NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Bad Times in NASCAR’s Big Apple, the Cost of Brand Exclusivity & Chase Cinderella 2010

Did You Notice? That as NASCAR takes to the New York City airwaves today, the landscape in the Big Apple is markedly different for them than it was even five years ago? Back then, not only was the postseason banquet held at the Waldorf Astoria, but the sport was fighting valiantly to get a 3/4-mile track built in Staten Island, the lynchpin to reaching a major market it’s coveted for well over a generation.

Ironically, that track could have shifted momentum in the sport when you think about it. With plans in place for a Richmond-style oval, it could have shown prospective developers that you don’t need a cookie-cutter to pack 100,000 fans and deliver great racing to boot. It was a titillating opportunity for growth, a momentum shift at the right time that would have put NASCAR smack in the middle of Fortune 500 companies who would have no choice but to pay attention. An office on Park Avenue is one thing; selling executives on one of the best races of the year, armed with their very own suite to watch the race and hook them for life would have been a multi-million dollar caper that came courtesy a lifetime survival ticket on the sporting landscape.

However, a company used to totalitarian rule faced an unbreakable wall of its own in New York City politics. You have to play the game, attracting the right people to back a project that caused traffic worries and faced opposition from a confused community that was never properly educated how to love cars going around in circles. (Although, if I were stuck in traffic for two hours every day on my way to work, I wouldn’t be thrilled about cars, either.) Residents were forewarned of rednecks, not reasonable people, and responded in part as if the KKK was trying to take over part of their island.

I had just emerged as a full-time beat reporter in 2006 when this project got hot and heavy, the same time the first cracks in NASCAR’s armor were going public. In sitting with leaders of both sides over that spring, my notes from that time center around one word: disorganization. There was a clear disconnect between the local support groups on the ground and the sanctioning body itself, a tragic flaw that led to an angry, disgruntled town meeting with both sides of the issue in late April in which NASCAR’s Goliath-like machinery produced a classic underestimate of the opposition. Reports of a riot were overblown, but mouthy protests caught on camera afterwards allowed the story to take shape, one that caused a downhill slide that could only end with the sport getting run out of town.

And that’s exactly what it did, giving up in December 2006, one year after I did a story for Frontstretch polling random people on the street – including NASCAR workers at the exhibits – with a basic quiz about the sport. Just one knew all the basics: Who Jeff Gordon was, who won the Daytona 500 and that year’s Cup champion (both Jimmie Johnson). And that’s during the height of the sport’s popularity, a clear sign this metropolitan market was still uncharted territory for a sport riding the high of record national numbers.

I bring this history up because the disconnect turned downright desertion from NYC follows an eerie parallel with how the sport’s continued to fade from the national interest. By December 2007, not only were the hopes of being in the No. 1 media market fading, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noticed that the Times Square Victory Lap, where the top Chase drivers did a circle around the middle of Manhattan, produced more angry calls about traffic jams to his office then actual fans in attendance. The special event was pulled the following year, limiting NASCAR’s presence in the city beyond the Awards banquet and, ultimately, the final straw to push a Bruton Smith-backed move to Las Vegas beginning last year.

That made NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Media Tour a bit more difficult to promote last September: among those traditions ended was an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman where each Chaser read the Top 10 list. Once placed right in the heart of Times Square at the Hard Rock Café, drivers will be interviewed inside the London Hotel in Midtown this year, several streets from one of the main tourist attractions and people-driven areas of the city. In the meantime, if NASCAR has its way the Staten Island property will be sold to KB Marine, used for deepwater harbor purposes instead of the automotive epicenter it was planned for. The sport doesn’t expect to make a profit on the sale, just cutting its losses and moving on from a traumatic relationship that ended with the ex-girlfriend getting the ring, the house, and all the goodies.

For me, seeing any hope of an NYC – NASCAR connection is poignant; having worked inside Manhattan for nearly two years, I was hopeful building that bridge would lead to the sport permanently ensconced in the national consciousness forever. Now, just four years after the heart of their business proposal fell short, they come to the Big Apple more of a blip on the radar screen than ever, armed with almost the same type of buzz as the national economist convention across the street (yes, there really is one going on, hosted by The Economist.) Whether you feel this sport is Southern or not, our absence there is hurtful in an era where you need to slap a potential new sponsor across the face and beg them to pay attention. So many Fortune 500 companies are based in Manhattan, and having no crowd-infested events in that city equals a missed opportunity for teams, drivers, and others involved with the sport.

NASCAR should have taken a bite out of the Big Apple when it had the chance. And now… I fear it’s years too late, making its long-term survival that much more difficult with new interest from corporate sponsorship needed to make the wheels go round.

Did You Notice? How much brand exclusivity means for this sport? The big news of the week revolves around Verizon bailing as both a Cup Series sponsor (a deal they inherited by merging with Alltel) as well as its Nationwide Series deal with Justin Allgaier? The key quote in this SIRIUS Speedway story comes courtesy Penske Vice President Jonathan Gibson, disguising this “Oh, snap!” anti-Sprint nugget under the cover of political correctness:

“[They have] issues surrounding their ability to activate the sponsorship in light of Sprint’s involvement in the sport,” he explained. “Verizon has been hindered in what they can do. They can’t do much (at the tracks) and they can’t do anything with Sprint Cup Series drivers, which is difficult. They’ve been very creative in what they have done, and they would like to do more. It’s not the perfect world they’d like to play in, but Sprint obviously does a lot for the sport, so it is what it is.”

