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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Toyota’s Engine Woes, 5 Reasons to Fail Fontana & Reeling Roush

Did You Notice? That Michael Waltrip Racing-supported cars have suffered five of Sprint Cup’s seven engine failures this year? OK, so maybe the start-and-park efforts of Prism Motorsports shouldn’t be counted, but that’s still an alarming rate to be losing motors (their failure rate for 2010 is nearly 50%).

It would be one thing if MWR were making all their engines in-house, like Joe Gibbs Racing. But these are motors sent directly from TRD, making you scratch your head and wonder why they’re failing on those three cars when Team Red Bull hasn’t had a single problem yet. What’s even stranger is that these failures are happening to specific cars within the MWR fleet. David Reutimann hasn’t had a mechanical failure in nearly two years, but cars driven by Michael Waltrip, Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex Jr. have totaled up seven in the last 34 races by themselves. The team claims there’s no such thing as a hierarchy, that everybody gets the same level of technical and engine support. But those numbers make you wonder if certain cars – especially the No. 47 – are starting the year on some sort of experimental R&D.

Ambrose has suffered the most through the mess, his Chase chances already on life support due to failures outside his control. And considering the mess Toyota is in off the track – CEO Akio Toyoda was in a Congressional hearing Tuesday about the manufacturer’s acceleration problems – you wonder where racing engines lie on their list of priorities. Not exactly the smooth transition Waltrip expected from driver to owner, huh?

Did You Notice? Jeff Gluck’s column this week claiming Auto Club Speedway should still have two dates? Since this is the hot topic of the week (and I couldn’t disagree more), I thought a great way to throw my opinion on the table would be in the form of a good-natured rebuttal. So, in order of Jeff’s five points, here’s why Auto Club keeping two dates would be an absolute travesty:

#1) Jeff: This isn’t about attendance.
Me: Yes… yes, it is.

Attendance may not be the criteria through which fans judge race dates, but to NASCAR the “ka-ching” of those turnstiles mean more than anything else. In the end, it’s all about cold, hard cash and ISC isn’t going to stick around at a place where not enough tickets are sold – especially with their profit margins on life support.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the seven lowest-attended races from last year (all ISC tracks, by the way). Keep in mind these estimates include fans that camped in the infield:

Martinsville (spring) – 63,000
Martinsville (fall) – 64,000
Fontana (fall) – 70,000
Chicagoland – 70,000
Homestead – 70,000
Darlington – 72,000
Fontana (spring) – 78,000

Which of these will lose the Kansas 2011 sweepstakes? Well let’s take Darlington, Chicagoland and Homestead out of the equation right away, as they’re one-date wonders that aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

That leaves just Martinsville and Fontana left on the list. But while Martinsville had fewer people, the difference between the two is seating capacity. Martinsville’s is 65,000 while California’s is 92,000. That means while demand for Martinsville tickets remains high – even with infield campers, around 90% of tickets were sold for both races – California sold just 50-60% of their seats.

That’s important, because low demand forces Gillian Zucker to keep prices down, trimming the profit margins despite the track’s sponsorship from Auto Club. And while Zucker is pulling strings and spending money to get all these B-celebrities to the speedway, the only thing Martinsville’s spending money on are those pink little hot dogs that give you a smile and a heart attack all in one. I might be guessing here, but I don’t think they’re quite as expensive as Styx….

Look, I still think Michigan could be in the running for these low attendance numbers due to how the state is falling apart. But barring a surprise, Martinsville and California will finish on the bottom of the attendance list once again; and for the stockholders that will ultimately have a say, those numbers are what’s going to drive their decision-making. It’s just basic business sense.

#2) NASCAR in California is a long-term process.
Me: That answer is so 2002.

I agree that NASCAR wasn’t going to catch fire the second it stepped foot in southern California. But to say it’s a long-term process is ignoring the fact we’ve been in this market since 1997. It’s not like the sport just pulled up last year and said, “Hey, California! Here were are!”

So after 14 years, you’d think some type of NASCAR fanbase would begin to take root. It hasn’t. Let’s take a look at attendance the last seven years at California:

2003 (one date) – 120,000
2004 (spring) – 120,000
2004 (fall) – 90,000
2005 (spring) – 90,000
2005 (fall) – 100,000
2006 (spring) – 80,000
2006 (fall) – 102,000
2007 (spring) – 87,000
2007 (fall) – 85,000
2008 (spring) – 70,000
2008 (fall) – 70,000
2009 (spring) – 78,000
2009 (fall) – 70,000
2010 (spring) – 72,000

That doesn’t look like a long-term success story to me – more like a long-term exodus to the mecca of USC football, the newest Hollywood bar, and virtually anything else other than cars going around in circles. I’m not saying LA is an easy market to crack – the NFL doesn’t even have a team there – but they’ve also made it painfully clear NASCAR’s just not high on their list.

And let’s get one thing straight: if NASCAR drivers want to reel in new fans, why the heck aren’t they scouring the streets in LA, holding public events that’ll help engage interest in the sport? The answer is they’re not doing community-based initiatives. Instead, they’re hopping on national programs like Loveline and The Ellen DeGeneres Show that they can be a part of any old time. Most of the driver appearances I saw this year were limited to the Fontana area only, a completely separate community from LA (We’ll get to that in a minute). So if NASCAR’s long-term goal has been to break through in Hollywood, it’s gonna be hard if all you’re doing is showing up to party or make a 15-minute cameo appearance.

“What should they do?” you might be asking. Well, what about doing a charity go-kart race somewhere in downtown LA? Or working with the Lakers to pop up at the Staples Center during one of their games? You’ve got to go where the people are – not play celebrity for four days and then get out.

