Back in July the suits from Daytona announced that they were going to move the Nationwide Series race from Lucas Raceway Park to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012. After 30 years of dedication to the series with the same title sponsor for every race the sanctioning body said thanks but we’re taking our ball and playing somewhere else. Now, just three months later we’re being told that the series is going to have one or two fewer races next season. There is something wrong with the logic in this scenario that a simple mind like mine just doesn’t comprehend.
The Nationwide and Truck series lost their way quite some time ago when they started moving the races away from the local short tracks and racing in companion with the Cup series. Sure, it was cool getting to see the drivers that you knew from your local track racing in the big stages, but you weren’t getting to see the drivers from other tracks come to your local track anymore because they took your Truck race away. Instead of being able to go to Orange County Speedway or South Boston to see the Nationwide series roll through town you had to go to Richmond or Charlotte and deal with all of the trappings involved with being at a big track. The series really lost their appeal and now it is coming back to bite them.
There are definitely benefits to running as companion events with the Cup series. There is certainly greater television exposure and there is a greater presence of drivers from the Cup series racing alongside the series regulars (although there are many people who would say that is a detriment). When drivers and crew members are around the Cup series they can learn many different things and make connections that will help advance their careers. Any time people can improve themselves and advance their careers it is a good thing, but if the end result is that fewer teams are coming to the track because of the expense and the reduced reward then it is a bad move and needs to be rectified.
When the Truck series was first started the marketing was focused on the fact that they were going to return to the small tracks that had been abandoned by the Cup series and bring racing back to its roots. Sadly, when the Trucks went to Daytona and had that incredible first race with half the field side-by-side crossing the finish line (ok it was really three trucks but it was still a great finish) it signaled the end of the series racing at Hickory and Mansfield and the beginning of going to the same tracks that the Cup series visits for 90% of the schedule. It is certainly cheaper for promoters, they already have everything in place for the Cup weekend so there is an economy of scale from not having the overhead involved with moving a bunch of equipment to the track if it is already there. Unfortunately, that is at the expense of the product and is now coming to a head as the sanctioning body can’t get enough tracks to host races.
The biggest problem in this scenario, as it is with many racing series during the current economic environment, is promoters are having a hard time making money from stand alone races in the support series. NASCAR supposedly tried to help out track promoters by reducing the race purses the last couple of years to make the expense less for the owners. There is one problem with that logic. When the money being paid is reduced, the people who are thinking about racing don’t bother making the trip to your race track because there isn’t enough money to be made to make the race. Promoters make a big deal about running races that are $25,000 to win, $10,000 to win or a million to win. For the most part, drivers and teams look at the money that is paid to make the race rather than what is paid to the winner. Most of the time the teams know they might win once in a while, and some of the back markers know they won’t win, but most teams know they are going to lose more often than they’re going to win. The money that is being paid for making the race is more important than what the winner takes home, and that is the part of the payouts that really suffered when NASCAR gave the local tracks this “bone” of reduced purses.
In order to be fair you can’t just complain or you’re just another part of the problem, you need to offer some solutions so here you go. For the Nationwide and Truck series to survive and thrive, a couple of things need to happen. First of all NASCAR needs to decide if they want the series to survive or not. If the series no longer fit into the model that NASCAR is trying to promote then they need to shut them down and move on. It would be a sad day for sure to see that happen but it would be better than seeing them slowly die and wither on the vine. Secondly they need to improve the purses rather than cut them. I’ve been beating the drum for years that the purses in the Nationwide and Truck series are abysmal and the sanctioning body should feel embarrassed that they pay so little in those series. NASCAR has money and lots of it. I’m not privy to their books, although I would love to be able to see them if just for an afternoon, but there’s no question that the sanctioning body has money and the time has come for them to give some of it back to the sport before they kill it. They need to increase the purses for Nationwide and Truck, not only back to where they were a couple of years ago, but increase them by another 50-100%. They changed the rule to discourage the Cup series drivers from running in the series and, now that sponsor commitments have been fulfilled, the car counts are going to start dropping precipitously and the fan interest will follow quickly after that. In order to get more teams and drivers into the series they need to make it more profitable for teams to build cars and trucks and hall them around to attempt these races. In conjunction with that increase in purses the folks in Daytona need to cut or eliminate their sanctioning fees for a few years while the series rebound. The cost of living has gone up quite a bit in the last few years while the reward for racing in the support series of NASCAR has gone down. NASCAR needs to help the teams through these tough times not make it harder on them.
Finally the series need to get back to their roots. NASCAR needs to bring the series back to short tracks where they started and rejuvenate the interest in the races and the teams and drivers. The Cup series attendance is still lagging and new fans are not flocking to the tracks even if Brian France does say there is an increase in ratings in the younger demographics. To really bring interest back into the sport and drive more fans to the Cup level they need to see drivers at their local tracks and follow them to the Cup level. Start running races at South Boston and Hickory and Nashville Fairgrounds so that fans who don’t follow the Cup series regularly can come out and see the future stars of the sport, ultimately following them when they move up and therefore increasing the fan base.
In order for the series to run at the local short tracks they’ll need to have SAFER barriers installed and NASCAR should pay to have them installed at the tracks where they’re going to be hosting the races. NASCAR pays a lot of lip service to safety and doesn’t visibly spend too much on actual safety equipment for the drivers. They demand that HANS devices and SAFER barriers be employed during their races, but they don’t assist in making them available. It would send a very strong message if NASCAR went to little tracks like Oxford Plains or Sandusky Speedway and installed SAFER barriers, then rolled into town with a Nationwide/Truck companion weekend. Fans would get to see future stars of the sport, the tracks and communities would benefit from the influx of money and the sport would garner new fans for years to come. It would also make racing safer for local drivers who run at the tracks every week when the big series are elsewhere.
NASCAR may be seeing some upticks in ratings but the stands are still far from full and they are not pulling in numbers like they were in the early 2000s. Getting fans back to the track is very important for the future of the sport and the best way to do that is get fans to start following drivers in the lower echelon series so that they’ll follow their driver up to the Cup level. Bite the bullet and take some short term losses to prop up the support series and get fans back in the stands. Not only will it help the sport it will help the economies of these smaller towns where the tracks are located and it will develop goodwill that will go a long way towards restoring the sport to its past glory.
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