NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? We Can Learn From Montreal, Sorting Out NASCAR PR & Where’s Father Time?

Did You Notice? How well-received the Montreal finish was for fans, competitors, and the packed house of 70,000 in Canada? So much has been written about the race itself, but for those disillusioned with the state of NASCAR this season, it’s important to understand why things went so well:

Mechanical attrition played a factor. For all the talk about the last-lap pass between Boris Said and Max Papis, this race would have been dominated by Marcos Ambrose if not for electrical problems that ruined his day. Then, Carl Edwards held the point, holding firm up front after the final round of green-flag stops before a broken track bar ruined his chances with just six laps to go.

It’s funny how a little luck turns a race from a runaway into a nail-biting finish. But what’s important to note here is how race cars actually broke down over the course of the 200-mile event. Racing used to be a test of both man and machine; now, it’s simply just men. In Cup races nowadays, the list of DNFs stems almost exclusively from wrecks and start and parkers; rarely is there the engine failure or suspension problem that happens to the leader, holding suspense in case one man runs out to a 10-second lead. Dominance like Denny Hamlin’s at Michigan or even Juan Pablo Montoya’s at Watkins Glen is never derailed by a faulty part – just a late-race caution for a hot dog wrapper that makes the pit crews, not the drivers, take center stage. Speaking of which…

There was just the right mix of driver and pit strategy down the stretch. As a man who’s traversed pit road hundreds of times the last four-plus years, I have nothing but respect for the beauty entrenched within a 15-second stop. The men behind the wall are athletes of the highest caliber, often making a difference in an era where track position means more than tires, gas or driving talent.

But with as much focus as the crews have gotten in recent years, the truth is no one tunes into a stock car race to see a tire changer determine the outcome. Quick show of hands: how many of you have gotten up and yelled at the TV screen during a green-flag stop? I’d venture to say that number is less than 20%, far lower than in a last-lap duel where your driver is running side-by-side, door-to-door fighting for a Sprint Cup win. Too often nowadays, the guys that roll the Goodyear tires make too much of an impact in a sport built on who has the fastest car at 200 mph… not when it slows to a stop. It was refreshing to see passing, not pit-crew precision, settle it out on the beautiful twists and turns of Montreal.

There was one notable exception, of course, as Robby Gordon’s fuel-mileage strategy played enough of a role to add drama to the front of the field. Will he or won’t he run out of gas? That was the question; and how about the owner, making the call over the crew chief that eventually had him coasting to a stop instead of taking home the checkered flag? That’s the type of stuff fans appreciate. A guy taking a two-tire stop, then getting the clean air out front and pulling away from the field after running fifth all day? Great call by the team, but the fans are busy turning that television off.

Drivers were out there to win races… not championships. As the laps wound down towards the final green-white-checkered stint, let’s check out the top-five participants fighting for the win. Gordon… one-shot Cup driver, desperate for money to keep his team afloat without a primary sponsor. How desperate? He used Kevin Conway and a sexual enhancement pill partnership to lengthen the rest of his No. 7’s season. Said? Winless in NASCAR’s top-three series since 1998, searching for a Nationwide victory that could prolong his part-time career after suffering a near-fatal blow in pairing with a No. 26 Ford in Cup that ran like junk. Papis? Recently removed from his Sprint Cup ride, desperate to prove he belongs in stock cars after scoring just one career top 10 in a year-and-a-half driving the Germain Racing No. 13 part-time. Jacques Villeneuve? Displaced Canadian looking to reenter the public eye two years after an ugly bid to join NASCAR ended with him benched after a single DNQ in Daytona’s Gatorade Duels.

Only points leader Brad Keselowski (who wound up fourth) had a logistical reason to take it easy, bring the car home in one piece and not pull an aggressive challenge up front. And that’s the way it should be in this sport; there’s one or two guys in serious title contention late in the season, while the rest of the drivers find themselves fighting for what they’re supposed to enter the race for – to win.

Road courses equal no aero push. How many times did you hear the announcers mention aerodynamics over the course of that race? The answer is none… unless you’re referring to Joey Logano’s GameStop Toyota that looked like it had been hit by a meteor. Time and again, those cars made on-track contact and still were able to battle for position up front as if they haven’t skipped a beat. Could you imagine if the same bunch of ragtag sheetmetal racers were running at Chicagoland? Just one nick to the right-front corner and they’d be on pit road about six times under caution with duct tape trying to fix the damage. The key to “Have at it, boys” is the cars being capable of both running side-by-side and sustaining the damage you earn by getting aggressive. Putting the ball back in the driver’s court on road courses, combined with the inability for aerodynamics to come into play does just that.

