“The house of cards is finally falling for George Gillett’s Richard Petty Motorsports.”
These words, written by FOX Sports’ Lee Spencer, began what has become the biggest story in racing this week. As Gillett’s empire crumbles around him, RPM could be the latest casualty for the beleaguered owner of several different properties, including the soon-to-be-divested Liverpool FC soccer club. But Gillett’s financial and personal woes are really just the tip of the iceberg of a Titanic-sized problem brewing for the number one stock car series in America. The team’s potential demise is a microcosm of a sport in crisis, the joker in a NASCAR house of cards becoming increasingly fragile.
And now, the wind is blowing.
As ratings plummet and sponsors balk at the cost of entering a sport with a dwindling fanbase, NASCAR continues to deny that there is a real problem. CEO Brian France said last week that the “…racing is great, and over time that takes care of things… ultimately the racing, which is phenomenal, will carry the day.” The problem is that right now, the racing isn’t enough.
France, who took the reins of the sport’s sanctioning body in 2003, has made several major changes to the sport, many of which have been widely unpopular. The 10-race playoff system that NASCAR dubbed The Chase failed to do what was intended: keep fans interested in the final weeks of the season, when NASCAR has to compete for viewers with the NFL. The revamped points system went over like a lead balloon with its audience, especially when the first Chase title went to a driver who had been just seventh in points before the Chase reset, while the driver who would have won under the previous system wound up third.
And if the Chase wasn’t a bitter enough pill for fans to swallow, NASCAR changed its qualifying system, replacing the old format in which 38 of 43 cars qualified on speed, while the remained of the field was filled with provisional spots, in part to ensure that the biggest names didn’t miss the race. The new system basically flip-flopped the old, in essence giving the Top-35 drivers a weekly provisional while requiring the rest of the field to compete for the last few spots on the grid. That system is almost as unpopular as the Chase.
Finally, there was the four-car rule that took effect in 2010, limiting owners to four teams under a single ownership umbrella. While the rule does allow technical alliances between teams, it did result in the demise of one car. Those restrictions, and several smaller changes that have come down the pike, have done nothing toward their intent – encouraging new organizations to enter the sport on a competitive level. The small teams that do come in struggle mightily, and new sponsors are nearly nonexistent.
If RPM folds completely and new teams don’t enter the game, that leaves the Sprint Cup Series with just 29 full-time teams going into 2011. And even if they survive, RPM has stated that they will drop two cars next year. Start-and-park teams run rampant, but they seem, for the most part, content to stay as such; there is little incentive for them to do otherwise. Many weeks, those teams, had they managed to run all day, would likely often finish little better against the bigger teams than where they did by parking early, and they would have spent more on tires and equipment for a full race, in essence dropping their take-home pay some weeks. The start-and-park teams are trying to make it in an impossible situation, but many fans despise them. And whether the fans like the teams or not, the concept itself is a blight upon the sport.
The picture isn’t rosy, and NASCAR, like Nero, continues to fiddle as Rome burns. The racing isn’t going to fix it this time. The stakes are too high, and the fall from grace has been too far, too fast to right, especially with what is, essentially, the status quo. The racing is the same as it was a year ago, but the ratings fall anyway. There is still hope, but it grows dimmer every day.
One has to examine the picture of ownership in the sport today as well as the sanctioning body, though, in order to gain insight into the near-collapse of both RPM and the sport as a whole. Do that, and a pattern emerges quickly. The teams in the most immediate danger of going under aren’t owned by racers. They were started, or purchased, by investors. George Gillett is the perfect example – if he was in NASCAR for sheer love of the sport, he’s never let on. His team was an investment, made when times were good and business was booming. He teamed with Ray Evernham and later Richard Petty, hiring a string of people who understand racing to run the show, but racing wasn’t his passion. He was in it to make money, not for the joy or betterment of the sport. And he never quite got it.
On the other hand, Rick Hendrick, by most accounts the most successful owner in the sport for the last 20 years, eats, sleeps and breathes for his race teams. Hendrick owns dealerships to make money for them; he didn’t build race teams to tap into the bandwagon that was NASCAR racing for much of this decade. He built them because he wants to go racing.
If you look at the other top surviving Cup teams – Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing – that pattern holds. These owners put everything they have into their cars. Their other ventures support their racing, not the other way around. That’s not a quality that George Gillett shares, and it doesn’t appear it’s one Brian France does as well. France’s grandfather founded NASCAR because he was a racer himself, and saw how organized racing could and should be. He was a harsh dictator, but his zeal was forever rooted in the love of the sport. It’s hard to see any of that same passion in Brian France, who grew up in the ivory tower that Bill France laid the foundation for and Bill France Jr. built onto.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as passion when it comes to finance, and that outlook gets bleaker every day. It’s no longer the lower-tier teams struggling to find sponsorship, it’s everybody. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon doesn’t have full funding yet for 2011. Only a handful of primary sponsors sign on for a full season anymore, muddying the waters when it comes to filling financial commitments. It now takes several mid-level sponsors to support most teams, and that hurts a rapidly evaporating NASCAR middle class. Where once a single company could sponsor a competitive car for $10 million a season, now it takes two or three at that level. That means that even if there are sponsors to be found, they’re sponsoring fewer races and fewer teams.
A few years ago, there was so much young talent coming through the ranks of the sport that it seemed as though there was an endless supply of development drivers in the Nationwide Series. That’s all gone now, too. Even if there were Cup seats for the few who are left, there aren’t enough talented drivers ready to take them. As some Cup stars grow older, is there anyone to fill their seats and be competitive? The Nationwide Series has few true development drivers anymore, where a decade ago, it was thriving on this young talent and with teams who chose to run that series exclusively with healthy sponsorship.
That series is now a wasteland of underfunded veterans running among a few young drivers with nowhere to go. The ones talented enough to move up have no seats to move up into, while the ones not ready stagnate midpack or disappear altogether after a season or so.
The Camping World Truck Series may just be the healthiest in NASCAR. Sponsorship is hard to come by, but it’s less expensive than a Nationwide or Cup deal, and above all, without the superfluity of Cup drivers rampant in the Nationwide Series, sponsors get the exposure they pay for during the broadcasts. The series is, however, undermarketed and underexposed. Purses are woeful and the TV package lags far behind the other two series.
So many factors have combined in NASCAR to create this perfect storm, and before it’s done, the destruction in its wake could be devastating. Some will ride it out, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Short fields could force a renegotiation of television contracts, and as Cup stars retire, the caliber of racing will suffer as there are currently too few talented young drivers being groomed to take over. The way the sport is being run is turning fans away faster than the excuses they make for the declining numbers.
At this point, things need to change, and they need to change at the top. The sport’s health is in serious jeopardy. If sponsors don’t get exposure or get priced out of the market for a competitive team, they will leave. If sponsorships can’t be found, more teams will fold. If teams fold, NASCAR’s television contracts are in jeopardy. And if the fans are unhappy with all of this, they won’t watch, meaning the sponsors won’t get their exposure, and the other dominoes will fall. NASCAR is a sport in crisis as a new decade dawns.
There is hope, but it’s becoming apparent that drastic changes are needed, and to make those changes, there has to be a dramatic shift of thinking from the top down. Mistakes need to be admitted and made right. Richard Petty Motorsports is merely a refection of something much deeper. The grand façade is crumbling around the sport, and the wind is blowing hard on NASCAR’s house of cards. This time, the racing might not be enough to save it.