For the first time since the start of the 2011 season, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the media discussing the first few weeks of the season, increased television ratings and shedding a little light on possible schedule changes for next year.
Opening his Wednesday teleconference, France explained he was pleased with the positive start of the season that saw rookie Trevor Bayne pilot the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 to the win in the Daytona 500, the return of veteran Jeff Gordon to Victory Lane in Phoenix and the record number of lead changes in the first two events of the year.
“Obviously, the competition has never been better,” France said. “That’s been brewing in terms of going in the right direction for a number of months, dating back well into last year where, as you know, we made a number of changes in the new car, which is not a new car anymore, but to get the car racing as good as we possibly can.”
One major improvement in the first three weeks over the past few seasons has been the increase in television ratings. Coming off a strong end to the 2010 season – one that saw the championship come down to a last-race battle between three drivers – NASCAR was able to ride that momentum through the off-season. Changes to the point system and pre-season testing brought more attention to the season-opening race. The thrilling Daytona 500 helped carry that on to Phoenix, while Gordon ending his winless streak helped do the same for last week’s broadcast of the Las Vegas race.
While many have been applauding the changes made by NASCAR in the off-season for the successful start to the 2011 season and the increased ratings, France pointed out, “no one around here is celebrating.”
“We’re obviously pleased we’re up dramatically in our ratings,” he said. “But we know that is an ebb-and-flow thing. We’re focused on a lot of things that will give us growth down the road. We’re going to work on those, not get too excited or too down.”
“I look at the interest level of the sport, and that’s growing after having peaked and maybe dropped back a little bit for some reasons a couple years ago,” he added. “The general interest level is going up and that’s what we’re going to be working on, is creating new fans.”
France also defended against the argument posed by many fans for a lack of post-race coverage on FOX. While the broadcast partner may cut away from their coverage shortly after the end of the race, France was quick to point out fans have a wide variety of options – aside from FOX – to get in depth post-race coverage, especially on SPEED.
“I think generally speaking we would agree, that it would be nicer to have a longer post-race,” he said. “But if you think about it, most sports don’t have a particularly long post end of a game, whatever else. The networks don’t stick around for an additional half hour. It’s not something FOX should be thinking about because, after all, that’s just not the norm with network or even cable television.”
“Once the game is over, there’s typically a short post-race. You hope the rest of it, social media, NASCAR online, places to digest good post-race information is where they go.”
Despite the strong start, France admitted NASCAR – along with other sports – faced more uncertainties with the challenging economic conditions facing Americans across the board. With gas prices skyrocketing, he indicated the sanctioning body is taking a look at all of the ways race fans absorb NASCAR, including the television broadcasts, at-track activities, and digital and social media.
“We spent a lot of time recently looking at the other media, which is social and digital media, where that’s all going, where people are getting information, content and everything else,” France said. “We have a plan. We have a robust plan in the long run. We’ll try to capture both. But one of the ratings impact is people are getting their news, updates, their fix, if you will, in lots of different ways today. We’re going to want to, as a sport, make sure that we’re taking advantage of all of them.”
When asked if the changes to the point system – along with ‘Have at it, boys’ – has made the racing too rough, he disagreed, saying it has only made it better.
“They’ve got to figure that out,” he said of the drivers. “They’re doing that largely. I would say, too, with the wild card situation, where the last two spots are going to be decided by wins, if you don’t happen to have the perfect top 10 performance in the first 26 events, I think you saw the disappointment with Tony [Stewart] not winning when he thought he should have won last weekend, he now counts that because he doesn’t start fast. He may need that. I think you’re going to see an escalation of that. That’s what great competition is. I’m actually happy to hear people complaining about that. It means it’s working.”
To some, an off week this early in the season has the potential to hurt the momentum created over the past three weeks. Next season, that off week will be eliminated when the Daytona 500 is pushed back one week to February 2, the only change to the schedule announced as of yet. As far as other possible changes to the schedule, France indicated nothing would be released for at least a month, but said NASCAR is watching how the new dates moved around for the 2011 season work out and he did not expect to see the amount of changes that have taken place over the past two seasons.
Overall, France’s message was one mixed with limited enthusiasm and realistic expectations, an ever-expanding eye to alternative media sources for fans and a positive outlook toward the immediate and long-term future of the sport. There is no doubt NASCAR has started off the 2011 season with a bang with increased competition, new names in contention for wins and the championship battle, along with fuller grandstands and more people tuning in at home appear to have NASCAR marching back uphill, something France hopes continues.
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