2007 may well be a pivotal year in the sport of NASCAR racing. It might takes a few more years down the road and the retrospect it will offer to see how things play out. But clearly, this is a year of big changes, and for a jaded cynic like myself, the whole shooting match that is the sport I’ve loved for decades hangs in the balance.
Here’s some stories I’ll be watching this year, and stories I’m guessing many of you will focus on as well:
The Invasion of the Barbarians: OK, Toyota isn’t really run by barbarians, it’s just their business practices (like those of their fellow Japanese auto-manufacturing rivals) would make Genghis Khan grab for a handful of antacids. Unlike the last time the Japanese invaded our turf back on a certain date that will live in infamy, at least this time we’ve had plenty of notice in the racing world. Just ask fans of the open-wheel series how warm and fuzzy they feel about Toyota’s “We came, we saw, we kicked butt, we blew out of Dodge” tactics that have now sauntered their way over into the world of stock cars.
Toyota says they’re in NASCAR for the long haul, which isn’t exactly great news to me and many of you who feel like I do that our sport (well, we thought it was our sport before Brian France started throwing his weight around like an out of control Lexus, made by Toyota by the way) should be limited to the home teams. Yes, Toyota points out they make cars here in the States. Bully for them. But saying they are an American car maker is like saying because Rotolo di Cappone is prepared in a bistro in Brooklyn, it is American food.
It’s likely to be tough sledding for Toyota at first. Many of their teams have to race their way into the first five races of this season because they have no owner points from 2006 to fall back on. (Or, in the case of the No. 55 car and Michael Waltrip, they finished so low in 2006 owner points they don’t have an automatic bye into the field… so they’ll probably have to buy into the field). And if the Toyota teams struggle, it will likely delight many fans. But don’t count on that being a long-term problem. Toyota struggled when they first entered the Truck Series, too; they’ve now won the last two manufacturers’ titles over there while claiming the top-six spots in the final driver standings in 2006. While money can’t buy you love, it sure can buy series domination as long as you carefully line the corporate pockets, too. If there’s a bright side to Toyota’s domination of the truck series, it’s that their full-size truck remains a mere blip on the sales radar in a sea awash with F-150s, Rams and Silverados. So much for win on Sunday (or Saturday) and sell on Monday.
With Ford and GM on the ropes right now, it seems a bad time to be introducing foreign brands to NASCAR racing. It seems, dare I say it, almost unpatriotic. Sometime this year Toyota should surpass GM as the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. And sometime this year, a Toyota will probably win a Cup race, at which point I predict that a lot of fans will have their interest in the sport fade to black. If you’re old enough to recall the glory days of the SCCA Trans Am Series, Mustangs, Camaros, Cudas, Cougars and Challengers used to duke it out for the checkered flag every weekend. Once they allowed foreign makes in and started adding all those ridiculous spoilers (like the Car of Tomorrow), interest quickly headed south, to NASCAR racing, ironically enough.
The Car of Tomorrow: After the Car of Tomorrow debuts in Bristol this March, most fans won’t be able to tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Dodge from a Camry anymore. What they are able to tell is that this new car design is about as ugly as the day is long on the Fourth of July. It’s hard to find anyone not on the payroll at NASCAR corporate headquarters with much nice to say about the CoT. (Unfortunate acronym, no?) With its Pep Boys ricer rear spoiler and its locomotive cattle catcher front end, about the nicest thing I can say is if these new cars were puppies, breeders would take ’em behind the barn and dispatch ’em with a single bullet between the eyes. Folks in general don’t like watching ugly cars race.
Beyond aesthetics, my main concern is the racing itself. Those new noses with the splitters look fragile. My guess is that out of aerodynamic concerns, drivers will be loathe to engage in any rooting and gouging to make a pass if it might bend up their little play-pretties. Surely, it will signal the end of bump-drafting at the plate tracks for better or worse. Several drivers who have tested the new cars claim that they are all but impossible to race side-by-side and that is, after all, the hallmark of stock car racing from its glory days, days which are fading into the rearview mirror faster every year. Originally conceived as a way to make stock cars safer, the inevitably awkward product of committee thinking (recall a camel is a horse designed by committee), the CoT now appears to be the answer to a question nobody is asking. Then, there’s the fan reaction; they’ve taken to these new cars like Hindus to hamburgers. Hey, maybe I’m wrong and this will be the greatest thing ever to happen to racing. And maybe I’ll find a barn full of low-mileage ’70s Plymouth Hemis owned by a farmer eager to get rid of ’em old cars after running out of gas on a rural country road.
