For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November….
Today’s Season Preview Topic: During the preseason media tour, NASCAR officials went out of their way to claim they’ll “loosen up” during the upcoming season, allowing drivers to be themselves. But will people actually showing their personalities make a dent in declining ratings and fan attendance? And will sponsors actually allow their drivers to follow those rules?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: We may have heard this song ‘n’ dance before, but I believe Brian France this time when he says the sport’s going to loosen up. When your wallet starts bleeding cash, you’ll do what you have to do to make it stop….
The problem I have is whether the drivers will follow suit. Sponsors have a say, too, and drivers like Tony Stewart are sick of closed-door meetings telling him to “behave” following behavior that’s not exactly politically correct. NASCAR can say they’ll back off… but will Lowe’s or Office Depot if their driver says something out of character?
I also think it’s tough for drivers to get more aggressive when they’re surrounded by three teammates. As we talked about Monday, 14 cars in the field are under the Roush or Hendrick banner, making 1-2 finishes from the same “team” more likely than ever. Will Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson still bang door-to-door to the checkered flag, just like at Martinsville a couple of years ago? Or will the conservatism of the points system combined with teamwork philosophy win out?
If the answer to that last question’s “no,” than this “loosening up” deal is a step in the right direction. Otherwise, there’s plenty more work to be done.
Kurt Smith, Happy Hour (Fridays): Lack of personality isn’t NASCAR’s problem; lack of leadership is. There is a band-aid rule change almost every week now trying to get the ratings back, when the things that caused them to drop in the first place – cookie-cutter tracks and Chase-inspired points racing – are not.
Add the fact that Johnson and Hendrick predictably won everything every year – something NASCAR doesn’t seem to mind like they did in the past – and it all comes together in a recipe of trouble for the sport. NASCAR could lift the testing ban and give other teams another tool to help catch up to Hendrick, but they’re not. Instead, there are symbolic rule changes like letting up on bump drafting, which I think will last for exactly one hideous (but marketable!) wreck at Talladega.
Sorry if I’m being a little harsh here. I just think that NASCAR, after boldly implementing wrongheaded changes like the Chase, has lost their gumption for genuinely needed fixes and they won’t take any chances on the big things, instead making nonsensical statements like “we’re gonna let ‘em race.” What does that mean, exactly? It’s not a question anyone can really answer.
Vito Pugliese, Voice Of Vito (Wednesdays): For years, the most appealing aspect of NASCAR were the competitors themselves, a cast of personalities from which legends were born. Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. – the list was as long as a Sprint Cup pre-race show. However, over the last decade or so, the uniqueness of those personalities within the sport has been lost. Once revered as daredevils of danger and speed, drivers have been reduced to little more than Billy Mays in a firesuit. Do you really think the first thing a driver wants to consume upon exiting a 130-degree noise furnace for four hours is a syrupy, sugar-laden carbonated caramel drink? But that’s what they’re spoonfed in this age of marketability. “Make sure that label is turned outward, too, and don’t forget to tell me how great the car ran all day and how tickled you are with 12th!”
The homogenizing of NASCAR is not solely the result of Johnson, folks; the corporate involvement, which is to be expected, has run amok, to the point where a driver is fined points and dollars for the same normal human emotion and reactions you and I express every morning on our way to work. So for NASCAR to survive, it needs to get back to the formulas that worked. Much like our country and government, we don’t need people telling us what to do, and it’s time we let the drivers speak their mind and express their emotions. NASCAR may have finally realized they are not saving the sport from the drivers – they exist because of the drivers and the fans that support them unconditionally.
But remember, the sponsors must also follow suit.
Jared Turner, Turner’s Take (Tuesdays): We’ve heard the “we’re loosening up” mantra from NASCAR before. I, for one, am not sure the sanctioning body can be be taken seriously in their pledge to let drivers show their true personalities without risking penalty. The big-time corporate sponsors that permeate the series will continue to favor the vanilla Johnson-types who rarely ruffle anyone’s feathers – and attendance won’t improve just because NASCAR says it will do something. But if the sanctioning body puts its money where its mouth is and fans can see that on a consistent basis, you might see a spike in attendance at some tracks.
Danny Peters, The Yellow Stripe (Tuesdays): The trouble is, as we’ve heard before, so many of the drivers now like each other that it’s hard to see where the big rivalries will come from. Sure, we’ll get some Denny-Brad action, but can you really see JPM and Smoke going at it week-in, week-out? I can’t. And as for the sponsors, the concerned boardroom types need only to look at how little of a splash four-time Vanilla Jimmie makes to see that being clean-cut doesn’t always translate into shifting product.
S.D. Grady, Fan’s View (Newsletter Tuesdays): When NASCAR permits Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya to act out their frustration on the track, you better believe the ratings and attendance will improve. Sponsors, and their checkbooks, are not stupid. When the entire grandstand rises to their feet because we’ve got bumpin’ and grindin’ in all four turns, any worthy company will be signing on for another two seasons.
Mike Lovecchio, Blog Moderator: Contrary to the immediate reaction from many journalists, I don’t see any of NASCAR’s looser policies causing any bump in attendance or TV ratings this season. The sport has dug itself in such a deep hole that no fix will breed an immediate change in perception for previously alienated fans. That’s not to say that NASCAR’s not on the right track or that numbers won’t eventually get back to where they once were – they are, and they will – just not instantly.
Doug Turnbull, Hot/Not (Tuesdays): The only places that drivers will race noticeably different are Talladega and Daytona. Reporters at that press conference made a much bigger deal about NASCAR’s announcement than it was. Drivers still will hold back their aggression until the end of most races, and then unleash a mayhem-filled final few laps. Drivers may feel they can show their personalities more, but with sponsorship dollars at a premium, expect the leashes on most racers to be short. The ratings and attendance may moderate a bit in response to NASCAR’s changing of the car and commitment to letting drivers “hang it out,” but until the product AND the economy actually improve, don’t expect too much.
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): NASCAR said it approached sponsors with the message that a “buttoned down” driver can be as advantageous to their product as a cleaned-up, eternal good-guy type. If the sponsors buy into that train of thought, this “New Deal” just may work. If not, expect more of the same.
And it must be noted that NASCAR, just two years ago, expressed the same desire to see an outpouring of driver emotion/personality. That came to a crashing halt just three months later at Michigan, when NASCAR pulled the drivers and owners into an impromptu “Come to Jesus” meeting where the sanctioning body told those in attendance that the complaints about the cars, the rules, the racing and the food needed to cease and desist.
Amy Henderson, Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays): Stewart, possibly one of the most colorful characters in NASCAR’s cast, hit the nail on the head during the Media Tour: NASCAR can give as much lip service as they want to drivers showing more fire, but in the end, it’s the sponsors who have the final say. And out of everyone, Stewart should know; he was fined heavily by then-sponsor Home Depot after showing his temper back in 2002.
It all boils down to this simple point: in today’s NASCAR, if the sponsor says “jump,” the driver asks, “How high?” And if their favorite flavor is vanilla, that’s what race fans will be served, even if they – and the drivers – would prefer fudge ripple with nuts and jimmies. In the long run, it’s rather naïve of NASCAR to think that a simple proclamation will stop the bleeding in any case. What fans want to see is good racing; because in the end, a driver will show his true character behind the wheel far better than he ever will on camera.
And one more, for good measure…
John Potts, Driven To The Past (Fridays): See ratings for Madhouse on the History Channel. This could be an indicator… what they’re all looking for is another 1979 Daytona 500.