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Bowles-Eye View: In NASCAR These Days, Listen to the Money Talk

“Come on, come on, listen to the money talk.” – AC/DC

I’m calling my 2010 the year of the NASCAR complaint. Since being commissioned for an SI online mailbag this year, my inbox has increased exponentially along with it; but the sheer number of emails I receive isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Not only are fans seemingly disillusioned by a number of problems that have dogged them for years – political correctness, the Car of Tomorrow, the Chase – that rebellion includes an unwillingness to give the sport its due for being proactive on trying to correct them. With this group, if NASCAR were a Congressman, based on one week’s worth of reactions alone not only would it be impeached, a group of Tea Party activists might be burning its office in effigy right now.

What’s ironic about the movement is in some ways, the NASCAR bleeding is not as bad as it may appear. TV ratings are down just 4%, its season average of 4.9 still higher than the 4.4 the NBA received for its last NBA Conference Finals game. It just concluded a $163 million project for a new Hall of Fame, warmly received by the fans and a potential cash cow for the next few decades. Lawsuits versus Kentucky Speedway and Jeremy Mayfield have both ended in their favor, although the latter may end with a tell-all book that might make us all hang our heads in shame. That leaves the sport without a legal black eye, better than even the NFL can say just hours after a Supreme Court slap on the wrist that changes the way they do business forever. Let’s add in some “boys will be boys” philosophy for dessert, and if nothing else, a once-dictatorial regime is leaning a sympathetic ear toward its critics.

So, does that mean we’ve finally bottomed out on contraction? For four months, I tried to figure out whether NASCAR’s 2010 glass is half empty or half full. And then, like an epiphany it came to me, the reason why we may be just on the precipice of falling off another cliff.

Your wallet.

I know you’re sitting there with a puzzled look going, “Huh?” But it’s true. For the last decade, fans have talked a big game until it’s actually come to taking action with their dissatisfaction. For example, NASCAR threatened to pull dates from Rockingham and traditional fans “revolted” at the possibility through emails, petitions and angry phone calls to officials down in Daytona Beach. Yet when the 2003 Subway 400 rolled around, just 40,000 sat in the Rockingham stands in a race whose death came at the hands of poor attendance.

You see, when it comes to sports you can open your mouth and complain all you want, but this isn’t Congress we’re talking about. If you don’t like something that’s happening, there is no re-election to vote leadership out. NASCAR is at its core an independent business, looking to make money the same way in which Pfizer gives quarterly shareholder reports. Corporations live or die on those statements, financial lifelines that are the unforgiving indicator of success or failure.

So if your rant against the Rockingham debacle didn’t come with your support in the form of helping the track sell out, well… it’s going to fall on deaf ears.

Companies cut underperforming parts of their infrastructure all the time in order to make more money. A few angry letters don’t really work to white out the red ink on that Rockingham budget, does it? It seems cruel, but it’s pure capitalism that makes you understand why NASCAR made some of the choices they did.

Darlington worked in a similar way. Fans complained about tradition, but when fans filled more seats at Fontana – and they did at first – did the shareholders really care? Others threatened to walk away at the start of the Chase, but in its second season of 2005 every economic, attendance, and ratings indicator increased. So the fan protests against it were left as an empty movement, seemingly full with a bunch of poker table bluffing when you’re busy holding a 7-2 off-suit Texas Hold ‘Em hand the whole time.

With that type of history lesson in place, you’re conditioned as a sportswriter to breathe in that negative tone in emails but take them with a grain of salt. After all, we live in a society where people are far quicker to criticize then compliment. And then… came the reality of 2010. The number I’m watching is at-track attendance, down over 13.5% from 2009 numbers alone. Economic free-fall aside, no other major sport comes close to that drop-off, and that’s with average ticket prices down 3% in ’09 and even more now with tracks desperate to gets butts in seats. Add in lagging souvenir sales – ISC and SMI-controlled Motorsports Authentics is on the verge of bankruptcy – and suddenly, angry letters come with a vicious consequence of closing up the wallet and saying, “No.” Now that’s the power these fans were seeking.

At the same time, the movement has expanded to small-time owners sick of a failing NASCAR business model in which start-and-parkers have all but pushed them out of town. A handful of them not only didn’t show up at the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow test, but sources have told me they’re threatening to keep away from the July race, period, with enough of them joining ranks behind the scenes that the sport could risk a short field with no compromises. If they follow through – easier said than done – it would be the biggest middle finger since Talladega’s track opening in 1969, on the same day the sport’s supposed to be charged with a momentum boost of cars that actually look somewhat normal.

Joining the rebellion are perspective sponsors, too. Have you noticed Hendrickcars.com on the No. 5 car lately? Companies are checking the $25 million requests by Roush and Hendrick, looking at the current landscape of an economic bubble bursting, and saying thanks, but no thanks. Perspective new owners, as well as old, are also sticking to the sidelines and refusing to sink into debt until there’s incentive for them to jump in and be competitive with teams that have 10 times the money and resources in comparison. Between my four-plus years inside this sport combined with my 20 years of being a fan, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Right now, there’s only about 10, 12 at most, financially solvent Cup owners that can survive without any help; and all of a sudden, NASCAR can’t find anyone, manufacturers, investors or plain old rich car lovers to take the bait of an investment that’s overvalued.

At the same time, fan support works the other way too. A longtime love of Darlington was finally rewarded with the biggest ratings increase of any event this year. The Hall of Fame, universally lauded, has had a strong early turnout, thousands backing up their support of the project by filing in to see the final product. Suddenly, years of hollow words have been replaced by the power of dollars and cents.

It’s a simple case of putting your money where your mouth is, learning the only way to change a corporate philosophy is to create a board meeting filled with mountainous downhill graphs filled with red ink. Now that everyone’s figured out how to do it, in my opinion the question of if more major changes are on the horizon isn’t a matter of if… but when.

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