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Dialing It In: NASCAR Changing for the Better?

From all indications, the 2011 season is one NASCAR is hoping will change the momentum of the sport moving forward for years to come. Chairman and CEO Brian France promised impactful changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup earlier this year, the schedule has received a facelift as of late and, with television ratings and attendance continuing to slip, the hope is these changes will help rebound NASCAR back to the expanding sport it was just a short time ago.

As NASCAR turned the corner into the 21st century, it appeared the sky was the limit for the once regional sport. Expanding markets in California, Chicago, the Midwest and even across our borders, took NASCAR to new heights and new fans. In the last few years, however, the once soaring television ratings and grandstand attendance has slowed to a trickle and more and more fans are tuning out and not showing up at races – regardless of the track or the event.

With so much attention focused on declining ratings and empty seats, NASCAR understands changes need to be made, and they are willing to start making changes for the better of the sport.

Since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced in 2004, fans have been split on whether or not the series champion should be determined by the final 10 races of the year. Once the Chase was expanded to 12 drivers instead of 10 in 2007, more backlash arose from the fanbase. Things only got worse when Jimmie Johnson went on his historic four-year run as champion from 2006-2009.

Much of the criticism for the Chase came from the tracks chosen to be in the final 10-race playoff. Of the 10 races, four are held at 1.5-mile tracks, most drivers consider the race at Talladega a ‘wild-card’ event in which anything can happen and others complain there should be a road course to truly represent every type of track raced on during the season.

Listening to the critics, NASCAR has started the wheels of change in motion. It was announced earlier this week Chicagoland Speedway would kick off the 2011 Chase, replacing New Hampshire which moves to the second of 10 events.

“There were so many different iterations of the schedule, just to accommodate everybody in the sport and to make the most sense,” Lesa Kennedy France said during this week’s announcement. “Chicago is the third largest market in the country. As we know and it’s a great sports town and I think it’s a real positive for our company (International Speedway Corp.) as well, but what I like about it I like about it is the support the Midwestern fans really give to the Chicagoland Speedway and also here at the Kansas Speedway, so those were some of the easier decisions we had to make.”

Left out of the 2011 Chase is Auto Club Speedway – after only its second year in the Chase. In addition, Martinsville and Talladega swapped dates, with Martinsville moving to the Halloween date to make things more family friendly for those that may be trick-or-treating around the speedway.

Brian France may have promised sweeping changes to the Chase, but fans seem to have looked upon these schedule changes and laughed them off as insignificant. Some expected a major shake up to the season schedule, and what has been announced as of yet has failed to live up to those expectations.

NASCAR may have more changes to the actual Chase system up their sleeves, but when talking with the media at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month France explained any changes made would be for the long-term good of the sport, not just on a whim.

“Let me tell you two things,” France said. “One is we’re going to make changes in the Chase that we think would serve us well for many, many years. If that means it’s not something we’re reacting to, whether it’s lower ratings than we want, something like that. And I would remind you we look at these things annually. Looked at it very hard last year, almost a similar format change that is being proposed. There are few, but one in particular that we didn’t think the timing was right. Making changes in lots of other areas, there’s only so much you can do from a change-all-at-once approach.

“But whatever we do, it will be with the industry having lots of chances to weigh in, and us in the end thinking this is something that we can build around that enhances winning, enhances the championship, gives us more of a playoff field than we currently have now, if that’s where we end up.”

So, with NASCAR looking to make significant changes for the 2011 season and beyond, the hope is the sport will progress forward and continue to grow out of this downturn. The sport has seen more fan input and involvement over the last few seasons than ever before and teams and drivers have been in constant contact with the sanctioning body as to what they believe should happen moving forward. However, the question remains, what happens if the changes made do not draw new fans to the sport or old fans back?

Over the last 64 years, NASCAR has emerged from a rag-tag group of racer to a multi-billion dollar sport that has its reaches across the global network of sports. If the current changes proposed do not draw new fans or better television ratings, the sky will not fall on NASCAR nor will the sport slink away to the ranks of curling or table tennis – no offense to either of those sports. France explains he is committed to forging his own legacy in the sport and his opinion – albeit guided perhaps by fan and participant suggestion and criticism – will leave its mark on NASCAR for years to come.

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