There’s a big difference in life between giving your opinion and taking a hardline stance. For example, saying to your 16-year-old, “I don’t think you should go over your friend’s house” at 9:00 PM on a Saturday night usually has about zero effect on a teenager’s thinking. Taking the keys to their car and saying, “You’re staying in or you’re grounded?” There’s a much better shot their plans will change.
Looks like Brian France, then needs a lesson in Speedway Motorsports parenting, if his true goal really is to stop the madness of others changing a schedule he ultimately controls. Saturday’s presser, in which France refuted O. Bruton Smith’s claim that a Charlotte race date will move to Las Vegas in 2014 had the decisiveness of trying gently to take a baby’s rattle, only for that same child to steal it back and bop him straight on the head.
“They have not asked us to look at realigning an event,” France said of SMI. “They certainly could. That’s the process we’ve had. It’s been done.
“Our preference, my preference is to make the events where they are more successful. We have gotten a long way with our position in motorsports because we’ve had historically important events, like this weekend, that happen every year that people can count on.
“That said, for one reason or another, a certain market is not performing as well, it may be a better opportunity. We’ve seen that in the last five, six years or longer.
“We’ll take a look at it. My preference would be to keep the event here in Charlotte. That’s always been my preference.”
Hmm. Last I look in the dictionary, “preference” is a whole lot different than the words, “no,” “never,” or an angry tone of raised voice designed to make Mr. Smith cower back into his non-existent seat on NASCAR’s board structure. Instead, the descriptors that come to my mind from France are “vague,” “pending,” and “inconclusive.” It’s the type of quote a politician uses to wriggle out from under a decision later, claiming they never really said one way or the other. “Sure, I prefer to go to McDonald’s for fast food; but Wendy’s was closer, so I went there instead.”
That’s likely because France, who is smarter than he comes off at times knows the answer is somewhat out of his hands. Nowadays, with tracks suffering from attendance issues the profit margins for both ISC and SMI have become a sliver of what they once were. Eager stockholders need to see black, not red on the balance sheets and this business disguised as a sport will surely make decisions based on that bottom line. The future of Charlotte, just like Darlington, Rockingham, and North Wilkesboro before will be all about cold, hard numbers on a spreadsheet.
So far, row 7 on that Excel program, comparing attendance between the Fall Charlotte race and Spring’s showdown in Las Vegas is what turns France from “never” to “preferable.” Last year, when attendance figures were officially released instead of some guess and check Vegas outdrew the Charlotte night race by some 50,000. (Remember, Smith isn’t talking crazy about moving the Coke 600. He’s talking about the 500-miler in the Chase, the one whose ratings and reach are marginal compared to one of the sport’s legendary events). While Vegas attendance has held steady through NASCAR’s downturn – after all, Sin City is the perfect mix of “vacation” combined with the hefty price to attend an event – Charlotte’s appeal has gone down steadily. In the last four years, the same Fall race Bruton speaks of has lost an astounding 38 percent of its attendance, “hometown fans” finding the NBA’s Bobcats, the NFL’s Panthers or some other way to spend their money besides the 1.5-mile oval or stock car’s struggling Hall of Fame down the street.
The reasons for that, in this day and age are too numerous to list. The track certainly deserves some of the blame, a “levigation” experiment in the mid-2000s ultimately scaring Goodyear into producing the worst mixes of asphalt and rubber at any track outside Indianapolis. The sterilization of 1.5-mile racing, combined with the Chase strategy of running in place to preserve much-needed points has turned what once was the best intermediate in the sport into “just another track.” The population of Charlotte, now booming with a new generation of Northerners moving South even plays a role. These new twentysomethings, working for anyone from Bank of America to North Carolina’s tech revolution weren’t brought up in the backyards of dirt tracks across the country. Their allegiance needs to be won, in a sport struggling to find a link to their peers and so far, the product nearest their home hasn’t produced.
Notice we’ve gone this far and haven’t even mentioned the $60 million Smith feels he’s owed, by Cabarrus County for making improvements to enhance his track within the local community. Billionaires have played this game before in sports, taking their hard-earned money elsewhere when the Big Bucks turn into whammys from governments unwilling to hand over the keys to their budget. There’s no sign the latest rhetoric has North Carolina’s government on its heels, no “crying uncle” and a check delivered straight to Smith’s doorstep. Battle lines, based on years of disagreements are already drawn; a billionaire, who owns 33 percent of NASCAR’s current Cup schedule ultimately needs to be satisfied and has the power to follow through on any threats.
Of course, there’s one group that can step in and save Charlotte easier than anyone else: the fans. Sell out the Fall Chase race, boosting attendance back up and this conflict would go away. But with soft ticket sales this week, leading up to the 600 one could only imagine how the Fall 500-miler plays out without the backdrop of the All-Star Race, the Hall of Fame announcement and two weeks of hometown hype. NASCAR knows that if that October date moves, this May “break” remains, leaving crews a much-needed opportunity to recharge from a schedule that’s already overloaded while maximizing the opportunity to sell tickets.
Yes, seeing a race move from the sport’s “hometown” track due to profit margin would be a black eye to some. But so was taking the Southern 500 from Labor Day; fans still watch. People were cursing the sport up and down the second Rockingham got removed from the schedule; last I checked, that was nine years ago and you’re still reading. Note the experiment of removing one Cup date from Fontana, as well has boosted local interest and increased attendance for their lone spot on the schedule. There’s a case to be made for making this move, most importantly from the desk of the men who matter most: the accountants.
That’s why you heard the word “preferable” from France on Saturday afternoon. It’s the best way to create what two drivers running side-by-side will be looking for in this year’s 600: a little wiggle room.
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