The Frontstretch: Five Ways To Save NASCAR From Itself by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday March 25, 2008

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Five Ways To Save NASCAR From Itself

Vito Pugliese · Tuesday March 25, 2008

 

NASCAR was looking to be in rough shape towards the end of last season. Ratings were consistently down, attendance figures were beginning to wane, and the general feeling amongst many fans was that the Cup Series party was over. Pessimism, not optimism, was the order of the day; the sport that had thrust itself into the American lexicon to become as mainstream as the NFL was sputtering as it began to crest. Things were looking bleak; not as bleak as, say, living in Michigan where this scribe resides.. but clearly, there was cause for concern.

So, what happened? The powers that be at NASCAR began to realize that, and for 2008, vowed to take action.

During the sport’s preseason media blitz, one of the recurring themes from NASCAR President Brian France was his insistence that the sanctioning body make an effort to regain the patronage and trust of the one entity that helped the sport get to the level it had achieved: the "core fan."

That wasn’t an easy task, for to say these fans were skeptical of the younger France's promise was putting it mildly. To many, France represents the Captain Ahab (or Kwame Kilpatrick for those of you in the mitten state) of NASCAR, and his words are usually taken with a grain of salt — no matter the circumstances.

Well, considering how most feel about the sport’s CEO, I can’t do any worse by throwing my two cents into the mix, can I? After all, I was exposed to the sport early in my life and decades ago, having attended my first race at five years of age. I didn't really start getting into the sport until the late 1980's and early '90's, mainly because I did not have cable television; but once I did, I developed into a "core fan” long before I received the added bonus of writing about the sport I love.

So, seeing as I am a self-appointed expert on everything, have spent countless hours (or hour) in deep thought and solemn reflection on Brian’s challenge, figuring out how NASCAR may preserve the sport of big-time stock car racing. The following is the product of my contemplation.

Just The Tracks, Ma'am: There is an old saying in real estate: Location, Location, Location. Nothing could be more true when it comes to NASCAR racing; in short, there needs to be some serious consideration as to when and where the series travels. How many people — particularly the "core fan" that the sport is suddenly so concerned about — bemoan the loss of iconic institutions such as Rockingham and the running of the Southern 500 at Darlington? In fact, there are countless numbers of fans that are still bent about North Wilkesboro not being on the docket anymore; did you realize it's been over a decade since a Cup car last dropped a tire off into the dirt there?

Today, the Southern 500 is not run next to a minnow pond, but to what once resembled a toxic waste dump. The race also draws just about as many spectators and as much interest as a Head Lice Convention; there is a reason that the camera doesn't pan out and show the stands, you know. The abomination continues West of the Mississippi, as Phoenix gets two dates a year and Chicago — with an attendance capacity that rivals Monster Jam in the RCA Dome — hangs onto one. Someone might want to break out an atlas and realize the complexity and irrationality behind having California and Las Vegas on back-to-back weekends to start the season while we're at it. The bottom line is the schedule needs some geographic realignment; and that’s putting it mildly.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: The practice of Cup drivers infiltrating and dominating the Nationwide Series has got to stop. It is diluting that series into little more than an extra few hours of Cup practice, while affording Cup regulars the opportunity to pocket more money and sell more merchandise in the process. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a class warrior and am all for capitalism — Viva Adam Smith! There are, however, long-established teams who helped sustain the series for many years that are being pushed out, unable to compete with satellite Cup teams with better technology, drivers, and resources. The same goes for the Craftsman Truck Series to some extent, as well.

How do you fix this? NASCAR could require drivers in the Top 35 of Cup owner points to declare a series in which they will compete for the year, limiting them to five appearances throughout the season in a lesser division. They can still run select races, but cannot run roughshod through what are essentially the minor leagues of professional motorsports.

Time Is On My Side: Is there a reason we can't get the show on the road (literally) before 3:00 PM EST? Seriously. This has gotten out of hand, particularly during the summer. OK, fine; I understand that the networks and the sport are trying to cash in on the West Coast markets, which are three hours behind the heartland. But having said that, why do the rest of us have to suffer?

