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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: It’s Time for Brian France to Step Down

“Not every race is a barnburner. If you are a good fan, and you didn’t get what you wanted, it’s OK to be disappointed and we can be disappointed right along with you. We’re here to put on the best races we can, and we do a damn good job of it most of the time.” – Robin Pemberton, during the Indianapolis race

“I can’t say enough how sorry we are. It’s our responsibility being NASCAR that we don’t go through this situation again… I don’t feel real good about it right now. I think if you had talked to anybody that’s been around me the last 48 hours, they’ll probably back me up on that. It’s difficult, it’s hard. We do beat ourselves up.” – Robin Pemberton, after 48 hours of severe fan backlash from the Indianapolis race

These are two statements from the same person about the same event that are decidedly different in tone. It’s easy to think that finally, after two days of fans and writers voicing their disgust, NASCAR has awakened to the reality that this wasn’t a good time to be arrogant about their effort.

But this columnist is going to take Pemberton at his word. The apology is accepted from this end, but The Official Columnist is not going to speak for those who trucked to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and paid for last Sunday’s disaster. NASCAR will have to talk to them.

And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? I don’t remember hearing contrition even remotely resembling this after the Charlotte tire debacle in 2005, a race that I did spend money and travel several hundred miles to attend. It never occurred to me to ask for a refund, but if someone suggested it, I certainly wouldn’t have argued. I was pretty darned angry. And back then would have been a good time for NASCAR to say “this won’t happen again.” But it did.

PUGLIESE: REFLECTIONS ON INDY, THE WORST RACE EVER

There are two reasons that the Indianapolis backlash was so ravenous in the couple of days after the race, aside from the actual race itself. The first reason was NASCAR’s initial reaction – that good fans will shut up and keep buying tickets. And the second reason is that this has happened before – Charlotte or Atlanta, take your pick – so there really isn’t much explanation for the problem to have grown this big. Goodyear may bear some responsibility, at the very least since they should be aware that their name is attached to this. But ultimately, NASCAR is culpable for their product being in a decline that is growing steeper with the unacceptable piling up of preventable displays like we saw in Indianapolis. A local short track charging a tenth of what NASCAR collects for seats would have been embarrassed by it. Indy 2008 is going to be historic, and for awful reasons.

The CEO needs to take responsibility for that.

With his statement Tuesday, Pemberton has at least done something to dispel the image of NASCAR ignoring their audience and acting like nothing was wrong. The image that still remains, though, is Brian France counting the money from the gate.

This isn’t a push for a refund. Any sporting event is caveat emptor. Like everything else in the entertainment industry, seeing a race live is overpriced, especially when parking, hotels if necessary, and concessions are figured in. To anyone who shells out that kind of cash (myself included, by the way), if you don’t get your money’s worth, don’t go back.

And evidently people aren’t. A FOX Sports poll revealed that 40% of the people who watched the Brickyard train wreck – two out of five – said that they are done and will never watch a NASCAR race again. That’s 40% of over 70,000 votes or 28,000 customers that NASCAR may have lost permanently in a day. (The poll has since been removed from FOX Sports’ website.) Exaggeration, angry poll votes in the heat of the moment, people voting more than once, you say? Probably all of that is true. But there never used to be this many empty seats at Indy. It’s not like NASCAR wasn’t headed in that direction. If a tenth of those votes were sincere, it’s still too many.

Where is Brian France in all of this?

Forget that NASCAR is a sport for a moment. Brian France is the CEO of a large entity, and, in his tenure, has done more damage to its image than most stockholders would tolerate. Indianapolis ought to be the last straw. Imagine thousands of Windows customers buying a new operating system that slows their computer to a trickle. Can you even conceive of one of Microsoft’s top spokesmen immediately saying “not every OS is a barn-burner” or blaming IBM? Can you fathom Bill Gates being completely AWOL while his company’s customers are swearing off his products by the thousands?

NASCAR’s CEO hasn’t done anything publicly to address yet another black eye in a sport that doesn’t have a lot of unblackened eyes left. And it continues an ongoing reign in which few positives can be found.

France’s rule has been marked by his apparently subscribing to “megavitamin theory.” If you’ve ever met someone who chokes down those huge vitamin C or vitamin B pills, their thinking is that if a little is good, then a lot is great, which isn’t true. Passing is good for racing. That doesn’t mean cars should all be designed the same so that passing is happening all the time. An exciting finish to the season is good for the sport. That doesn’t mean a good finish should be forced by taking leading drivers’ points away. Moving some NASCAR races outside of the Southeast is good, because there are race fans everywhere. That doesn’t mean moving a longstanding tradition for half a century out of the Southeast is a great idea. There is a reason the XFL didn’t last. More is not always better.