#3) Sponsors want to be near LA.
Me: Let’s not go Sarah Palin here. Sponsors can’t see L.A. from their hotel… because they’re 50 miles away from it.

Sure, sponsors want to be near the country’s second-largest city. But is Fontana really all that close? Answer: no. I’ve done the drive from Fontana to L.A. many times to hang out with friends on race weekend. With no traffic whatsoever, it’s a 45-minute drive – but that’s pulling my best NASCAR impression of 80-85 miles an hour. Typically, you’ll hit at least one traffic jam on the way, leaving “sponsors” 60-90 minutes outside the No. 2 market they crave. Don’t believe me? Go poll a random group of 50 out-of-towners and ask them what airport they fly into on race weekend. I’d guarantee you about 75-80% will say Ontario, NOT downtown LAX… because it’s just too far away.

I think that’s a big part of the problem, that the sport built this track in an area where it’s not smack in the middle of the city itself. Nowadays, with the attention span of the general public, sponsors need to be wined and dined outside the racetrack, and the outskirts of Fontana make it feel more like a Richmond – not the second-largest city it’s supposed to be a part of.

Also, keep in mind this argument is all about cutting from two dates to one. It’s not like the sport’s leaving LA altogether; if Kansas takes away a date, you’ve still got the October night race smack in the middle of the Chase. And wouldn’t a full-bore, one-time effort selling NASCAR’s playoffs be more effective? One race in the LA market would still be “special” in its own way.

#4) The racing stinks, but…
Me: The racing stinks. No conjunction needed.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on board NASCAR 2010, a ship that’s been rapidly sinking the last few years. If Brian France is to follow through with this new “listen to the fans” mentality, there must NEVER be a but next to the words “the racing stinks.” If it stinks, and ISC isn’t going to put money into the track to fix it, well then… one of the dates must go, and the sport needs to go out and spice up the one that’s left (we’ll get to that).

There’s a method of thinking from Jeff’s point here that really bothers me:
After the race, I received several tweets from fans vowing never to return to Auto Club Speedway. The racing just didn’t thrill them and they were disappointed with the experience.

However, I know some of those people are hardcore, devoted NASCAR fans. They’ll continue to watch every week on TV and likely attend races in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Sonoma.

So in that respect, it may be better to view Fontana as a “Racing 101” track: It’s an introduction for new NASCAR fans to see what the sport is about, even if they may not return there.

Sorry Jeff, but that just doesn’t make any sense. It’s good for the sport for fans to attend their first race at Fontana, then go back and tell their friends how much they hated it? I’ll tell you this much, if I was bored at a NASCAR track and people said the competition was better at a place like, say, Sonoma, I wouldn’t believe them. I’d just think to myself “This sport’s not all it’s cracked up to be” and go spend my money somewhere else.

NASCAR has enough fans turning off the television these days. We need to turn the tide of public perception; and half-filled stands of napping fans, some of them racing rookies whose attachment lasted all of five minutes, isn’t the way to get it done.

#5) Once is not enough.
Me: Once is special. And shouldn’t a race in LA be special?

Jeff closes with the argument one date at the speedway renders a NASCAR visit virtually meaningless. See this line below:

But taking a race away from California completely defeats the purpose of being there at all. If NASCAR is committed to growing the sport on the West Coast and in the LA area, it needs to keep coming twice per year and get new fans exposed to its stars – the drivers.

Hmm. Under that philosophy, shouldn’t we cut races at Infineon, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Kansas, Darlington, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Homestead? After all, these tracks have just one date (many in major markets), but I guess that’s not enough to expose fans to their favorite drivers.

People are so concerned about the backlash a cutback creates they forget about what’s happened at places like Darlington. Attendance there has skyrocketed since NASCAR cut their dates in half, with the Mother’s Day weekend selling out four years in a row. I expect a similar phenomenon over in Atlanta, where the Labor Day weekend race far outpaced the spring in attendance last season (rumor has it in 2011 we’ll be spending Atlanta’s spring weekend in Kentucky instead).

The same thing can happen in Fontana, even if we don’t fix the track. Here’s what we do: keep the date in October, make it a night race on Columbus Day weekend and shorten the distance to 300 miles. As we’ve seen the last two years, every once in a while this 2-mile oval shows some signs of life. How about a Sunday night shootout under the lights, where just 150 laps could make or break the difference in the midst of a playoff battle? Pair it with some of ABC’s primetime shows, helicopter in some better celebrities, and you’re putting your best foot forward in this market. Oh, and maybe you do a Chase go kart race in LA while you’re at it, similar to the Times Square deal up in New York City.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the bottom line is leaving one race in LA won’t be the end of the world. I’d prefer the second date go somewhere where the racing’s light years better (cough… Iowa… cough), but Kansas has shown its fair share of potential in recent years. At this point, pretty much any track would be a viable alternative for an experiment that everyone left behind long ago – except the sport’s officials themselves.

Did You Notice? This column’s already long enough, so I’ll close with a few quick hits before breaking loose:

  • It’s amazing to hear inside the garage how no one’s taking the first few races all that seriously due to NASCAR’s transition to a new spoiler. It’s like teams are looking at this regular season as if it’s split in two; and since the wing is here for only 5-6 races, most feel you can’t really separate contenders from pretenders until the new handling configurations come into play mid-April.
  • Roush Fenway Racing was shut out of the top five for the second straight race at Fontana. Considering that had happened only once before, and we’ve been racing there for 14 years… that’s not a good sign they’re ready to dig out of their slump just yet.
  • It’s still early, but among the drivers yet to lead a lap this season: Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Along those lines, is it just me or does Stewart-Haas look like it hasn’t quite recovered from stumbling through last year’s Chase?

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