I like to watch Formula One races on Sunday. So, you know what I do? I get up early, watch the race in Monaco, and crash on the couch later. Is that not an option in California? It is, after all, a small price to pay for living in paradise. I'm not a meteorologist, but the hottest part of the day is in the mid- to late-afternoon, and as much fun as it is to get all beered up and bake on an aluminum cookie sheet posing as a grandstand, it makes for a long day and an even longer ride home when at the track. Here's a wacky concept instead: Ditch the useless hour-long pre-race show, and talk to the drivers after the event has actually been completed. They can still work in sponsor plugs, but will not be able to lie and say that they, “got a real good car today.” If it was terrible, fans will all know it, and they’ll want to hear about just how bad it really was.

Ken Squier, Where Art Thou?: Can someone please explain to me how CBS and ESPN were able to cover racing better 20 years ago with only three cameras at their disposal? Why did the in-car cameras back then show so much and give a more vivid depiction of the action than today? I'm sure lots of people think that Jeff Gordon's car is pretty, but it is not the focal point of action on the racetrack 90 percent of the time. There is rooting, gouging and — God forbid — racing in the middle and the back of the pack all race long. Why not show it?

Memo to Fox: that camera you jammed in the pavement were there a long time ago, dating back to ESPN's Thursday Night Thunder sprint car races and even in the mid- to late- 90's at Indy when ABC was covering The Brickyard 400. What does it show? Nothing. Tape that same camera to the side of a guy's helmet or stick it in the headrest. And putting it on the roof accomplishes nothing, either. The driver is not sitting on the roof, he is inside the racecar.

Also, is it so hard to ask a legitimate question to a driver after an unfortunate occurrence? What are you really trying to elicit when you ask Tony Stewart after crashing out of an event, "Tony, you almost won the race but smashed your car into a wall. How do you feel about that?" And just for the record, "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" does not bother me as much as Jeff Hammond saying, "basically" and "kinda like" each time he is charged with explaining why a tire is no longer inflated.

Out of Stock: Henry Ford's theory on participating in auto racing was "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday." Sell what? Grill stickers? Let's remember what NASCAR stands for. Literally: National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Yes, I know; the days of "stock cars" racing died about the same time Mama Cass was crushing a ham sandwich. But is it so much to ask that they at least look like stock cars — or at least not be identical to one another? There is nothing worse than a spec-racer series, and a reason why, like communism, they always fail miserably. The Car of Tomorrow is safe; but did they really need to make it look so painful to look at? There is nothing endearing about this vehicle cosmetically. In fact, it's repulsive.

While NASCAR saw fit to hamstring teams with a rulebook that has templates for every nook, cranny, and decal on the machine, could it not have at least made templates to make them look like stock machines? Sure it's a brick, but at least make them glue a Camry, Charger, Fusion or Impala nose onto it. Get it off the ground, put some soft tires on it that actually offer something in the form of traction and the name of the series may once again carry some semblance of legitimacy.

Manufacturer identify used to be a part of the sport. Chevy guys hated Ford guys, Ford guys hated Chevy guys, and Mopar guys hated everybody. That is missing from the sport today, and it's desperately needed — as much for the fans as it is for the manufacturers to have a reason to remain involved. Otherwise, they make take the millions they are pumping into the sport each year and spend it elsewhere.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum
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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Douglas
03/25/2008 07:34 AM
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Yet another fine summation! Great job!

I will add only one comment: If the “advertised” change in NA$CAR’S thinking about the “core fan” being important, and this has resulted in the increased TV ratings, then this should be a downward trend as really nothing has changed! Nothing of importance anyway!

NA$CAR is one and the same!

Ed
03/25/2008 08:33 AM
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I have trouble believing the tv ratings are up unless it is because of prices and some of those people who aren’t in the seats are watchig on tv. I don’t believe it is new fans. Then, again, NAXCAR has faked cautions and just about eveything else. Why not TV ratings?