Much of the uprooting of the sport in the past four years has been in the name of capturing the “casual fan.” You know who that means – the guy that turns up his nose and parrots “bunch of hillbillies going around in circles” at the mere mention of NASCAR. One wonders what the “casual fan” who tuned in to Indianapolis thought. Most likely it was: “What in Sam Hill is this? Where’s my remote?”

One way to attract the otherwise indifferent observer is to ensure that they see a good product when they do watch, particularly the events with the biggest likely amount of “casual” viewers. A race at the most storied venue in motorsports would probably fit into that category.

Some out there have said that the Indianapolis Cluster Fart 400 couldn’t have come at a worse time, with attendance dwindling and the economy keeping more fans at home. (Is it really the economy? Baseball’s attendance looks just fine to me, and ballgames sure aren’t cheap.) But in a smaller microcosm of history, the Indy C.F. 400 actually came at a fairly good time for NASCAR – if such a disaster had to take place – taking over the headlines one week after an inexplicable ruling in the Nationwide Series that was clearly meant to slow down only one manufacturer.

How does a major sport not anticipate backlash from fans at the idea of slowing down a manufacturer’s engines in a lesser series – especially when no similar measures were taken to slow another manufacturer who spent last season utterly stomping on the competition in the main series? If a piddling two-bit columnist can see that without blinking twice, how does NASCAR miss it?

Toyota has rightly expressed concern that this ruling could render them much less competitive and could drive their sponsors away, since sponsors want to win and Toyota (actually Joe Gibbs Racing) had been dutifully making them happy. Toyota should ask Richard Childress how concerned NASCAR is about the difficulties of acquiring sponsorships. GEICO and Verizon can’t help them there.

This sort of mismanagement has been typical of the Brian France era. NASCAR consistently looks bumbling and unable to police the sport properly or fairly. An unpopular playoff system has created a second half full of careful points racing. They have foisted a new car design that is increasingly seen as a disaster by everyone from crew chiefs to fans, especially after Indianapolis. It seems as though no one making decisions at NASCAR anticipates the consequences of those decisions.

And while paying customers are backlashing like sons of you-know-whats – on the message boards, on the blogs, with their remotes and with their leisure cash – the CEO refuses to take his head out of the sand, instead making excuses… gas prices, tough economy, fans complain too much, popular driver didn’t win.

It’s not as though NASCAR had no problems to address when Brian took over. The broadcasts were abominable even then, local hotels were ripping fans off blind on NASCAR weekends, and drivers were involved in terrifying wrecks at Daytona and Talladega every year. Those flaws are not only still glaring, but a whole new host of fan-turnoff issues have joined them – courtesy of the marketing-savvy efforts of NASCAR’s current CEO. Fixing what wasn’t broken and not fixing what was basically led NASCAR to where it is today. NASCAR could have made the experience much better for fans without more cowbell, and the sport would have kept booming. Instead, they may be one more Indianapolis away from irrelevance.

It’s easy to sit here and criticize, and it probably isn’t fun to have people clamoring for your head all the time. But that is the nature of a CEO’s position. When a sports team has an increasingly worse record every year for five straight years, the coach is going to go. Business is no different.

Even Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR icon and commentator, is puzzled at how NASCAR can rule that Toyota must slow down and how the sport got to the point it did at the Brickyard. And D.W. is no NASCAR basher – he often graciously repeats that “they’re doing the best they can.”

Maybe they are. But if what we saw at Indianapolis is NASCAR’s best, then their best isn’t good enough. And maybe it’s time for the guy who is sitting where the buck stops to hand over the reins to someone else.

Nothing personal. I don’t hate the guy. It’s just business.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Did you know that Brian France, in addition to being CEO of NASCAR, manages a marketing company called “Brandsense”? One of his clients… I swear, I am not making this up… is Britney Spears. Talk about a joke that writes itself!
  • I know his brother writes for this site and we greatly appreciate it. But what got into Rusty Wallace’s head in his insistence that Ryan Newman was fired from Penske? Why would he make a statement like that that can be so easily disproven? That was just bizarre. I don’t think it was a secret even to outsiders that Newman wasn’t happy there.
  • Jimmy Spencer wrote a column deriding Pocono Raceway on SPEED’s website this week, complaining about the length of races there, calling Pocono fans “either drunk or bored out of their minds” (as opposed to anyone who can listen interestedly while sober to Spencer’s bloviating), and proclaiming that Joe Mattioli is “stuck” with one of the few remaining tracks in NASCAR that fills seats. Personally, I think Spencer should be replaced before Pocono Raceway is.
  • Next week’s Happy Hour, as I head to Richmond for a day, is going to touch on the subject of the Nationwide Series pulling out of Mexico City. Has anyone heard of the Corona Series? The Official Columnist of NASCAR is inviting you to be with us to finally hear me say NASCAR got one right. Be here… aloha.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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