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Voices from the Heartland: Could “Stick and Ball” Owners Save NASCAR’s Integrity?

Ever since Brian France took over at the helm of NASCAR, it is well documented that it has been his dream for it to become as popular as your traditional “stick and ball” sports, most notably, professional football. In the first few years of his reign, his unabashed comparisons and ramblings about racing’s ratings vs. the NFL’s became so extreme, sometimes it made me wonder whether he was trying to make up for a bad football bench warming episode during his formative years. But let’s face it; before Brian Z. took over, the NFL was what it was and NASCAR was, well, NASCAR. Traditionally, the predominantly ‘good ole boys’ of the Southern racing community liked a good football game now and then, and your NFL fan was your basic guy who usually also likes fast cars. Comparisons between the two weren’t usually made; however, now it’s a different story.

We now have “The Chase,” a racing playoff system that was strictly made up to mimic the football playoffs. They now call the Daytona 500 the “Super Bowl” of NASCAR, a move which I can’t positively blame on Brian. It seems to me someone might have called it that before he took over… but it is a moniker that he has embraced nonetheless. In his quest to capture what France dubbed “the casual fan,” we now suffer through two immensely unpopular races a year in the Los Angeles area, simply because it is the second-largest ‘market’ in the country; never mind the fact that even the NFL can’t seem to make a go of it in that town. Racing tradition be damned – Brian France is gonna do it! Remember last Labor Day in Fontana? I believe the official reason the stands were not full is because the shopping was so great on the midway. This year, I’m sure the official reason will be the “unseasonably warm” weather. Whatever the changes, they have all been gimmicks.

But no amount of mischief can stop a growing tide of disinterest, After an initial rise and an obscene price that NASCAR commanded for its TV partners to broadcast the races, ratings have dropped faster than a ring-neck pheasant at the end of my 12-gauge pump on a November weekend. (OK, I admit, once in a while I miss and the bird continues to rise, just as an occasional race’s rating beats the previous years.) Changes have already been made to the ‘playoffs’ so more stars might get in (to create better ratings, no less.) Meanwhile, the grotesquely obese price that NASCAR initially wanted for title sponsorship of the (now) Busch Series has been ignored, and is rumored to be cut in half. But, if you have been a regular reader of this column, you shouldn’t be surprised at NASCAR’s sudden downturns as, at one time or another over the last four years, I have predicted a lot of it. There has been one changing aspect of NASCAR as we know it that I did not see coming.

However, and now that the downhill slope is here and seems to be a growing trend, I can’t help but think it might ultimately be beneficial to the sport. Huh? I see you scratching your head… I’m talking about the growing power of the car owner.

In the past, NASCAR has had, for the most part, the same old cast of characters when it came to team owners, and the France family has pretty much had their way with them over the years. It has always been “their way or the highway, baby,” and if you didn’t like it… well, tough. However, with recent team ownership changes, just think how things might be different. While France has miserably failed to bring the “stick and ball” fan to NASCAR, the owners are successfully bringing the “stick and ball” MONEY to their businesses.

Consider what has happened just this year:

  • Jack Roush sold half of his team to Fenway Sports Group, led by John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, creating Roush Fenway Racing.
  • Ray Evernham partners with George Gillett, who happens to own the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, forming Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Gillett is also a co-owner of the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League, which isn’t really a football team at all, but rather, a soccer team. Perhaps, if no one tells Brian, he won’t know the difference and – in some small way – feel vindicated.
  • Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, owners of Hall of Fame Racing (I listed Roger first because he was winning Lombardis long before Troy), recently announced that they have sold controlling interest of HFR to two men named Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel. Moorad and Garfinkel just happen to be the CEO and COO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively.

Just this last weekend, a fellow by the name of Tom Hicks (and family members) were the royal guests of Richard Childress at California Speedway. Mr. Hicks just happens to own the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball and the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Oh, and did I mention he is also co-chairman (with Gillette) of the afore mentioned Liverpool Football Club? (Which, as we have already established, is a clever way the English disguise a soccer team.) Mr. Hicks had “no comment” when asked if a possible merger between himself and RCR was imminent, and we all know what “no comment” usually means.

As I see it, these ownership mergers, among others that have happened this year, equate to nothing less than more power to the teams themselves. No longer is Brian France just dealing with one guy that they (NASCAR) can tell to “shut up and sit down” when an objection is raised. Could this sort of power be evidenced by Jack Roush’s recent assertion that NASCAR plays favorites according to how much ad money is spent by various sponsors? I find it hard to believe anyone of that stature would have made such an accusation a year or two ago.

What I would like to see happen, and maybe this is just my own Pelican Brief-way of thinking, is that ultimately, these new groups of owners, who own teams in sports that are played with a finite set of rules and independent officials, eventually demand that NASCAR, too, turn over its officiating to independent sources.

When you stop to think about it, the arbitrary enforcement of the rules in NASCAR is one of the biggest things that rob the sport of its true integrity. Brian France needs to decide if he truly wants to be in the “stick and ball” league or not. Perhaps the new “stick and ball” owners, and the power they wield, may someday lead him down the right path.

Hey, it COULD happen; and if it does, remember, you heard the theory here first!

Stay off the wall,

Jeff Meyer

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