Mike
03/25/2008 10:47 AM
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I’ve been checking out the ratings for this season and although they’re up versus last year, they’re all on the decline since Daytona.

Brian France use to boast about there being 75 million fans and yet only 33.5 million watched the Daytona 500 this year, which was down from the 37 million high point they had a while back. So I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody was juggling the numbers they way they’re juggling the races with the mystery debris cautions.

If they’re so concerned about the core fans, why not lower the ticket prices to where they were when all of the core fans came on board as fans?

As they also found out with IROC and spec cars series, one car does not fit all. At least the IROC cars looked like street cars which is more than can be said for the CORN/SPOT/COT/POS or whatever you want to call it.

Sabrina
03/25/2008 10:49 AM
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Good call on #2. I can’t stand watching Nationwide races anymore because it’s nothing but Cup drivers! Call me crazy, but I thought the Nationwide series was for up and coming drivers trying make their way to Cup, not Cup drivers looking for more practice time! I completely support your idea – there should DEFINITELY be a limit to the number of Nationwide races a Cup driver can race. Leave the Nationwide series to those guys we should be “watching for” and get back to the good ol’ racing it used to be!

True Fan
03/25/2008 11:30 AM
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Cut the field in half since there’s only about twenty competitive cars anyhow!

Margo L
03/25/2008 11:38 AM
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The location of race tracks has far less to do with common sense and much more to do with population centers . In the old days race tracks were built where ever a piece of land could be had cheaply . There was no particular thought to the placement of Daytona , or Darlington , the land was cheap . Potential sites with lots of nearby ticket buyers are getting harder to come by
because of building codes , and because locals don’t want race tracks next door .
Cup drivers will always be involved in , and even encouraged to participate in Nationwide races because their names help sell tickets to a series that doesn’t sell very many tickets . So NASCAR will never limit Cup drivers in Nationwide .
TV race times are the sole function of NASCAR trying to get people to pay attention to their races . On a given Sunday there are more people watching tv later in the day and at night . So NASCAR will time the racing for the tv audience , and if the fans at the track don’t like it , tough .By the way , the tv package in NASCAR brings in far more money than the spectators at the track , so tv will always come first .
The production values of the tv broadcasts for every network are truley something that should be used as a “ don’t ever do this “ class for broadcast students . NASCAR and the networks have discovered every way to squeeze more money out of each broadcast and offer less meaningfull content . And as the only objective is to make money , the show suffers . The producers , directors (Kempner for instance ) , and the on air talent have been placed in their positions by people who don’t know , and don’t care anything about stock car racing . To see what is possible in race broadcasting , tune into a F1 race even if you have no interest in it , and watch and listen to people who really do love the sport, and who are not just interested in AM radio voice modulation and constant self promotion . It just makes us miss Neil , Benny , Buddy , and Ned even more .
I would have expected a revolt by the manufacturers over the new car . After all there is , and always has been a fierce competition among all of the car companies in stock car racing . But if you think about it , the manufacturers stand to win big . Special low production body styles to win NASCAR races are expensive , not only to produce , but also to market . And if a body style turns out to be un-competitive , then you have the expense of going back and designing another one , or just sitting back and losing races for the whole season . With the new car , all the car companies have to worry about is whether the decals are on straight .

Max
03/25/2008 11:49 AM
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Boy, if you ever get a chance to watch any old coverage of CBS or ESPN “back in the day”, you really miss those wide angle shots down the backstretch where you can see 10 or 15 cars going at it. Somewhere between then and now, some brilliant TV producer came up with the idea that they should narrow the camera focus on the front 2 cars. But there should be far less of that view than the wide shot. Basically NASCAR now stands for “too many, too much”. Too many folks in the booth, too many folks in the infield in “hollywood hotels” and the like, too many cameras in ridiculous places, too much pre-race blabber, too many nebulous rules, too many cautions, too many useless folks hanging around in the pits and garage,…ah, you get the picture. I guess we should be happy to have what we have, because one thing is for sure – it ain’t never going to be what it was, no matter how much crying and hand-wringing we do. You cannot dig up Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. and short of that, it will never be the Nascar we knew and loved “back in the day”!

