TweetDid You Notice? ... Spoiling The Oil Sponsor Party, Home Is Where The Heart Breaks, And Speaking Up
Thomas Bowles · Wednesday October 13, 2010
Did You Notice? … The second, major primary sponsor cutting back their involvement in the sport? That’s the biggest worry I have following Tony Stewart’s press conference announcing Mobil 1 will appear on his car for a total of 11 races next year and beyond.
Really? That’s right, you heard me correctly: 11. To put the number in perspective, it adds up to less than one-third of the 36-race schedule, a shocking slash for a Fortune 500 company that was Sam Hornish, Jr.’s backer for 32 events this year at Penske Racing. Financial terms were not disclosed, as always, but you’ve got to believe this deal closed late, at a bargain basement price with a whole lot of “pretty, pretty pleases” involved.
For men like Stewart, I understand that beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to keeping up with the Joneses. Yet considering the lack of sponsorship news recently, my shock came when this announcement spawned a ticker-tape parade the likes of which included a packed house press conference; show cars; and a NASCAR Twitter party so intense you’d think Dale Earnhardt, Jr. just got someone pregnant. “Oh my God, my son got a job at 33 percent the rate it was last year! Let’s hire an ‘80s band, invite everyone in the neighborhood and bring the house down!”
Alas, there’s no real reason to be cheering in my opinion when you consider the trend of slashing races we’ve already seen from the sport’s biggest supporters:
- Budweiser (From 36 races in 2010 to 20 in 2011+)
- Mobil 1 (From 32 races in 2010 to 11 in 2011+)
- DuPont (From 26 races in 2010 to ?? in 2011+)
- Old Spice (From 14 races in 2010 to zero in 2011)
- Verizon (From 36 races in 2010 to zero in 2011)
Only Aaron’s has increased its commitment, jumping up to 30 events the next two seasons from 24 in a move that secures David Reutimann’s place with Michael Waltrip Racing through at least 2012. Unfortunately, that’s just not enough to stem the growing tide of concerns when top-tier corporations figure out they’ve got the upper hand over cash-starved, upper-class teams still looking to run their gargantuan efforts for virtually the same amount of money they always have. Combine that with the sport’s declining marketing value – ratings and attendance problems have a way of wrecking that mojo – and you’re left with a product that’s increasingly less attractive in what’s turned out to be a still-dragging recovery in this country.
At some point, you would think with the number of fully-funded cars shrinking drastically the cash bubble near the top would burst, right? Umm… let’s just say this move reminds us that’s not exactly happening yet. So while I’m happy for Stewart filling the space on his car, I’m far less so for the No. 77 that is likely headed towards closing up shop following the season, joining two Richard Petty Motorsports cars and God knows how many others on the chopping block. With fewer sponsors to go around, they need to be convinced to give a bigger commitment, not shrink it; so in many ways, this signing is a lose-win for a sport that desperately needs a big company like Wal-Mart, Macy’s, or someone out there to dump millions into it and say, “We believe in the future of your sport.”
Did You Notice? … The hometown Charlotte race isn’t exactly how it used to be? In past years, this week would serve two purposes: sewing up Silly Season loose ends, causing a media frenzy while introducing us to teams and drivers looking to get a head start on next season during the race. Old promoter “Humpy” Wheeler would pull some rabbits out of his hat back in the day, figuring out one-race deals with major car owners that showcased new faces on the grid, even superstars from other racing series looking to make a one-time dip into NASCAR. It was an old school way to draw excitement to an individual race, giving new kids on the block their chance to shine while not making it all that expensive for owners whose shops sit less than a 45-minute drive away from the track.
Sadly, neither one of these goals is getting achieved this year. Stewart’s sponsor unveiling is likely the biggest one you’re going to see over the next several days, with remaining free agents like Elliott Sadler, Scott Speed, Reed Sorenson, David Stremme, and others waiting for money and rides to break their way and salvage careers standing delicately on the precipice of life support. As for big-time organizations like Hendrick, looking for the perfect, high-paying sponsor for the No. 24 car but handicapped by this New World, not-so-easy-anymore negotiation process means it could take until November, maybe even December to get a deal done. And notice we haven’t even brought up the two-word taboo nowadays: “Nationwide Series.” Should we even bother to go down that ugly road? And on a weekend where the “AAA” division finishes up its last four-race test of the Car of Tomorrow, how could you not time that with publicity surrounding more major changes within the division for 2011?
It’s the latest in a number of moves that always leave us scratching our heads. But this much we know for now: in a world where Silly Season is rapidly becoming a 24/7 affair, more questions than answers remain in the NASCAR bedroom at this time of year than ever before.
And down in the kitchen, where the salad gets made there’s that unfinished business of promoting the race itself, becoming a business in its own right rather than a showcase for developing talent. Consider the extra Cup Series entries this Saturday:
- Robby Gordon (No. 07) second team start-and-park
- Scott Riggs (No. 81) second team start-and-park
- Bobby Labonte (No. 10), leaving a start-and-park team to ensure his brother’s car makes the field while the No. 09 (you guessed it!) start-and-parks
- Johnny Sauter (No. 23) Sprint Cup retread many times trying to qualify in a one-race deal
- Bill Elliott (No. 21), 55-year-old continuing his limited Wood Brothers schedule, easily the biggest “name” of the bunch and one guaranteed to go the distance
- Brian Keselowski (No. 92), struggling Nationwide Series owner who is hoping to use his Sprint Cup program to raise money and keep him from dipping into the red
OK, be honest; not exactly a list that makes your heart pound, right? Even with 51 cars trying to make the starting lineup, in a best-case scenario we’ll have no less than three start-and-parks. And unlike in the glory days, none of these part-time rides will even have an outside shot at the top 15.
