The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Safe Zone, Small Market Blues And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 13, 2013

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Did You Notice?… NASCAR, and Goodyear don’t understand the price of “playing it safe?” For the answer, we turn to one of the NBA’s most “beloved” champions, the San Antonio Spurs, who the sport’s commissioner once called a team that could do no wrong. Led by a player with a squeaky clean resume, Tim Duncan (and David Robinson before that) there once seemed a time where “sin” was not a word anyone on the 12-man roster had in their vocabulary. Every one was considered a model citizen; the biggest controversy in the local paper concerned who lost an after practice game of H-O-R-S-E. It’s that type of bonding that will put you over the top, executives figured, and they were right.

NASCAR President Mike Helton’s message to drivers this season? “Be positive, 100% of the time.” But is being 100% devoid of conflict and controversy what people are really looking for?

There was only one problem with this juggernaut of a franchise; no one, outside of the city of San Antonio wanted to give them the time of day. It seemed NBA fans, for all their hype about wanting positivity couldn’t be more uninterested when it actually happened. The “good guys” were the “boring guys,” in the eyes of too many and a story like LeBron James redeeming himself, down in Miami or the rivalries created by Kobe Bryant ended up attracting more popularity. The act of overcoming adversity, the drama of bad turned good put more people in front of the couch.

How does this theory apply to the here and now? Tire compounds, especially the last two Goodyear have brought to the table are designed to “play it safe.” They’re in the business to bore, focused on not falling off and without the type of catastrophic, on-track wear-and-tear we’re used to. Goodyear, by doing that feels that fans, even if there’s less of them will have more trust in their tires off the racetrack and buy them based on reliability. But isn’t loyalty towards a product maintained in NASCAR no matter what happens in the races themselves? I didn’t see people buy less Tide, back in the day because Cal Wells’ No. 32 car crashed all the time. You’ve got to believe any reasonable person understands a tire is going to blow, at times under race conditions. So which is better: a softer compound that is riskier, one you have to manage but attracts more passing (and fans?) Or the “goody two shoes” type of compound, rock hard that never falls off and is one you can run for 200 laps, without fail. The “San Antonio Spurs” compound, if you will.

The same thing can apply with the drivers, in the wake of Denny Hamlin’s fine who are expected to be more politically correct than Barack Obama in front of a child. You’ll hear what they’re programmed to say, they’ll hide what their first reaction tells them to do and the end result is, well, a bunch of robotic responses. Will that attract more fans, less drama and more positivity to the point we’re watching Sesame Street instead of sports? Or do people need the emotion and raw, human reaction of what’s happening to keep them entertained?

For the answer, we look to what was hyped at Phoenix just a few weeks ago. It wasn’t all the drivers saying how nice the Gen-6 car was handling. It was the anger felt by both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, last November and if their personal vendetta was going to heat up again. With a “San Antonio Spurs” mentality, playing it safe there was nothing to market — nothing for the fans to hang their hat on emotionally.

Just something to think about as we head to a Bristol where, other than Gordon-Bowyer we’re not necessarily looking for any fireworks so far in 2013. Everything is tame, seemingly as NASCAR wants it. They’re “playing it safe;” that’ll certainly collect you a check. But does that limit the amount, if any the sport can grow?

Did You Notice?… There’s an intriguing trend going on within NASCAR’s Nielsen numbers? Let me explain; television ratings are measured in what’s basically a two-step process. Step one is the overnights, measured from the metered markets like New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. These are major cities, where the feedback is instant and you’re not waiting, say for some mailed in envelope straight from a farm.

Step two, or the final ratings numbers come in later and take all 210 media markets, even the smallest of rural towns into account. The sport of stock car racing has always depended on that “second round;” with so many fans, based in the south living away from major metropolitan areas a half-point bump in the ratings was almost a given. But one of the interesting surprises in 2013 is it just hasn’t been happening; in fact, the small market numbers even hurt the total for the biggest race of all, this year’s Daytona 500. Bumps at Phoenix and Las Vegas, while positive were also significantly smaller than expected.

So what gives? It looks like the “new fan base” giving the sport a try, at least within the first few weeks have their roots walking the city streets. That makes sense, considering the most criticism you hear surrounding a newcomer like Danica Patrick comes from the “good ol’ boy” southern sector who don’t think she’s the woman that will break in effectively. Patrick, for all the criticism sent her way has the capacity to bring in casual fans. A guy from New York City, used to the more sophisticated open-wheel series and who maybe saw a commercial with her in it will be quick to take a glance at the sport. The danger there, of course, is that those fans lose interest after the first few weeks, move elsewhere and then NASCAR has lost a strong connection with its roots. Could that be exactly what’s happening?