Douglas
03/25/2008 11:49 AM
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Hey Margo L., my take on the manufacturers not causing a ruckus about the introduction of the “cookie cutter car” is that there was not that much correlation for the past ten (10) years or so, of, win on Sunday, sell on Monday!

Those days left us long ago!

So now the only thing the manufacturers are concerend about, is the publicity & advertising associated with NA$CAR, not really the results.

Very, Very seldom does one hear of ‘Manufacturers points”, instead all we hear are “top twleve in points” (for the chase), and “owners points” for the “guaranteed” starting spot!

I would be very hard pressed to say which manufacturere “won” the manufacturers championship last year, and who came in second!

I think the public has learned long ago, that the car on the track is NOT the car you buy in the showroom!

My take on it anyway!

sparxmoore
03/25/2008 12:04 PM
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another excellent article , all with good points , too bad none of will make NA$CAR any more money and thats ALL they care about !For all those who are sick of what the sport has become …skip watching one race ..send a message ..that or force them to REALLY stretch their lies about viewership

BK
03/25/2008 12:18 PM
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Great job summing up the reasons for NASCAR’s decline. I personally think the only reason for the so-called increase in ratings is the curiosity factor of the unlikely Dale Junior/Hendrick alliance. And that is only if you can even believe that the ratings are really up. (Since NA$CAR is fully capable of manufacturing the appearance of better ratings, but I digress…

The only other thing I would add is that NASCAR needs to stop focusing on the same drivers. Many fans are sick of getting the same drivers (no names needed) being pushed into our faces week after week, year after year. COVER ALL THE DRIVERS. Interview them, show them on the racetrack, have the guys in the broadcast booth show a little interest and excitement when someone besides their golden boys do something noteworthy on the track.

Margo L
03/25/2008 12:19 PM
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Max, you are correct about the race broadcasts of the past . They were able to do so much more with so much less than the mess we have now . The reason that the director now only uses narrow shots of one or two cars is that the sponsors of certain cars ( we all know which ones ) pay to have their cars on camera . The more you see of a particular car , no matter what position he’s in , that sponsor has paid the network to ignore your favorite driver and put the paying one on screen .
Douglas , its true that the race cars haven’t looked much like their showroom counterparts for years . But there were still enourmous production costs in designing the right deck lid length , the right windshield laydown , the right roof line , etc. Now that the manufacturers have absolutely no say so in the design of the car , they can spend all of the money from the R&D they used to do on marketing instead , and be confident that the aerodynamics of the Toyota is no better than the Chevrolet , or the Dodge , or the Ford .

Joe
03/25/2008 12:49 PM
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Brainless Brian france is clueless and if NASCAR was a public company he would have been fired 3 years ago!!!

Travis Rassat
03/25/2008 01:01 PM
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Great article, Vito. I couldn’t say it better! Well done!

In regards to the tracks, I personally still don’t see any reason why they should race at any track more than once a year. I’d love to see 36 races at 36 different tracks. Try some new venues – Iowa, Mid-Ohio, etc. – and bring back some old ones, too. Bring the races to the people, because with high travel costs and a poor economy people won’t want to travel far, or may go to just one race a year instead of two. I think those dynamics are a big reason why the stands seem empty, but the ratings are up. People can’t afford to travel and/or they can’t afford to go twice a year, so they settle for watching on TV.

Douglas
03/25/2008 05:08 PM
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Hey Travis Rassat!! Oh NO!!! NOT! Mid-ohio!!!

WAY TOO NARROW! It’s great for MGB’S and such, but not the BIG CARS! I know, lotsa of laps there in a GT-1!

If they widened the course, come back and see me! As it is now, just no room to race!

