The Frontstretch: Battling Against The Beast by Thomas Bowles -- Monday July 25, 2011

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Battling Against The Beast

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday July 25, 2011


As the Sprint Cup Series ends its final off week this Monday, the biggest story affecting the sport has little to do with Nashville’s empty crowd, Carl Edwards’ free agency or even the whispered rumors of memos warning against little to no one attending Indy’s Brickyard 400 (if you believe what you hear, attendance will consist of a midget, two old ladies who got lost and Tony George – it’s the only way he can get in!) No, the strongest punch to the face comes in the form of an… ow, ow ow ow ow.

That hurt.

Got tackled by a 300-pound defensive lineman, sorry. As I was saying, the sport takes a hit as we speak this Monday with NFL players and owners ready to marry like that new law in New York State, ending their lockout and returning pigskin to the national pastime it’s blossomed into with record numbers both at the TV set and the turnstiles over the past decade. Where stock car racing has grown, football has exploded with last year’s Hall of Fame Game exhibition alone generating ratings competitive with the 2010 Daytona 500.

So what in the world does tackling, field goals, and Brett Favre watch (again) have to do with NASCAR? Plenty. For one, Daytona Beach was hoping for an extended lockout, a competition-free Fall so the much-maligned Chase would take center stage instead. Without a distraction, they surmised millions would naturally tune into their second choice, stock car racing and get hooked on cars going ‘round in circles all over again. Umm… OK? I don’t like pears, so I’m going to eat them because I can’t find any oranges? Doesn’t make much sense, does it. But however far-fetched it was – both that theory and that the nation’s biggest sport, with an estimated $9 billion in revenue per season would even stay on the sidelines in the first place – the bottom line is people believed it, at high levels and now they’re stuck with earning momentum back the hard way, by beating the toughest competition in sports without much of a backup plan.

It won’t be easy. Sprint, whose inaugural Summer Showdown is set to kick off at Indy, will have the next five race winners vying for a $1 million prize come Atlanta Labor Day Weekend. But announcing their plan is one thing; getting it publicized is another during a time when free agency, training camps, and the sport’s second-biggest event playing to empty seats will dominate ESPN’s Sportscenter. Public relations reps need to work overtime to rise above the tidal wave, sending out the message NASCAR is not only still around but relevant heading into the Dog Days of August; otherwise, fans’ lasting memory will be six hours of Kentucky traffic before something else came to capture their attention.

It sounds like an easy excuse, football siphoning away NASCAR’s audience. But it’s not. Even back in 2001, during the sport’s major growth phase ratings fell a full tenth of a point once put into direct competition with the NFL. Just last season, FOX pulled a 4.8 for their slate of Spring races versus a 2.6 for the ABC/ESPN portion of the schedule – a startling decline of 46 percent. One major difference? FOX had zero NFL games against them, while ABC/ESPN dealt with football conflicts for roughly half of their 17-race coverage to close the season.

So how does stock car racing put its best foot forward? It’s a tough question. More than ever, this time is where the current lack of new ownership (and subsequent Silly Season) dramatically hurts the sport. Exciting, feel-good items that can keep it in the news, like major drivers switching rides and long-term futures just aren’t happening in the current state of the racing economy. A best-case impact scenario here would be Carl Edwards leaving Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing; otherwise, if he re-signs most drivers will maintain the status quo, creating little movement and more of the same old, same old that will pale in comparison to 20 NFL signings in one day. Football’s about to revel in story after story about people earning money; meanwhile, with sponsors bailing in droves, too much NASCAR speak revolves around losing it.

And while this year’s Daytona 500 was a breath of fresh air, winner Trevor Bayne injecting new life into the sport the underdogs have quietly retreated in recent weeks (David Ragan’s Daytona triumph notwithstanding). Indy typically goes to raw horsepower, leaving little to chance and favoring the multi-car giants; August offers more of the same, with Watkins Glen and Bristol your lone exceptions. Sprint Cup has done well trotting out three first-time winners this year, but typically four or more would be too much to ask; with the title race unfolding, expect the balance of power to shift back towards familiar faces who’ve held it.

That’s where it gets super tricky, underneath the battle for two Chase wild cards hardcore fans will be sure to latch onto in August. Jimmie Johnson, second in the standings still clocks in as the favorite, pit crew rant at Loudon notwithstanding; it’ll be virtually impossible to convince people otherwise who’ve been there, seen that during a remarkable five-year run by the No. 48. Especially in a year with no clear-cut challenger, how can you argue right now that title reign is threatened? And despite some small changes, reworking the postseason system how do you convince people two race winners, drivers who showed no shred of consistency outside a few Victory Lane performances will have any impact within a “consistency-based” postseason contest?

At times, this season has actually been full of encouraging signs; ratings on both FOX and TNT suggest an all-out bloodbath of fan departures has slowed dramatically. But now, in the midst of Operation Rebuild comes the biggest test. With football advertising following their every move, how will even the most loyal of stock car racing fans respond?