At this point, Verizon knows better to play with fire when it comes to cell-phone exclusivity. Remember that ugly battle between Sprint and AT&T? I do, and it was a bloodbath that ended with an uneasy truce that still causes agitation across both sides of the coin to this day. At one point, the ultimate embarrassment of Jeff Burton winning the Sprint Cup title, only to have his sponsor pushed out due to the exclusivity rule nearly occurred.

That’s the nightmare among companies that push for exclusivity, worried their millions in title support funding would get undermined by a rival company that ends up champion. But in this world where sponsors are drying up like water in the Sahara, don’t you think it’d be prudent for NASCAR to try and work something out here? It’s not often lately we’ve had a company actually express interest in doing more and staying in the sport. The funny thing is even with this “exclusivity” agreement, Sprint loses out anyway because everyone and their mother knows the sponsor of the No. 12 Dodge on the Cup circuit is Verizon. In fact, FOX even had a Verizon Wireless in-car camera package earlier this season! As a title sponsor, you’re going to have ultimate control of how the brand is marketed over any individual driver in the series. Those words, “Sprint Cup,” are still uttered more and written in more places than any other brand – that’s why the world “title” is in the agreement, right?

At some point, greed needs to turn to compromise in order to preserve the long-term integrity of the sport. In my view, one more sponsor leaving is one too many – but don’t expect anyone at Sprint or NASCAR to take the hit. After all, Sprint got NASCAR to sign the contract and why should they voluntarily hurt their business? It’s battered enough by other outside factors and declining NASCAR viewership as it is.

What a shame.

Did You Notice? It’s not that hard to figure out the Chase Cinderella? You know, the guy that makes some noise in the first half of the playoffs before falling back and taking his rightful place behind the real favorites. Let’s look at who it’s been the last four years:

2006 – Jeff Burton
2007 – Clint Bowyer
2008 – Greg Biffle
2009 – Juan Pablo Montoya

What’s the common thread among those four? 1) All were winless going into the postseason, although three of the four hit victory lane once we settled into the final 10 weeks. Just that qualification alone confines our Cinderella to one of five men: Clint Bowyer, Burton, Carl Edwards, Gordon and Matt Kenseth.

OK, let’s move on to No. 2. Each of these guys were consistently good in the races leading up to the Chase, just not good enough to make others pay attention. Each of the four men, over the last eight races of the regular season, never finished outside the top 20 more than once. That knocks out Gordon, who’s been 23rd and 27th over the last eight weeks, in the process showing little to no punch compared to a long list of several near-misses on wins at the start of the year.

On to point No. 3: None of these guys endured a crew chief change during the season. Just too tough to readjust in time to become a Cinderella. So buh-bye, Mr. Kenseth! Thanks for playing; you never really have figured out how to run under this format, anyway.

4) None of them finished better than ninth at Richmond. It’s almost like running too well in the regular season finale gave away the hand they’d been hiding for the better part of six months. So much for Mr. Bowyer and Mr. Edwards – the latter finished 10th but he won the pole and led 95 laps in the race early on.

So that leaves us with Burton, Mr. Consistency, who earns the sentimental favorite label with Mark Martin sitting on the sidelines. He just so happens to be on the same team that produced our regular season points leader, Kevin Harvick. He’s part of an RCR resurgence that’s seen all three teams make the Chase again, has three years of Chase experience on his side and, oh, did I mention he would have won the race at Loudon in June if not for a bad pit-strategy call late in the race? And moving on to Dover, that track gave Burton his first victory in over five years in September 2006 – en route to him taking an unlikely point lead at the Chase’s halfway point before mechanical failures caused him to fall right into Johnson’s clutches.

Yes, history does have a way of repeating itself. And while I don’t expect Burton to win the title, after sitting here and crunching the numbers it’s clear he’s going to head into the Chase making some noise.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before I take off:

  • The word I’m getting from sources out of the Allgaier situation is he’ll still be in a Penske car “if a sponsor can be found.” Funny how that works; Mike Wallace and Travis Kvapil can tell you all about it…
  • * One other thing that makes you go “Hmmm…” Verizon claims they’re increasing their open-wheel involvement with Penske. Well, the organization already runs two “Team Penske” cars and just one sponsored outfit with Will Power; there’s easily room in the series for them to go from three teams to four. No matter how much Sam Hornish Jr. may protest, you better believe that phone company is inquiring just how much money it would take to bring the American open-wheel darling back where he really belongs.
  • So the Richmond ratings were down 11.5%. Honestly? I thought it could have been worse; the real test will come during the first race of the Chase this Sunday on ESPN. Interesting point, though: if the ratings decreases continue at their present rate, it’s not going to be hard for the IRL to mount a comeback against the stock car series under the right scenario the next five years. You can only absorb that 10% suckerpunch for so long until you’re vulnerable.

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