Hambone
03/25/2008 05:57 PM
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1. Sh*tcan the stupid and insulting chase.
2. Return Rockingham and Darlington to their rightful places on the schedule.
3. Get rid of toyota. (They make a fine car, but have NO BUSINESS in NASCAR)
4. Hang the village idiot (Brian France) from the tallest tree at Rockingham. (I’d bet that would be a sell-out)

Until these things happen, I’ll never watch or attend another one.

richard
03/25/2008 08:32 PM
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Amen brother nascar needs to can Mike Helton what a bozo, can Daryl Waltrip, start all races at 12 local time, can the top 35 guarante starting field if cant make the race go home, no top 35 cup cars in any nationwide races, stop waving the caution for every car that spins out but hits nothing hell the other day a car was dropping junk all over the track after hittimh the wall but since it was near the end of the race they waited a couple of laps before throwing the caution,I could go on on this all day Fire Mike Helton

Joe
03/26/2008 10:22 PM
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Vito..Another article I can only evaluate with calling it a perfect 10. Can we get rid of “CRANK IT UP”. It sounds similiar to a group of sportbikes on M-21 going by my house recluctant to shift out of second gear. It in no way makes the “never been to a race” NASCAR fan watching at home feel like they are standing a foot from the catch fence as the field goes by full bore. But thats just my opinion.
Keep up the great work!!!

KruegerMan
03/27/2008 11:22 AM
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Boring races until the last 20 laps,,then they race? Lets get back to the cars we drive,not the C.O.T? Can’t stand to watch a race on ESPN,where did the announcer’s come from? A football player and Rusty Wallice? Last but not least,same teams in the top ten every week? Why not say Hi to the other 33 cars in the field?

Tom
03/28/2008 01:35 PM
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You all don’t know how pathetically boring the races were “back in the day” heck most of you were nothing but a gleam in your parents eyes, when Richard Petty regularly trounced the “others” by laps not car lengths during his hey day. David Pearson did the same, as did Bobby Alison and Cale Yarbrough. Of course if you were a Petty/Pearson/Yarbrough/Allison fan it was great. Has Anyone ever heard of Hank Schoolfield? If there ever was anyone who was the “John the baptist” of the sport it was Hank, he spread the “word” through out the land on NASCAR keeping us yanks informed, with his little newspaper Southern MotoRacing, it is there I followed the career of Dale Earnhardt, basically from start to his tragic death. I just read in the May issue of Stock Car Racing that Hank passed away this last January, and thus the sport has lost another member of its storied past.
On the subject of Cup stars running in the Nationwide series. They have been called “bushwhackers” (old Bush series) now they are “claim jumpers” why don’t they call them what they really are “carpetbaggers” if anyone from the “old south” knows what they were, outsiders coming in with bags of money and taking up everything in sight for their own gain. It’s the reason I’ll never buy a ticket to a Bush/Nationwide Race, this goes back to when young Adam Petty was racing, he had a good finnish at Daytona, then gets screwed out of running Rockingham, because of a rain out and the field was filled by points from last year, (read into this including cup drivers.) The Nationwide regulars all say we get the experience to race against the best, sure whatever you say, real truth is, “if you ever want to drive in cup shut up” . I think that if cup drivers run in the Nationwide Series they don’t get points and they have to qualify for every race and only the regular series drivers get the “guaranteed starting spots and a driver can only run for points in one series. Like in the old days (50s and 60s)when a driver from another series ran a NASCAR race they entered as a provisional starter and got no points, that way the series regulars, never lost any points for finishing behind them. Lastly as long as the television folks are giving us every opportunity to view NASCAR, after having all the “go or go homers” qualify together, after that is all done line them up and run a ten lap race, everyone out side of the top thirty five except for the “sacred champions provisional” race their way into the last seven spots. Kinda like the “Winston open” before the the big allstar race. That way all the sponsors will get air time and it will also give teams a better bargaining chip when trying to attract sponsors.

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