TV Ratings: NASCAR officials tried 100 ways to Sunday to put a positive spin on it, but there’s no discounting the fact TV ratings were down for all but two races run in 2006. In some cases, they were down significantly, and the much ballyhooed Chase didn’t spark a ratings bonanza, either. The official party line is now the disappointing ratings were a result of NBC’s lame duck status as a “network partner” and their lack of promotion for the races. To paraphrase old Tricky Dick, NASCAR isn’t going to have NBC to kick around anymore this season. (And the huddled crowd let out an exultant Hallelujah.)
Like most fans, I am eagerly looking forward to the return of ESPN/ABC to stock car broadcasts. It was the then fledgling sports network’s attempt to find original low cost sports programming back in the early ’80s that by and large put stock car racing on the map, at least as far as television. The arrangement helped both partners. ESPN and NASCAR both soared in popularity, and the ESPN broadcast crew became like family members you invited into your home on Sunday afternoon and greeted warmly as opposed to the FOX crew who seem to kick down your front door, raid the fridge, rape the dog and hold you hostage. I still have countless videotapes of races broadcast on ESPN back in the day, and if the production quality and graphics look a little dated these days, I still hold that any one of those broadcasts was far superior to the inane DW/Hammond/Myers/McReynolds Hee-Haw comedy hours that FOX presents in place of race coverage.
But with all due apologies to Mr. Jonathon Bon Jovi of North Jersey, I still ain’t convinced you can go home. Certainly ESPN/ABC made an excellent move in rehiring Neil Goldberg, who was the behind the scenes magician in the truck who added that special magic to ESPN races. But to what degree Mr. Goldberg is going to be allowed to practice his delightful craft is open to question. There’s several rungs up the food chain from Neil that will be weighing in on what we’ll see as well. Let’s face it, ABC is a corporation, not a charity. They’ve committed to spending the big bucks to reacquire the rights to NASCAR race broadcasts even knowing NBC had found such an endeavor a money-losing proposition. If you’re thinking ESPN is going to broadcast the second half of the races commercial-free to delight the fans, you’ve got another thing coming. And if you think high-dollar advertisers don’t have some sway as to what you see as far as the race broadcast itself, you must never have contemplated why the UPS Ford got so much camera time even while DJ was running in 30-somethingth place all race long.
Well, maybe old Jon (who I’ve always considered sort of B-grade Boss with better hair but lamer tunes) is right and you CAN go home. 46 years roaming this earth, a majority of them as a fan of stock car racing, have taught me to hope for the best and expect the worst. If you don’t expect much, you can’t help but be impressed. But if you’re expecting ESPN broadcasts to resemble the glory days, I’ll meet you on your front porch in that lonely cool before dawn.
Either way, there’s no guarantee that the new broadcast partner will be the magic bullet that fixes ratings. It didn’t happen with ice hockey or basketball. What can fix the ratings is the product itself, not how the product is broadcast. Lacking compelling races week in and week out that leave fans gasping on the couch trying to assimilate those final few laps is a far cry from a side-by-side race to the finish that leaves them eager to tell co-workers on Monday morning, “You don’t know what you’re missing,” Unfortunately, I predict NASCAR will continue down that steep downhill slope to the Arctic cold of the “last hot thing.”
A Thinning of the Herd: As noted above, its going to be tough for many teams to make the races this year. With the possibility of 55 cars showing up to compete for 43 spots, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy team owners watching their crews pack up the equipment prior to the big show. And if the team owners are going to be unhappy, one can only imagine how big-buck sponsors whose rolling billboards and poster boys aren’t in the race are going to feel. (Well, the bad news is Mikey missed the race, but the good news is that the ratings were down 20% over last year, so less people didn’t see him race. Oh and we could use another multi-million dollar check post-haste Mr. NAPA, sir.) With the current cost of racing (and I fail to see how the CoT will lower that cost) a team without a sponsor isn’t just endangered, it’s as good as extinct. With the current high-dollar contracts, any driver with a pulse or a good PR person will look for a way out if they start missing races; obviously, some teams aren’t going to make it, either. With some high profile organizations like Robert Yates Racing already reeling on the ropes, time is short for those teams to turn things around. Who will fall by the wayside? Stay tuned.
Editor’s Note: Look For Part II of Matt McLaughlin’s Season Preview to be posted on Tuesday, right here on Frontstretch.