The underdog won. Said’s rags-to-riches victory lane story has been well-documented the last few days. But how about the team he was driving for? RAB Racing was start-and-parking just a couple of months ago, without enough funding to complete the distance and smothered under the competition of Roush, JR Motorsports and the multi-car giants. But on this day, the No. 09 team had the ability to level the playing field on a road course, driver talent and not horsepower putting Said in the position to battle with more powerful opponents like Penske’s Keselowski, Kevin Harvick Inc.’s Papis, or even Braun’s Villeneuve (the top Nationwide-only program in the series).

Put Said in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 on the Cup side, let’s say, and I guarantee you that victory doesn’t happen. The gap between the single-car vs. multi-car programs is just that much more pronounced… so much so you can virtually predict the order of finish by organization at the back of the field each week. Mixing it up a bit is key to promoting long-term fan interest.

Can we use this race to find the answers to a better NASCAR long-term? Absolutely. I just hope the new marketing heads pay attention before the trumpets of the Chase drown out the diamond in the rough that race really was. And speaking of marketing…

Did You Notice? The new “integrated marketing communications program” by NASCAR? A lot of people are confused by what’s happening, so let me break it down in English.

There will be a new head of PR in 2011. Ramsey Poston, who’s served in some sort of managing director capacity for six years, will step down as NASCAR’s head of that department at the end of the year. Another familiar face, Jim Hunter, won’t replace him; the cancer survivor is now moving into a new role as Vice President of Special Projects.

What’s interesting is the initial buzz that NASCAR will likely hire from the outside for that position. Their tendency to do that is not unusual; Poston was not an internal promotion but came courtesy of Powell Tate, a communications and PR firm based in Washington, D.C. But whenever you hire from outside the organization, it showcases a strong desire to shift direction. It’s not outright admitting a mistake, but it’s obvious the organization feels it can do better in several areas.

The sport feels a bigger need to sell itself. What “Integrated Marketing Communications” means to me is a merger between the Public Relations part of the business and their marketing arm. Remember, public relations people, in theory, are the ones who are supposed to shape the message of the sport. They answer to criticism, handle media inquiries and are the first line of defense when it comes to damage control.

But with NASCAR’s profits slipping, an increased marketing arm tells me the sport feels a desperate need to get its message out there. After two decades of growth, selling themselves is now a top priority in the face of dwindling media coverage that could trumpet a turnaround in the sport. If the media’s not going to put a positive spin on it… why not have an increased marketing presence join with PR in trying to do it for you?

There’s still a lot of questions left to be answered as to how this new structure is going to work out. But it’s clearly a sign common for any business facing a possible loss in profit margins… you need to shift more resources towards marketing to help stem the tide of negative perception.

Did You Notice? Let’s move to quick hits before we take off:

  • I fully expect the Atlanta Labor Day Weekend crowd and attendance to be up. I felt last year’s race was outstanding, and a cutdown from two dates to one should pay off in a market where you need to make things special for fans to come out and play.
  • I fully expect Jamie McMurray to score a top-five finish this weekend and put the pressure on Clint Bowyer. But don’t be fooled; remember the last time the RCR veteran won himself a Cup race? Richmond, May 2008. He’s making the Chase.
  • There were no less than seven driver changes outside the Top 35 heading into this weekend’s Cup race. What, are people offering higher start-and-park salaries or something? In the old days, that would be big news; but it’s hard to make a story of the underdogs if they’re all just going to run 100 laps.
  • 54-year-old former champ Bill Elliott still trudges along, preparing for another qualifying attempt with the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford at Atlanta seven years after “retiring” from NASCAR competition after Homestead in November, 2003. 52-year-old Terry Labonte will make yet another return to the Cup Series at Richmond, some four years after he told us he’d run his last race. Yet there are no full-time rookies (save Conway) on the docket for 2010 or 2011 in the Cup Series. Doesn’t it seem like the natural progression of drivers in NASCAR has completely stalled? I respect and appreciate these guys as much as anyone else, but Father Time comes for everyone – like it or not.
  • If the Bleacher Report truly does have the scoop on Jeff Gordon not being sponsored by Wal-Mart, all of us in the national media should be scolded. And that’s not to demean the Report by any means; their ability to scoop a big story showcases their growth, as well as the changing landscape of media today. But for people that travel each week who got outscooped on a major story, developing for months with the sport’s biggest team? That’s bad.

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