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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR’s Opportunity in a Troubled Economy

In the press conference announcing the coming Camping World sponsorship of the Truck Series, every NASCAR fan’s favorite CEO commented on the future with a shaky economy dominating the headlines. Incidentally, while I wouldn’t often be mistaken as a member in any kind of a standing of the Brian France Fan Club, he probably does deserve credit for nailing down sponsorship for the Truck Series. This is a series that looked to be skating on thin ice with Craftsman bailing and advertising budgets being cut, but since they at least haven’t tainted their points system, the series is a winner with a lot of fans.

France announced that there were no plans to change the field sizes in races, which is good news if for no other reason than it is a sign that NASCAR isn’t panicking. Not that it would be a terrible thing to reduce the fields… at least then everyone would have their own pit stall at Dover… but if we still have 43 and only 41 make the entry list, it will likely still be worth everyone’s while.

This may have been a reason for NASCAR’s refusal to budge on the car design – with yet another new template, smaller teams that were catching up will once again be at a disadvantage. Their purses will be smaller and their finishes lower, which in turn makes sponsorship harder to come by.

Standing firm on the template for the car is still a risky move, even with this being considered. The current car is clearly unpopular with both crew chiefs and drivers, not to mention a sizable legion of fans, so much so that NASCAR had to put the clamps on drivers’ public complaints and leave it to the fans and disgruntled columnists like me to moan about it. But France insists that this car enables teams to have fewer cars built for the entire season, which of course cuts costs. (Perhaps rearranging the schedule to only include speedways was an effort to cut costs in the same manner. Ha ha.) The car has proven to take a tremendous toll on the best Goodyear can come up with – the last thing NASCAR needs if sports fans’ disposable income shrinks would be another Indy.

France also said that “We’re off, (meaning “not where they want to be” – France probably fantasizes about giving post-race interviews as a driver) but only in sort of single digits as of now.” Well, that’s debatable, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that NASCAR still does a fair chunk of business.

France did note that people were particularly attached to sports, and as such, NASCAR and other major sports are not hit as hard by economic slowdowns. This is, I’m convinced, because sports provide an escape from people’s day-to-day problems, and because rooting for a sports team or driver gives a person an identity, a feeling of belonging. (Which is really stupid, I know, but I’ve been guilty of it plenty myself.) Escaping from daily life’s troubles and becoming someone even in a small sense will transcend and sometimes even be encouraged by money troubles. People will find a way to make seeing their favorite team happen.

But that’s also a reason to show thanks to fans that have stuck with the sport through good times and bad. This is something that most major sports don’t bother with these days, because they don’t have to once they become major and no longer minor sports. This is an opportunity for NASCAR to show more concern for fans, especially the blue-collar ones, than most major sports do.

Supposing, hypothetically, that the economic news gets worse and people have less money to spend. Where does NASCAR go to meet them?

The key to that answer is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the cost to the fan. And to let fans know it’s happening.

Warren Buffett recently wrote an article about what to do in a crisis like this, and he had advice that makes sense: when others are greedy be wary, and when others are wary be greedy. His point, if I understand correctly, is that when people are worried about their finances they don’t buy. They sell. And that is when buyers do well on their future investments.

How does this apply to NASCAR? NASCAR right now should be buying… sacrificing capital for more affordable seats, offering incentives for loyal fans or splitting costs of bargains with local hotels. When people are struggling, anyone who wants to be successful in business emphasizes value, and they find ways to charge less, not more. (Governments never seem to grasp this concept.) This isn’t going to be easy for NASCAR to do with one of the most expensive event tickets in sports. But there are ways.

They could work with hotel chains and promote, say, a free future weekday night as a bonus for staying in a hotel within 50 miles of the track for at least three days on race weekend. That would take some of the sting out of the inflated cost of hotel rooms on those weekends, and would be certainly be worth it for a Best Western or Holiday Inn, selling an extra night or two at race weekend prices.

The Sunoco campaign of free gas with Elliott Sadler sneaking around looking for Sunoco stickers on cars is a good idea. People travel thousands of miles in cars and RVs to go to NASCAR races. They’ll promote Sunoco for a chance at free gas.

Reducing ticket prices might be difficult, but NASCAR could certainly offer discounted packages that include tickets for the Nationwide and/or Camping World races on race weekend. I don’t know how many tracks offer such packages, but if people are making a pilgrimage to see a race, they probably wouldn’t mind paying a few extra bucks to throw in a truck race, especially if they know they’re getting a deal. And it would give the lesser series much needed exposure – people would realize that a Nationwide Series race can be just as exciting as a Cup race.

I hate to suggest this at a time when politicians on both sides are frowning on the idea of “spreading the wealth around”, but could the sizes of the largest paydays (say, the top 15 in each race) be reduced? Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. aren’t hurting for money at this point, so any way that would help lower the cost at the ticket booth could give NASCAR a boost. It’s not really spreading the wealth around per se… it’s giving fans who pay drivers’ considerable salaries a break.

Another edge NASCAR has is parking. At several NASCAR tracks – like Richmond and Pocono – parking is absolutely free, and given the hideous parking fees many sports charge (Soldier Field in Chicago pockets $40 a car every Sunday), that’s something that could be promoted. Why not point out what the total cost of attending a football or baseball game is relative to a NASCAR race? There’s a heck of a lot more to it than just the face value of the ticket.

Even if attendance drops, there are also the viewers at home, and NASCAR could take measures to court them. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the broadcasts seemed to have improved somewhat these days. But why not try to find a way to put on a broadcast where no green flag racing is missed?

With the TNT side-by-side broadcast at Daytona being as popular as it was, I’m not sure why NASCAR would not try it at more races. It may be that while the race is on half of the screen and an advertisement is on the other, people aren’t paying as much attention to the advertisement. But if people aren’t continuously exasperated by constant interruptions of the action, they might not be so quick to hit the mute button either.

More than anything else, NASCAR should see to it that fans are getting a good show. If they can do that, they likely won’t need to bother with all of the other niceties I’ve suggested here. Fix any tire problems for good at all of the tracks before going back to them. Use a fairer points system. Lighten up on the ridiculous penalties for innovation in setting up the car. Make broadcasts as painless for fans as possible. Forbid the No. 48 team from racing.

(Yes, of course I’m kidding on the last one.)

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I’m sure there will be all kinds of jokes about Kyle Busch’s burnin’ speed in the Billy Ballew truck at Texas. From what I understand, the primary No. 51 is ok and just really wet from the water used to put out the truck fire. Nothing worse than racing in a wet seat.
  • I keep forgetting to submit it, but I have a Top 10 list called “Top 10 Ways Jeff Gordon Could End His Winless Streak.” Number 9: Attach transponders to middle fingers of Gordon-haters, scoring another lap for the No. 24 every time an anti-fan expresses feelings. Given what happened with the No. 24 at Texas earlier this year, I’m betting I’ll have a good chance to submit it next week.
  • Jimmie has about wrapped it up, which goes to show that a driver can build up a big lead in seven races just as easily as in 25. NASCAR had to corrupt the points system to figure out that one.
  • Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, finally ending a decades-long championship drought for a town so hungry for a winner that they have a statue of a fictional movie character in their sports complex. And congratulations to the Tampa Bay Rays on finally ending a decade-long series of last-place finishes in the AL East. Happy for both teams and glad the White Sox got beat.

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