NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: “Our” NASCAR? Nice Try, Brian

Prior to the start of the 2008 NASCAR season, Brian France held his annual “state of the sport” press conference. In his announcements, to the surprise of some accustomed to the sport’s general arrogance about criticism, he admitted that some hardcore fans had been driven away from the sport. He also stated that NASCAR had experienced all the change it could stand for a while and was going to reach out to fans that had been alienated.

This was followed by two commercials that have been airing regularly during each race this season. One proclaims the sport to be “Your NASCAR, My NASCAR, Our NASCAR;” another shows classic moments from the 1960s through today with Matchbox 20’s “How Far We’ve Come” playing in the background, an obvious attempt to show one long uninterrupted string of excitement through the years.

The commercials deliberately focus on the sport’s tradition and history. They remind us that in every era of NASCAR, there have been great finishes, great victory celebrations and great rivalries.

When I say “nice try,” it isn’t meant to be sarcastic or critical. It is actually meant as a compliment. NASCAR had at least finally noticed that their unwelcome innovations in recent years have been Chasing (pun intended) traditional fans away from the sport. For recognizing that, they truly do deserve credit. That is a step in the right direction for an institution that appeared to be forgetting everything that had made it great.

But ultimately, a full-force marketing campaign and any number of speeches isn’t going to undo the damage done to NASCAR’s old-school fanbase during the Brian France era.

In 2003, there were six races in the Carolinas each year. That number was cut in half in just two years. Classic tracks in classic NASCAR country have been forsaken in favor of humdrum, uninteresting speedways elsewhere that bear little to no character or distinction. Most egregiously, the Labor Day race in Darlington, a tradition for more than half a century, was moved unceremoniously to Auto Club Speedway to the great chagrin of fans everywhere but in southern California.

Even an all-out ad blitz can’t have a conciliatory gesture type of effect that moving the Labor Day race back to Darlington could. And it would hardly be a bad business decision. No offense intended to the hardy crowd that attended and stayed for the debacle at ACS this February, but Fontana has performed badly on every level, and Darlington has been repaved and lights have been added. Yet this is not even close to being under consideration by people who clearly put sizable emphasis on the bottom line. Why not? They can keep two California races if they must. Just try giving Labor Day back to the Lady in Black.

HENDERSON: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

In 2004, NASCAR fans had a playoff system that rewards mediocrity and punishes achievement shoved down their throats despite their strong objections. Despite the fact that most people were perfectly fine with how Matt Kenseth won the title in 2003, NASCAR now simply hands out free points (or takes earned points away, however you look at it) after 26 races and then resumes the racing. Other than 10 measly points for a win (the equivalent of two or three spots on the racetrack), there is zero reward for performance during the first 26 races. In fact, the worse a top-12 team has performed, the more they benefit.

The Chase was so well thought out that it only took three years to see the need to tweak it, and last year NASCAR admitted that they may need to fix it again when Jeff Gordon had a 300-plus point lead completely wiped out. Who could have predicted that would happen?

In addition to being a contrived method of ensuring that more fans’ favorite drivers will have a shot at the title, no matter how deserving they may be, the Chase has brought about more of the “points racing” that Dale Earnhardt‘s fans in particular would despise. This has been especially apparent at the Bristol night race the last three seasons. Drivers take no chances and do no fighting for positions in a venue once revered for its carnage. It is quite an achievement to turn a Bristol night race into a bore.

In 2007, the current car was ushered in, touted as safer, less expensive, more competitive; you name it, the new car was going to be better than the old one in every way. But so far it has failed to live up to its promise in any way. The drivers’ opinions may not matter compared to what fans think of the racing, but it is obvious that the current car is extremely difficult to drive in the best of conditions. It is hard to imagine how safety features of a car’s design can constantly be praised when even the best ones on a particular day seem about to crash every other lap.

With the new car’s universal template, the differences between manufacturers are essentially nonexistent. Joe Gibbs Racing runs just as well in Toyotas as they did in Chevrolets. Roush Fenway Racing has a clear advantage on intermediate tracks with Fords, a manufacturer with whom no other team seems to run very well.

A car with little adjustment capability, combined with severe penalties usually associated with endangering a crew member for any team that dares step minutely out of the mandated tolerances, is a far cry from the run-what-ya-brung stock cars of old. Fans don’t want NASCAR to go back to those days necessarily, but there is a reason that more people watch NASCAR than watched IROC races.

Also in 2007, fans witnessed a poorly-written exclusivity agreement with their title sponsor resulting in an ugly and expensive lawsuit involving a sponsor of one of the most popular drivers in the sport. One can hardly manage something worse than NASCAR managed the Sprint/AT&T issue, and one can only manage it so poorly by being out of touch with typical fans.

