Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just five days away… and counting.
But as fans anxiously anticipate the end of another offseason, it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of NASCAR. For the third straight year at Frontstretch, your favorite writers previewed the upcoming 2008 season, providing a look into the good, the bad and the ugly expected to face the sport throughout the next nine months. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading over the last week as we’ve enjoyed giving you food for thought heading into the coming year…
So, without further ado, here’s the sixth and last part of our preview. Miss any of the first five parts? No need to worry; click the links below to catch up.
Today’s Season Preview Topic: After a year of declining TV ratings and empty seats in the stands, NASCAR is going to work hard this season to win back the fans. What’s the most important thing they need to do in order to stop the bleeding?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
The challenge is daunting, but the sport needs to stop the march towards the Formula 1-style setup of only ultra-rich multi-car teams. NASCAR has had a history based around the fact that even the most hardscrabble independent team and driver can succeed. Just look at Alan Kulwicki‘s owner/driver championship from 1992; but now, that attitude crumbles in the face of gigantic race teams turned mini-corporations in Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs. It’s not that those car owners are bad people; to the contrary, someone like Hendrick is looked at as one of the most benevolent, genuine people ever to enter the racing business. But the way in which they utilize technology, engineers and the exorbitant amount of money they’re throwing up on the board goes against much of what made this sport popular in the first place.
There needs to be a way in which single-car operations can not just survive, but thrive, an environment where the underdog can make it on the same playing field as the favorites. And while you’re at it, allow drivers to speak their minds; the concept of rivalry is disappearing just as much with them as it is with teams.
In the end, that’s why names like Juan Pablo Montoya and Carl Long are some of the most important to NASCAR’s future. Montoya’s attitude of “he tells it like it is” keeps the landscape somewhat politically incorrect, and Long still tries to make a name for himself in a culture where the ultimate underdog is all but stuffed out. If NASCAR can go back to embracing both those ideals and work on cutting down the four-car superteam phenomenon, it’s a start…
But far easier said than done.
Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)
There is nothing NASCAR can do to bring back fans that have already lost interest; however, they can work to keep the ones they have. A good start would be to drop the ridiculous Top-35 rule and eliminate the antiquated process of awarding provisionals – simply let the fastest 43 race each week. The next step is to reduce ticket prices in order to make the race weekends affordable once again. By bringing our children, NASCAR is almost assured an audience in the future – at least until they are old enough to disagree with the politics of the sport. And they need to quit taking race dates away from our short tracks. Although this hasn’t happened in a few seasons now, it is sure to rear its ugly head again soon enough. Remember this, NASCAR; if you alienate and out-price too many fans, you can’t sell all those fancy speedway seats.
Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary Coordinator)
Here’s a random thought – the empty seats at the track might be less a product of what NASCAR is putting out and more a product of the economy being down. Tickets, fuel, hotels, meals all cost a small fortune, and they’re slowly rising while the amount of money people have to spend shrinks – so many of those empty seats might be a result of people who just can’t afford to go anymore. That’s not to say the product has no bearing… I just don’t feel like that is the main part of it. As for the TV ratings, that’s a different story. Broadcasts over the last several years have been bland, unexciting and feel watered down. I know some of it is a product of the racing – you can only polish it so much. But some of it is the broadcast, because people will tell you the same race that was boring on TV was exciting in person. Televised broadcasts are too corporate, too contrived, too made for TV – some of which is the broadcast and some of which is NASCAR. Come to think of it, the TV may be what affects the attendance – and if I’ve lost interest on TV, I’m less likely to pay soaring sums of money to go in person. I challenge anyone to watch any race from 10 years ago and any race from today side-by-side and tell me they don’t see the difference.
Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Even if we’re stuck with the Chase, NASCAR needs to find some semblance of their roots – get rid of the Top-35 rule, then move Darlington back to its rightful status as a jewel of the circuit and a Labor Day weekend fixture. If NASCAR wants to stop the bleeding, they need to start listening to what their fans really want… and that’s not gimmicks and theatrics.
Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
There are a handful of changes that need to be made, but when I hear Tony Stewart say something to the effect of “I’m keeping my mouth shut so I don’t get in trouble,” I cringe. Fans of any sport love (and hate) personality. Without it, the game is slighted. I hope drivers are allowed to once again show emotion without the fear of penalty.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)
While not directly under NASCAR’s control, the most important thing it can do to stop the bleeding is to stop the bleating that dominates today’s race broadcasts on FOX, TNT and ESPN/ABC. While some races still draw big crowds, even the largest events are seen on TV by many more fans than are actually in attendance at the track. For better or worse, fans’ perceptions of the sport are formed based on the race broadcasts. I’ll give you that the broadcasters can’t make the bad races much fun to watch but they have proven their ability to make even somewhat interesting races unbearable to the viewers. My prescription to fix the race broadcasts is simple: the networks need less people saying less, letting the cameras work to convey the action on track to the viewers without telling them what they are seeing. If you strip away the talking heads and most of the gadgetry and get back to the basics, you’ll have real racing for real fans, real quick.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)
“A year?” Hello! Try the last three years! NASCAR needs to stop being about blatantly making the France family more money and get back to being about the racing. Brian France is realizing his vision to capture the “casual fan,” but today’s casual fan WAS yesterday’s hardcore fan. High prices, endless France rhetoric and total disregard for tradition has totally turned people off. Get Brian out of the chair and let Uncle Jim run the show and maybe, just maybe, the bleeding will be stopped. Even then, with the economy the way it is, I don’t foresee many families spending their proposed government “rebate” checks on a trip to the NASCAR track this summer. The government would have to at least double the amount of the check for it to be of any use – especially at an ISC venue.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
The most important thing NASCAR can do to win back the fans is forget about trying to “grow” the sport through the philosophy of trying to make every nickel possible. NASCAR needs to help the promoters make some ticket prices more affordable for families. They need to make it easier for broadcasters to cut down on the amount of commercials, so that there is more action, too; going to the split screen like the IRL should be looked at as an option for the future. Also, they need to increase the payouts in the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide series as incentive for some more people to start up some teams and compete in those divisions… both could be looking at short fields this year.
Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
Popular writer Tommy Thompson couldn’t look into the crystal ball this year – he was too busy having a ball of his own getting married! Congratulations on your marriage, Tommy, from all the Frontstretch staff… to the fans, Tommy sends his regards and looks forward to returning to the fold on Wednesday!
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)
It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing when it comes to fixing the things NASCAR has messed up. They’ve completely abandoned quite a few of the traditions that made the sport what it is today. From moving the Labor Day race from Darlington to the Chase system to the Car of Tomorrow and more, the fans that have defected have quite a few reasons to stay away. The biggest thing that comes to mind, though, is the CoT. The drivers have said how hard the car is to handle and how easily it changes from loose to tight in an instant. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of the first drivers to cry out against the CoT when NASCAR first implemented it. “I’ll be just trying to keep it off the fence. I think it’ll be hard not to hit the wall,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The way these things get tight, it’ll be hard and slow, real slow. Very, very frustrating. Really, really, really frustrating.”
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
The horse may already be out of the barn on this one, but the powers that be in Daytona will (hopefully) do what they need to before it’s too late. NASCAR gained notoriety because it was underground and not exactly mainstream. One thing is that races need to start on time around noon ET, and NASCAR is taking steps this season to help remedy that. But what really needs to be addressed is the poor television coverage. FOX’s coverage is probably the best, and that’s not saying a whole lot. ESPN was a major disappointment for longtime fans who remember that the tiny cable network rose to prominence thanks to NASCAR, and vice versa. However, a poor product on the track will never be able to be marketed – no matter how much you try and shove it down everyone’s throat.
Mike Lovecchio, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot And Who’s Not)
The fans that left aren’t coming back. Fans can no longer associate their street cars with the cars on the track, and with more and with more driver changes happening, even some of the current diehard fans can’t tell who’s in what car. NASCAR has already put itself in a major hole that’s going to take more than a year to get out of. It was a good start to make consistent start times this year. The bottom line is good racing will draw fans once again – it’s that simple.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert (Mondays/Rookie Report)
To my pleasant surprise, NASCAR is already on the right track. First off, making minimal changes for 2008 is a big step in the right direction. Hardcore fans are traditionalists and do not accept the “new season – new rules” environment that has existed over the past few years. Setting earlier start times for some races is a good move, too, as most fans are not crazy about having the checkered flag coinciding with dinner time.
The next steps in this process would include less commercials and eliminating fabricated “debris cautions” at the end of many races. During the ’90s when the sport took off, there were both sleepers and exciting finishes, but each event was allowed to play out on its own – not at the hands of NASCAR officials.
Nikki Krone, Senior Writer (Fridays/David Starr Driver Diary Coordinator)
I think the biggest problem NASCAR has had – and I believe they kind of admitted it themselves – is the ever-changing rulebook. It seems like every week, they are changing something “for the good of the sport,” but it just seems to mess things up. I think the bigger teams like Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs are pretty capable of adapting to the new rules quickly every week, but the smaller and more inexperienced teams NASCAR claims they are trying to help are probably hurt the most.
I think NASCAR needs to stop changing the rules so often; but at the same time, I think they need to sit down and get very specific on a few of the rules to make it clear for everyone. It seems that so many things have been such a judgment call the last few years, where one guy gets one penalty for something and another gets a different penalty for almost the same thing or even worse. If the fans don’t feel they can trust NASCAR, then they aren’t likely to want to spend their time and money supporting it.
S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)
Three things. Stop trying to dazzle us with multi-hour pre-shows full of nicely produced nothing; stop trying to appeal to the crisply pressed multitudes who have never changed their own oil; and stop trying to make this sport something it isn’t. It’s loud, occasionally rude and unpredictable… show us the grease!