such a dedicated fan of the site!

09/15/2010 12:18 PM

The idea of exclusivity in auto racing sponsorship has long since run it’s course . Unfortunatly the sanctioning bodies and track owners haven’t gotten the message yet .
Allowing one brand to be the only brand has eliminated competition among suppliers . Goodyear doesn’t make the best race tires . Sunoco certainly doesn’t make the best race gasoline . Coke is not necessarily a better product than Pepsi . Is one phone company really better than all of the others ? Being the exclusive product or advertiser only means writing a bigger check to NASCAR than the other guy .
But by eliminating all competition between brands , you invite price fixing and mediocre product quality . Put three or four tire manufacturers into NASCAR and you’re going to see race tire development like you’ve never seen . Allow all of the race gasoline makers into the sport and you’ll see inovation rather than the stagnation and so so quality of the current supplier . By policing the competition between manufacturers , you could eliminate the on , or over the edge engineering and instead focus on innovation overall . And use any logic you like , but competition will bring down prices and increase quality .
As for the branding issues of being exclusive , you do eliminate your competition , but you wipe out a whole universe of potential income for racers and for the tracks . If given the chance , do you suppose a rival phone company would step up to sponsor a NASCAR race . Of course they would . How would that extra money coming in be a bad thing ? At the same time , teams would then be allowed to search for sponsors without having to cut out any who might conflict with NASCARs’ excusivity contracts . Can you think of any other beer , or phone , or soft drink , companies who would jump at the chance to sponsor a team if they were allowed to . I can think of ten each without trying too hard .
Short track racing has painted itself into a corner over the same issue . And this is no time to be eliminating competition between suppliers and neelessly taking away sponorship potential for the racers and the tracks themselves .

09/15/2010 12:32 PM

Ain’t no “old school fans “ gonna become fans of IRL racing.How the hell you think they became old school fans.Most times I think you just like to read your own nonsensical rants

09/15/2010 12:34 PM

Thanks for spending way too much time critiquing the grammar and spelling of an online forum. What would we do without you?

09/15/2010 12:36 PM

Let us not forget the mighty FOX sponsor rule that started it all. You will not be shown if you don’t pony up and sponsor something in the broadcast for us in Daytona. Images of AJ Foyt’s green car with no decals are still burned in my head. They should pay for all the dollars they have cost NASCAR!

Michael in SoCal
09/15/2010 12:58 PM

The sanctioning body should never take on an “Official” sponsor – a racing series, an official tool, a race title sponsor – that limits the teams for getting sponsorship. It’s so incredibly short-sighted, a not seeing the forest for the trees type of deal.

Michael in SoCal
09/15/2010 01:08 PM

Now that NASCAR / ISC isn’t going to sink money into a NY-area track, maybe they invest some money into tearing down Fontana and putting the 3/4 miler in SoCal?!? AutoClub Speedway is honestly a top notch facility, with a great amenities, nice suites – the pit road suites are pretty cool, a couple of good on-site go-kart tracks, a drag strip, a good road course layout in the infield. But the reality is the racing on the two mile oval is anything but exciting, due to that dreaded cookie cutter disease. And with the IRL boycotting all ISC tracks (although there are some rumblings about IRL actually racing at ACS), I say tear it down and give us a great short track! A guy can dream, can’t he?

09/15/2010 02:27 PM

Damn! I hate these kids comin’ here and trying to tell us how to run our sport. Cup (I WON’T say ‘Sprint. Sprint is a division of open wheel) competition has ALWAYS been a marathon. It originally tested the endurance of man and machine. To shorten the races is to say you don’t have the attention span.

I’ve been on the side of the separation of cars and officials since the AT&T fiasco. Neither should be allowed to dictate business deals to the other. NASCAR needs to work on promotion of the sport…not the series or themselves.

And if NASCAR fails, I hope TransAm comes roaring back…THAT was racing

09/15/2010 02:53 PM

Ain’t no “old school fans “ gonna become fans of IRL racing.How the hell you think they became old school fans.Most times I think you just like to read your own nonsensical rants

Amen EZ

Carl D.
09/15/2010 03:33 PM

I’m an old school fan who kinda agrees with Damsmom… the Nationwide Series IS the better series. I watch the NNS races as much as I watch the Cup races. Now if the Cup drivers would just get the hell out and let the Nationwide-only drivers duke it out among themselves…

One minor disagreement, though… I keep looking at those NNS “Mustangs” and trying to see something that vaguely resembles my pony car, but I’ve had no luck whatsoever.

09/15/2010 04:14 PM

It was nice of Tuna to critique the critique but not critique the article. Knot using the write words shud knot be tallereighted. There’s something fishy about that.

no Spin
09/15/2010 04:33 PM

Preaching to the choir. yes the Choir is moving to the NFL
Mr. Brian France do you have sinking feeling

09/15/2010 05:43 PM

Hey Dansmom, you’re welcome for last night. But next time leave the feather and dog collar at home, ok?

Kevin in SoCal
09/15/2010 05:52 PM

New York City sucks worse than Los Angeles does. I’m glad NASCAR stopped going there for the banquets and dropped the plans for a race track.

09/15/2010 06:55 PM

Did you whine this much about Winston keeping rival tobacco companies out of Cup?

09/15/2010 07:30 PM

Nice piece about NYC. Staten Island was probably the wrong place to put a track. NYC is a 24-7 traffic disaster, and a NASCAR race would make it even worse. ISC probably should have looked to the Northern suburbs or Jersey for a track. That would have made it accessible to Upstate where most NY NASCAR fans are and still close to the city. Sidenote: no doubt if that track went up Pocono would have said goodbye to one or both Cup dates.

Tim S.
09/15/2010 07:59 PM

Winston didn’t keep other tobacco companies out of NASCAR. At least two companies, U.S. Tobacco “Skoal”) and Conwood/American Snuff Company (“Levi Garrett,” “Kodiak”) were active and visibly successful during the RJR years.

Robert Hall
09/15/2010 09:16 PM

A great story. As a 55 year fan of Nascar, I could never figure out why we need to be in NYC. Most people there only know about horse racing. When the Pocono race does not even get a story line on Monday in the NY papers that should be a message to somebody. If NY did get in to Nascar they would just want to screw it up as in my opinion, George Pyne has already done.

Dick Weed
09/15/2010 09:31 PM

Hey, moron. You need to read the fairy tale before you try and use it as a metaphor. Cinderella was the winner, not the runner up. You need an IQ bigger than your belt size if you want to be a quality journalist.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

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