It’s not that NASCAR has never had legal problems, but more than anything, the Sprint/AT&T debacle demonstrated the high expectations that go with lots of zeroes on contracts. Instead of keeping the matter out of court and compromising – and recognizing for the future that this sort of thing is always going to be a problem with exclusivity agreements – NASCAR made Sprint look like dictators and AT&T look like victims. Sprint and NASCAR both could have been spared a great deal of trouble and bad PR had they just let AT&T sponsor the No. 31 for the remainder of the “grandfathered” agreement.

Instead, NASCAR severely underestimated the order of race fan loyalty to the driver first, the driver’s sponsor second, the driver’s team third and the series title sponsor and NASCAR itself a very distant last. That order is not new. You can bet that many Jeff Burton fans, or maybe even just fans in general disgusted by the whole mess, switched their cell service to AT&T had they been using Sprint. Sprint’s stock dropped 60% in 2007. Their sales have plummeted to the point where AT&T could say without reservation that they just might be sticking around. They could have just asked a few fans what they thought.

NASCAR’s television broadcasts remain lacking. There are still too many commercials, too many meaningless asides needlessly taking the viewer away from the action and too many production toys like the gopher cam and the draft track. Fans watched in big numbers before Digger came along and before ESPN explained the draft to them every week. Their only desire has always been to just see racing. To be sure, FOX’s coverage has improved this season, but ESPN/ABC’s coverage last season could have made any network look masterful at it.

The list doesn’t quite end there. There has also been a growing inconsistency in recent years with the timing of yellow flags, from throwing it for a piece of foam rubber on the track to not throwing it while a dozen cars are wrecking. The new green-white-checkered overtime instituted to ensure a green-flag finish often results in overzealous drivers wrecking and dangerously lingering in harm’s way as officials try to finish under green. A new rule giving a driver his lap back for being the first car a lap down enabled a driver to make up five laps in a single race without having to actually race for any of them.

Even with all of this, racing has still had great moments in the last few years. Kevin Harvick edging Mark Martin by inches to win at Daytona while a car crossed the finish line upside down and on fire. Gordon paying tribute to Earnhardt at Phoenix. Kurt Busch pushing teammate Ryan Newman to a win at this year’s 500. Burton sliding into an improbable win at Bristol. Jimmie Johnson overtaking Kenseth at Texas. Carl Edwards‘s victory backflip anywhere.

But since the rise of the cookie-cutter tracks, the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, the rule of money in sponsorship, some truly atrocious broadcasts, inconsistent yellow flags and many other things, the NASCAR fans who cheered for Richard Petty, Earnhardt and ol’ DW are still reeling watching the current product on their televisions today. The sport will change and evolve enough without it being forced by leadership trying to legislate more excitement, and the perception that the sport was consistently disregarding the loyal hardcore fans in favor of the casual fairweather ones is what the Winston crowd resented the most.

NASCAR and Brian France have a long way to go. The ratings were up for the first five races of 2008, but attendance continues to plummet, at least from any fan’s view of the stands that they are allowed to see. Martinsville and Texas actually covered the seats in whole sections to hide that no one was sitting there. It may be that the old-school fans aren’t willing to part with their money anymore for an institution that for many years seemed to show them little to no respect. A struggling economy is not an excuse. NASCAR had been recession-proof in the past, at least before tickets were priced at the “milk it” level.

The ad campaign really is a good start, but it’s not “our” NASCAR as long as “we” have to pay for a ticket. It’s indisputably Brian France’s NASCAR, and he and his kingdom still have to earn “our” support.

Kurt’s Shorts In The Dry Heat Of Phoenix

  • One year ago at this track, Gordon tied Earnhardt on the all-time wins list, and paid tribute to the Intimidator by carrying a “3” flag around the track. Some Earnhardt fans resented that, as if it were an “in your face” gesture, from someone who was friends with Earnhardt, did business with him, and who bends over backwards to not come off as cocky in every interview. It’s always something with that guy.
  • Tony Stewart is usually pretty darn good in the desert, even if he hasn’t won since 1999. But Gibbs had the new car hooked up last year, and Smoke has probably not forgotten how he was somewhat denied a win here last year. Watch that Home Depot No. 20 Saturday night.
  • While I still think Jeremy Mayfield could have been given more of a chance, I get why Haas put Johnny Sauter in the car. They need to get back into the Top 35 and he does very well at Phoenix for some reason. But they let him go once before, and one wonders if they soon remember why.

And that’s it for Happy Hour this week. Welcome to the desert.

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