*Did You Notice?* … Three days after Dover, and all we can talk about is NASCAR’s decision to allow split-screen commercials? Like a network War of the Roses, mere days after FOX one-upped ESPN with their own experiment the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” unveiled a specific side-by-side plan they’d been working on for months.
In reacting to this stuff, fans have been hitting the Twitterverse, Facebookland, and whatever iPhone app they fancy nonstop, pulling a virtual rushing the basketball court as if they’d pulled off some sort of major upset. I think that’s the most interesting thing, if you’re NASCAR to take from this phenomenon, the degree to which they made fans excited by actually _listening to them._ Think of all the issues people in the stands feel slighted on these days: Ticket prices. The Car of Tomorrow. The Chase. Losing that Kasey Kahne commercial with the Allstate girls. Gaining that NAPA Nasty Commercial with Michael Waltrip’s… you get the picture.
I think that’s why fan reaction to this stuff has bordered on the overblown. When you knock, knock, knock on the door for years, only to get ignored and pooh-poohed by the butler there’s a sense of utter elation once the door opens. Because let’s put this adjustment in perspective, people; side-by-side commercials and racing are nothing new. IndyCar, NASCAR’s badly beaten rival has used them for several years now and where are the ratings? Last time I checked those Nielsens, somewhere between Sumo Wrestling repeats and the 2011 U.S. Bocce championships.
Don’t get me wrong; I do understand the magnitude of this change for racing fans. For the first time ever, you won’t have to worry about the Talladega “Big One” happening on replay, missing a lead change or seeing a camera shot of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick when they’re within 100 car lengths of one another. Having worked as an Associate Director in television, I can tell you there’s nothing more frustrating than having to go to break and knowing something important is going to be missed; NASCAR has that problem often, because you can’t just tell sponsors paying millions of dollars you’ll “get to their commercials later.” Kudos to those companies for realizing fans will appreciate them more if they leave racing on screen.
But there’s a dangerous trap to be laid there; remember those IndyCar ratings I mentioned? Fans are not going to turn to a race like Dover’s and keep watching if the racing is little more than a single-file parade. Three hours of boring racing on screen is even _worse_ than two hours, forty-five minutes: the only thing happening there is more people lose money. And trust me, folks, as much as you want to believe a sport “heeded your call” this side-by-side deal has been something networks have been trying to push for years. Only when the TV ratings got to a certain point, when the profit margins started declining were more “creative” ideas waged in an effort to bring fans (and advertising dollars) back to the table. So voila! Suddenly, side-by-side is back on the table because it’s an innovation they hope will lead to more commercials, more advertisers and better Nielsens to make money.
Heck, I’m all for that, and I’m sure you are too; all anyone wants to see is more racing. But at its core, the key to fixing NASCAR’s long-term future lies in competition, fan outreach and developing future stars. The split-screen is nice… but it’s little more than a consolation prize in the grand scheme of things. Let’s not lose sight of that.
*Did You Notice?* … The following stats:
One driver has one win, two top-10 finishes and is 29th in series points this season. His team is owned by a Colorado businessman, runs as a single-car operation with 64 employees and gets its engines, chassis, and pit crews from other suppliers.
One driver has zero wins, zero top-5 finishes and just one top 10 this season. With only two laps led, he sits tied for 27th in points despite being part of a multi-car operation that has hundreds of employees, three primary sponsors in the $15 million range or above and two teammates that have seriously contended for Cup championships.
Get the answers? It’s Regan Smith and Joey Logano, two drivers on two wildly divergent paths. One is continuing to overachieve, making the most of underfunded equipment after being left for dead after DEI’s funding fizzled in 2008. The second driver was Joe Gibbs Racing’s solution at the time, passing over Smith during Tony Stewart’s rushed departure in favor of promoting what Mark Martin entitled “the next great driver” of his generation a little early. “Sliced Bread” was supposed to be slicing up the competition at this point, a soon-to-be 21-year-old taking the Jeff Gordon route towards a title while Smith; well, the way things were going that guy wasn’t supposed to have a ride.
But in May, 2011 both drivers have career numbers closer than you think. Both have one win, and Logano holds just a slight edge in laps led (91 to 31). Overall, Logano has ten top-5 finishes compared to one for Smith but considering he’s been racing two-plus seasons, that average is hardly Chase or championship caliber. And you wonder, if given the type of equipment and opportunity that Logano had instead of being forced to rebuild if Smith would actually have outperformed his rival. Consider the Furniture Row operation was being rebuilt from the ground up when he went there in ’09, scaling back to part-time before bursting back on the scene.
Who would have guessed three years ago, when Logano was tearing it up in Nationwide while Smith’s claim to fame was a yellow-line miscue that it was the twentysomething DEI driver from upstate New York who’d be the better choice. But considering where things are right now with Logano, if Home Depot had to do it all over again would they really head down the same path?
On the record, they’ll never answer that question but it would be interesting to see what they’d say off it … especially if Logano’s struggles continue well into Sprint Cup’s summer months.
*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before we take off:
– First Kimi Raikkonen, now Josh Richards; and by the looks of it, Kyle Busch was involved in a bidding war for both. Is that what earning rides has come to now? Sponsorship allows you to hold an auction for your services? Not that either driver doesn’t deserve an opportunity; I just remember when getting a chance was based on merit and merit alone.
– A quote from Jimmie Johnson’s teleconference today on the difficulty passing, not just at Dover but everywhere:
“I could be wrong, but I don’t think that the aero situation has changed the importance of track position. To me, it’s competition-related. It’s the fact that these cars are running the same speed from first to 35th, that gap is smaller than ever. The top 15 cars, the pace the leader runs versus 15th, is tighter than ever. So that, to me, is why track position is more important. It’s not necessarily the aero of the car. With the nose changes that have been made, we’ve been able to get back the balance. We’ve been able to get the numbers back to where they were, if not better than last year’s cars. So, it’s not really that, it’s more that the competition is so tight. We’re all running the same speed. If you get stuck in dirty air, you can’t pass because you’re all running the same speed.”
It’s the second time since Sunday (Mark Martin) I’ve heard that bantered around, that there might be such a thing as too equal in the sport today. Let me explain: if cars are all running the same speed, the tires aren’t falling off and everyone’s running virtually the same equipment (see: CoT, draining engineering creativity) how the heck are you going to pass people these days? That’s the problem with enforcing a generic product: you limit the ability of people to separate themselves.