Did You Notice?… Some quick hits before we take off…

- Fans contact me all the time complaining about some of the sponsor “gimmicks” that permeate the sport. The latest one, this week surrounding Michael Waltrip Racing’s new social media girls whose primary responsibility, besides looking pretty is to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at a race weekend. (This venture now pairs with Christmas Abbott, the good-looking female CrossFit trainer turned pit crew member for Clint Bowyer. Looks like Waltrip, if he can’t be the sideshow is determined to make one. But I digress.) Fans, to say the least were unimpressed by what they claim was little more than an off-track, unnecessary publicity stunt. While you’re at it, why don’t you add me to that “over the top” category; do we really need something like that to draw people in?

In theory, the number of vocal complaints I’ve gotten would lean towards a resounding “no.” Except, as I tell people all the time it’s one thing to complain… another to actually act on those complaints. As it stands, already these girls have over 1,900 girls on Twitter and keep growing. The more that number inflates, the more people will copycat the concept so don’t be surprised to see “PenskeGirls” show up in the near future.

- As Michael McDowell told me Tuesday, an extra $100,000 is no longer enough to run a race the distance on bare bones funding. His estimate? $150,000. I mention this figure because I remember a conversation, distinctly with Kevin Buckler of TRG Motorsports three years ago in which his race-by-race cost of doing business was roughly half that. So for the small teams, in three years your expenses have doubled? That’s a business model which should concern anyone, let alone a sport struggling for sponsorship.


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03/13/2013 11:01 AM

Oh how much better a racing broadcast would be without a Waltrip in it.

Carl D.
03/13/2013 11:41 AM

Barney… it would be like that first gulp of fresh air after clawing your way out from under a giant pile of manure.

03/13/2013 11:45 AM

Your commentary is excellent, BUT your math stinks. A doubling of costs is a 100% increase not 50%

03/13/2013 01:08 PM

There is a big empty headed waltrip always running their mouth somewhere. maybe the EPA will decide that it is noise pollution!! I fear that is our only hope. fox does not listen to viewers!!

03/13/2013 01:09 PM

Well if NASCAR is trying to play it safe, they have failed miserably – at least when it comes to PR. They could have avoided both of the issues, one with Hamlin’s comment and the other with Clements by simply taking a few minutes and speaking with both of those drivers instead of making a knee jerk reaction which GOT a lot of attention – most of it negative. BTW, I am not defending Clement’s comment. I have no idea what it was, since no one appears to know, but it sounds as though it was certainly something that he should not have said. If so, NASCAR needed to police it but could have done it differently.

Goodyear – ha, the tires are a big part of the problem with the racing. I would have thought they had learned that lesson a few years ago, but nope, those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it. And so it goes.

Danica got a lot of attention for winning the pole and she ran a smart race at the 500. Good for her. As you say, that brought a lot of eyes at least glancing at the sport. Trouble was, the race itself was a bore and so was Phoenix. What else does NASCAR have to bring in the fans? MW and his girly show? The casual fans are just that casual fans, which mean they don’t spend lots of time watching NASCAR. The racing at LV didn’t excite me that much either and I’m not going to waste a lot of time sitting in front of the TV set since I don’t care for Fox’s Waltrip show or the way they broadcast the races, I am once more back to watching the beginning of the race and then the last 20 laps. The racing with the Gen6 car has the same problems that the COT did – aero push and limited passing and a hard tire.

NASCAR has worked hard to get rid of the diehard/older fans. They’ve gotten their wish. Now what?

03/13/2013 01:32 PM

I do not believe that there is any interest in controlling cost. In fact, quite the opposite. As long as sponsors can be found to pay the bills it is viewed as a positive that they do rise. The reasons for that are so obvious it doesnt need going into. And, if the smaller teams go away all the better. They are just in the way, business wise, anyway.

03/13/2013 02:34 PM

NASCAR needs to replace its current dictator with Hugo Chavez, he would do a better job.

Bill B
03/13/2013 10:19 PM

That ain’t going to happen. Sarcasm or did you not hear he died last week?

About time.

03/14/2013 04:43 PM

That was my point, a dead guy can do a better job than Brian France!


Contact Tom Bowles

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