Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Bad Boos, Crew Chief Questions, And 2012’s Top Priority

*Did You Notice?*… Regardless of your opinion on how to fix it, NASCAR’s audience and its business model are heading in two very divergent directions. Clearly, on the heels of Stewart-Edwards it seems the six-year decline NASCAR’s been involved in, through both ratings and attendance may be bottoming out. The ratings for the season finale alone, released Tuesday provided the highest viewership ever seen for NASCAR since it moved back to ESPN in 2007. With a television audience of 6,799,000, it was the perfect capper on a Chase that posted year-to-year increases in seven of ten televised events. Even if you include the rain-postponed Chicagoland event, posting half of its typical audience the ABC/ESPN numbers increased sharply from 2010 lows.

On the attendance front, the trends were mixed with tracks like Bristol posted precipitous declines while others, like Homestead, Fontana, and Phoenix saw their numbers rise. That’s far from perfect, but better than the bottomless fallout we’ve seen since the Great Recession that’s taken place these past few seasons. Certainly, NASCAR enters next season in far healthier shape than its counterpart, open-wheel, while remaining in the mix as one of the top 5 most popular sports in the country.

Some tracks still saw large gaps in their attendance numbers, but others saw increases, leading to hope that there is a light to end of the tunnel of constant decline. Photo courtesy of Rick Lunkenheimer.

With that in mind, explain these two differing sets of news headlines to me. In IndyCar, we’ve seen a handful of teams and drivers – Ed Carpenter, Charlie Kimball (Chip Ganassi ownership), for example – announce long-term sponsor and owner agreements for 2012. By and large, despite a tragedy (Dan Wheldon) and a body-blow departure (Danica Patrick) there’s still money and companies available to bring new teams into the fold. On the flip side, let’s check out the NASCAR new teams entering Sprint Cup next year. Well, we’ve got Clint Bowyer, running the new 5-Hour Energy Car for Michael Waltrip Racing in a full-time effort. And then there’s… there’s…

Yeah, that about describes it. Instead, the headlines this week read Roush Fenway Racing laying off 33% of its workforce, downsizing by a team while Red Bull Racing prepares to shutter its operation and lay off another 150. Add in RCR’s downsizing, from four cars to three and you’ve got a net loss of three “locked in,” top-35 programs entering next year’s Daytona 500.

How bad has it gotten? For another client, part of my job is to rank the top 30 drivers competing full-time in 2012. Four years ago, it took several agonizing hours to organize and then cut down the list to just 30 viable candidates. This year? It took me the better part of 20 minutes. In fact, the hardest part was finding numbers 29 and 30; by my count, there’s just 28 confirmed, full-time drivers running the full schedule without start-and-parking although 24-25 of those are capable of making the Chase.

With those numbers, NASCAR’s top priority entering 2012 is twofold. First, they need to entice new ownership to take the leap similar to the way IndyCar is trying to pull people into their series. Then, they need to work on sponsorship, either convincing new companies to come on board with teams, not themselves while trying to find some way for these private contractors to further cut or limit their spending.

Otherwise, the risk remains that despite a possible upswing, NASCAR as we know it is still in perilous danger. As the NBA has shown us, just because you have a successful product people watch doesn’t guarantee its ability to remain functional each week. The lockout happened because a bunch of NBA owners claimed they were losing money. In NASCAR, it’s more simple than that; if owners lose too much cash, they close their teams and simply go away, removing one more car from the grid. So if a lot of people keep losing, regardless of ratings the sport’s business model will eventually cause the entire industry to fall flat on its face. We’re still waiting for that to self-adjust… will it happen?

*Did You Notice?*… The booing of Michelle Obama by fans on Sunday? Clearly, politics has polarized our public more than at any time in our nation’s history. But isn’t a sports event, glorified entertainment at its finest a place where we leave those opinions at the door? No one goes to see a race to showcase how they feel about the President. They go there, like they did on Sunday to see good, hard-nosed competition and find an enjoyable escape from their lives for three hours.

Here’s the way I view this issue, Republican or Democrat aside. All the time, NASCAR honors military veterans through all types of special ceremonies, charitable initiatives, and sponsorships. Heck, two years ago on Memorial Day they stopped the race for a moment of silence to honor those who have served our country. No one ever boos an Iraq war hero, or a General visiting pit road about to be deployed to Afghanistan, or the wife of a special ops member who gave his life to the cause of protecting our country.

Well, like it or not folks Michelle Obama is part of that military family, too. She’s the wife of the President, who also, last I checked the history books serves as our Commander In Chief. You may disagree with her politics, but why does that matter in the middle of a race weekend where her presence is merely to help honor those who serve? There’s a chance to express your displeasure with the current regime: at town hall meetings, through formal protests, and at the ballot box this coming November. But in the middle of NASCAR pre-race ceremonies? With thousands of impressionable children present, looking how to act at these types of public functions? Wrong place, wrong time. It’s as simple as that.

*Did You Notice?* … Some quick hits:

– I don’t understand why J.D. Gibbs won’t let Greg Zipadelli out of his contract. (It runs through 2012, but sources tell me Zippy wants out in order to jump over to Stewart-Haas Racing next year). For a dozen years, Zippy has done everything this organization has asked, including taking care of a cantankerous Stewart in the early years while delivering two titles, nearly three dozen wins and propped up Joey Logano for three years.

– This Silly Season, it was clearly the drivers, not the crew chiefs who moved around. Entering 2012, only about 15 crew chiefs will begin the year in the same position and team they were in as of February, 2011 – that’s roughly half of what that number looks like on the driver side.

– “Matt McLaughlin mentioned the Kurt Busch rager,”:/mmclaughlin/36602/ so I won’t double up on it here. But here’s another question: who’s gutsy enough to step up and be Busch’s crew chief next year, after the way he’s handled both Pat Tryson and Steve Addington? Who in their right mind would volunteer to take that type of weekly abuse? I think it’s going to be a harder position to fill than even insiders at Penske Racing might think.
And as for Addington… how in the world do you go from Kyle Busch, to Kurt Busch, to Tony Stewart? Is this guy a glutton for punishment? The poor man needs two years with Trevor Bayne, at minimum to regain some semblance of normalcy after all he’s been through.

– Chris Heroy is the new crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya. Chris who? The same engineer who was responsible for Mark Martin’s resurgence during his 2009, runner-up season and has also helped Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s recovery at Hendrick Motorsports. Assuming he can handle the promotion, look back on this hire in six months; it could be the most significant shuffle we’ll see in the offseason, considering how badly Earnhardt Ganassi needs to retool their cars in order to get back on track.

– And before we take off, a quick note as this column is my last before Frontstretch enters “winter vacation.” (I’ll still pop up every now and then, here and on “Twitter)”:http://www.twitter.com/NASCARBowles/ I want to just take a moment and thank everyone who’s followed my ups and downs this season in what’s certainly been a rather unusual year. Your continued support on here, Athlon, and my work with SIRIUS has meant more than even the best wordsmith can relate.
With that, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, wonderful Holiday Season and look forward to a rebuilding, refreshed start to the year in 2012.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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