So who does? My answer comes in the form of two words: status quo, in a world where ADD is increasingly the lay of the land. Need I say more?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off:
- OK, NASCAR is going to keep the testing ban going in 2011. So let me ask you this question: If you’re a new owner entering the sport, how in the world are you going to catch up to the teams in front of you? A handful of hours in practice each weekend isn’t enough to get it done, especially when engineers that don’t travel to the track make the biggest difference in overall speed nowadays. Just take a look at the final results sheet each weekend for oh, about every race since this ban came into existence. You’ll see a pattern.
Taking this one step further, let’s see what you’re telling a potential owner they’ll need to maybe get competitive in this sport with the rule in place. Step 1: $20 million dollars, minimum. A chassis and engine deal with a team who will likely assure they’ll finish ahead of you every week. Limited practice time and an inability to spend extra time and effort to catch up to those you’re competing against.
No wonder they can’t get anybody different to jump on board these days.
- There was a conspicuous absence from the Third Annual Jail ‘N’ Bail Tuesday night: Kyle Busch. How could you hold a jailbird auction event without the NASCAR fan equivalent of Dr. Evil? At least they roped runner-up Brad Keselowski into it, but the rest of the lineup weren’t exactly names that inspire Big Bucks, No Whammys on the Auction Block equivalent of Press Your Luck for a good cause.
Now I’m not saying they should have canceled the darn thing because of it; this event is designed with the best of intentions, as all money raised goes to a Scholarship Fund in honor of former NASCAR official Brienne Davis. Each year, the charity helps an interested female attend one of nine Universal Technical Institutes around the country. But could you imagine the hubbub if this event “jailed” two bitter rivals in the same cell for hours? How about Denny Hamlin and Keselowski having to share some space? Or Keselowski and Carl Edwards? Busch and David Reutimann? Or Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and all the crewmen who’ve had to repair an entire fleet of wrecked cars for over a year?
I think these organizers have the right type of idea here; it just needs to be executed on a much grander scale.
- Interesting stat about the Charlotte race coming up this Saturday: only two races since Fall, 2003 have been won by a driver who started outside the top 10. And both of those were either fuel-mileage or rain-shortened finishes (Casey Mears and David Reutimann, respectively) that both occurred during the Coca-Cola 600-mile marathon of wacky. Saturday’s 500-miler has always been much more “run of the mill,” handing the edge to those capable of pulling off a primo starting spot in Thursday qualifying.
Looking back at the May race, we’ve got five of ten Chasers who were able to accomplish that feat: winner Kurt Busch, who started second, Jimmie Johnson (started fifth), Denny Hamlin (seventh), Kyle Busch (ninth), and Clint Bowyer (10th). Considering those numbers, you’d have to think this race will be the one in which the Johnson-Hamlin battle truly does begin to take center stage.
- Sunday’s Fontana ratings were off 30.5 percent – count it, 30.5 percent – compared to last Fall. Talk about a Debbie Downer after a great race, and here’s the kicker: even those who are down on NASCAR admit at least two of the four races so far surpassed expectations. Could you imagine the viewership if the series threw up four stinkers?
But for those who hate the sport’s playoff system, the ugly truth is not even an A+ edition at their favorite racetrack will cause them to tune back in the rest of the year. So what are hundreds of thousands of unhappy, disillusioned fans to do? Well, if you really want to bring change to NASCAR, you can’t do it by sitting on the couch, tuning out and walking away. Every time these people in power ask, “Why are the ratings down?” you need to barrage them with how you really feel – even if you think the answer’s so obvious my six-month-old nephew could point at the television and coo it.
That’s right, folks: it’s time for “Operation: It’s The Chase, Stupid!”
Every time you hear a driver, team owner, official, or sponsor representative crow about potential “changes” to the “Chase” or “questions” about why the fans are leaving in droves, it’s your job to email them with the subject line “It’s The Chase, Stupid!” How much you want to describe beyond that is up to you, but what you need to realize the way to get a goal accomplished nowadays is by strength in numbers. If the sport knew how to change itself and rope you back in, well, they’d have already done it; this epidemic of declining ratings didn’t happen overnight.
So if you care about the sport, aren’t watching but would love to get your old passion back the best way to help is to let others know why it’s gone. I know you think those emails go down a black hole, but trust me, more of the people that matter than ever are listening. And even if you still don’t believe in the power of NASCAR good, the never-ending desire of businessmen looking to make a profit alone virtually guarantees that your voices get heard.
All you have to do is speak up.
P.S. One word for Shane Hmiel: Godspeed. We’re thinking and praying about you every day, watching in awe as the strength and resilience you showed in overcoming mistakes is now carrying you through when you need it most of all.
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