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Voices from the Heartland: Judging NASCAR’s ISC – The Titanic Looked Pretty Majestic, Too, Even While Sinking!

We all know that NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation (ISC) are basically one and the same. They are run by siblings Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy. One sanctions the races, while the other owns the lion’s share of the race tracks upon which the races are run. They are tighter than a “newbie” released into general population on a prison cell block.

Over the years, these two corporations have amassed billions of dollars for the France family, and have taken stock car racing to popularity heights that were once thought unattainable. But that was “back in the day!”

In the last six years, this “Titanic” corporate entanglement seems to have hit an iceberg or two along its journey. For ISC, one of the ‘bergs was the complete and utter rebuff of fans from city dwellers in New York (a much coveted jewel to add to the sibling’s crowns) and the Pacific Northwest. For NASCAR, the biggest iceberg that it encountered, at full ramming speed I might add, was Brian France himself.

After receiving the reins to the company from his late father, Bill France Jr., Brian was like an 8-year-old boy on Christmas morning. In came the Chase, in came multi-billion dollar deals with Nextel and the television networks, in came the CoT, in came the blatant desire to be bigger than the NFL, in came the aggressive schedule changes in pursuit of nothing more than “the casual fan” and the biggest “markets.” Among other things, out to the trash heap went Winston, the traditional points system, and – probably most important – long-held traditions of the sport.

As with any impact on the scale of a large ship hitting an iceberg, vibrations and shudders were soon felt. Television ratings began dropping. Attendance figures began going down. Fans screamed at the tops of their lungs to no avail about moving the Labor Day race to the “second-largest market.” Fans ranted about rising ticket prices and tracks (mostly ISC tracks) only selling tickets in “packages.” Fans (and drivers) said the new car sucked and made for boring races. Sponsors are fleeing the sport like lemmings over a cliff. Yet all of these warning signs went unheeded by co-captains France and Kennedy. Why, Brian himself would annually get up in front of a large group every year and tell us that “everything is just fine!” “The sport is as healthy as it’s ever been.” “This sport is unsinkable!”

But is it really, or are the “captains” finally feeling their feet getting wet? Consider the following;

In the first half of this year, ISC recorded a net LOSS of $6.5 million compared to a net PROFIT of $62.25 million over the same period of 2008. ISC of course, writes most of that off on the fact that their merchandising arm, Motorsports Authentics (MA), has been struggling greatly to the tune of a $55.6 million write-off.

MA, as you might be aware, is partnership between ISC and SMI that formed to buy out the successful Action Performance brand that was wildly successful, but of which ISC was getting none of the profit. At its peak in 2002 as Action Performance, AP had $400 million in revenue and over 500 employees before the buyout. In 2008, Motorsports Authentics had $200 million in revenue, and analysts predict that in 2009 those numbers could drop to $125 million and fewer than 200 employees. Reports in the last few days indicate the MA may soon file bankruptcy altogether.

On the more publicized NASCAR side of things, as mentioned before, ratings and attendance are at all-time lows since the first major TV contract was signed in 2001. A prime example of that is the fact that this year’s August night race at Bristol (an SMI track) sold out only DAYS before the event. What was once one of the hardest of tickets in all SPORTS to obtain, can now be easily had at modest prices.

These are but a few of the problems that has begat the ISC/NASCAR ship. But what is being done about it?

For NASCAR, even while he just recently said that lower ratings did not concern him, Brian France (or someone with a brain anyway) seems to suddenly be listening to the few “traditional,” hardcore fans that haven’t already jumped overboard. The implementation of “double-file restarts, shootout style” was a step in the right direction, as was the mostly symbolic schedule change of moving the Labor Day race back to the South, even if it was to Atlanta. Another sudden change that took place only yesterday was the out of the blue announcement that unified start times for races will be implemented for the 2010 season, addressing another longtime beef of the fans.

Why the sudden changes of heart by Brian France? Why is France only now “listening to the fans?” Because he is scared, that’s why!

But what about ISC? What are they doing to stop the water from coming in?

Well, they have started to offer “single event” tickets at selected tracks. Let’s see, what else is there… oh yeah! ISC recently announced they are changing their corporate logo! Gone is the old logo, and in comes a new, sportier one, which still maintains the rich history of the old!

Well, ain’t that grand! Here ya got a company that has tracks barely eight years old (Kansas) that need repaving or fixing, one in Fontana which needs a whole new reconfiguration, and a whole lot of other infrastructure problems at other tracks that need attending…but wait, we can’t afford to do that now! No, ISC needs to join a venture to build a casino at Kansas, and since they are moving into brand new headquarters in Daytona, they might as well have a new logo! How much is it to change a logo for a large corporation such as ISC, and how long would it take? I wondered that, too, so I asked ISC’s Director of Marketing Communications, Lenny Santiago.

“We have not disclosed the costs related to the new logo development and rollout. Given the timing of our move into the new International Motorsports Center in Daytona Beach, and upcoming launch of a new corporate website, it made sense to revisit our logo and update it at this time,” Santiago said. “To answer your second question, we continue to be cost-conscious so there will be a period of time over the next several months before it becomes universally adopted… but the logo itself is final. It’s just not financially prudent for us to immediately scrap perfectly usable business collateral.”

Another ISC change (although unneeded in my opinion) is the raising of the catchfences at Talladega and Daytona as a response to Carl Edwards crash earlier this year in ‘Dega. I say unneeded because hey, the fence DID it job as designed; it put the car back on the track with only minimal shrapnel damage to a few fans. Apparently, that is not enough for ISC, as they have installed a bigger and better fence on that will presumably fling a car even further back into the track. As with the logo, the cost of this is not being revealed either but whatever it is, ISC has said when it comes to safety, the cost is never too great. It’s just a shame they didn’t think that way prior to February 2001.

Are all these sudden changes enough to save the floundering ISC/NASCAR ship? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: with new logos, new buildings, new fences… she’ll sure look good if she does go down! One thing, though, that has to amuse the longtime fan is the sudden backpedaling of Brian France! Who wants me back now, eh!?

Stay off the wall (you might scuff the new logo!),

Jeff Meyer

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