We’re about to find out.

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Bill B
07/25/2011 07:15 AM

Some day NASCAR will figure it out. They will never beat the NFL in head-to-head competition. The only winning move is to work around the NFL. If NASCAR had all 10 chase races on Saturday night the NFL wouldn’t matter to NASCAR.

07/25/2011 07:59 AM

I wonder why this has suddenly become such a problem. I’ve been following NASCAR since 1961, and there have always been races in the fall when the NFL played. Now, I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of football, or baseball, or basketball. If you’re a true fan who cares about the other sports. I’ll watch the races before I watch a bunch of over-paid muscle-bound, overly padded boys bashing their heads together just to gain control of a ball. And by the way, I also remember a time when the first race of the next season started two weeks after the last race of this season! Racing 12-months of the year!

Kevin from PA
07/25/2011 08:35 AM

The biggest problem is that ESPN and the other mainstream sport sites still view (or at least treat) NASCAR like that idiotic hillbilly sport that they are forced to mention. NASCAR tried but I don’t think they have been or ever will be able to break down the elitist attitude that most sport reporters have. So NASCAR will never take over the headlines – no matter what is going on.

07/25/2011 09:45 AM

Its not hard to figure. Watching Michael Vick make a dash out of the pocket or seeing Jimmie Johnson make circles in a box with decals for head lights.See who gets the boot.

07/25/2011 11:11 AM

Agree with kevin from PA – ESPN in particular is condenscending and downright ugly about NASCAR AND they bang the chase, chase, chase drum instead of focusing on the thing that makes fans tune in. Watching the RACE and their favorite driver.

Using better PXP (hopefully Allen B will provide that), camera work that shows the race AND not microfocusing on just whatever storyline they decided on at ESPN HQ the week before the race and NASCAR fans will probably tune in.

However races that are high speed parades for the majority of the laps where the only passing is done during pit stops will not make any fan sit there enthralled for hrs.

07/25/2011 11:12 AM

Kevin is right and FOX has done more to hurt the image of the sport with it’s idiots, the Waltrip brothers, and dumb cartoon characters then even king Brian has done.

07/25/2011 11:42 AM

AMEN!!, Joe!!

07/25/2011 11:46 AM

Let me be the first to say what a large bullet we dodged. If people watched NASCAR due to a lack of football, and the ratings were the highest of the year, France and Co. would have concrete reason to continue to ignore the fans. At least now we can still point to attendance figures and ratings and say that something needs to change at the top.

07/25/2011 01:08 PM

Some good points have been made here. ESPN all but ignores NASCAR on Sportscenter, and has done no favors with their booth personnel.

Fox and Speed’s use of the Waltrip brothers is truly baffling, and Fox’s use of the stupid gopher is beyond ridiculous.

Putting cars on the track that can pass each other when they catch each other would do wonders for ratings and attendance, but try telling that to the powers that be.

07/25/2011 01:43 PM

I second Joe“s motion. No more Waltrips, no gophers, and on whatever channel no one with less than a 50 IQ ie: Kenny and Rusty Wallace. On one last note, maybe IRP/Lucas Oil Raceway does not have the infrasructure needed for a top series race, it does put on a hell of a show. Bet you will not see any cameras panning to the stands when indy does the Nationwide race next year, there would be more folks at a Bin Laden memorial servce than at the track for that snoozer. Just my humble opinion:

07/25/2011 02:05 PM

“I’ll watch the races before I watch a bunch of over-paid muscle-bound, overly padded boys bashing their heads together just to gain control of a ball. “

Ken, have you seen the payday for Nascar racers these days? They may not all be muscle-bound but they all are way overpaid and their checkbooks overpadded. Nascar is no different than any other sport, whether you like it or not.

Tom Dalfonzo
07/25/2011 08:49 PM

Bill B. has the perfect solution. Ten straight prime time Saturday Night races are what NASCAR needs to do. You can have your cake and eat it, too. Watch NASCAR on Saturday, watch football on Sunday. That is how it should be.

07/26/2011 12:51 AM

Well if the racing is exciting during the Nfl season then am sure Nascar is going to be ok. I don’t know what Nascar or the teams have done to this car because it is not racier at all. It seems that drivers are more concerned with being aero loose or tight that they don’t want to race around each other.Heck we’ll be lucky to get any sort of excitement out of indy as it would be a parade of cars going around in circles due to lack of passing.The racing action on the track is going to determine how Nascar does when the Elephant(NFL)is in the room.

07/26/2011 01:01 AM

Once football starts nothing else matters.

All other sports might as well pack up and go home as far as I’m concerned.

There was a time (the Winston Cup years) when I would rather watch Nascar, but no more.

If they brought back more short tracks and more sat. night racing I would watch that. Also, I can watch my Titans on CBS and I don’t have cable or sat. TV.

Football has action…the chase has zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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