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NASCAR’s Bet on The Banquet

So… here we are. The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet has come and gone. It was a week of championship-caliber excitement complete with racing stars, racing cars, celebrities, and hangers-on galore. It all came to you via radio, television, and a variety of social media, as it has been annually since 2009 from beautiful downtown Las Vegas, Nevada.

Can you tell Brian France used to run NASCAR’s Entertainment Division out in Los Angeles?

It’s no surprise that NASCAR’s overall popularity has waned during the past decade. A lack of competitive racing coupled with the financial effects of the Great Recession prompted one-time racing fans to look elsewhere for sporting diversions. While both the National Football League and Major League Baseball have sustained their familiar, secure popularity with fans NASCAR watched its spectator attendance and television ratings drop at a steady pace.

So how does NASCAR attract a hip new audience? How about by throwing a fan-oriented, game show-based event? You’ll get showgirls and maybe even a chance to see Denny Hamlin or Jeff Gordon dance!

Did I mention Brian France also dabbled with an entertainment licensing business in Los Angeles? Did you know he once managed the licensing rights to Britney Spears; that’s right, the same Britney Spears who wandered the garage at Daytona back in 2001 wearing a leather jumpsuit and Elvis-style, gold-rimmed sunglasses?

Viva Las Vegas.

As you can see, I am not a fan of NASCAR capping its Sprint Cup seasons with these annual trips to Sin City. I am not a prude, nor am I against holding Champion’s Week events at a popular tourist destination; race fans continue to be a vocal and enthusiastic part of the celebrations in Las Vegas. What I’m against is the notion that NASCAR has to lower the aesthetic denominator and render the final week of the 2015 season to something worthy of coverage by Entertainment Tonight.

Don’t forget: NBC also owns E!, so the show will most certainly go on.

If I read last week’s schedule of events correctly, there was at least two separate “red carpet” parades done by drivers, crew chiefs, and their significant others. That’s in addition to the parade last Thursday afternoon of the sixteen cars that qualified for the Chase. The cars then demonstrated their appreciation of NASCAR Nation by doing burnouts along “the Miracle Mile”.

Did I mention that merchandise for all sixteen of the Chase contenders were also available for purchase at the NASCAR Superstore near the LINQ Promenade? Don’t worry about missing the bargains; Champion’s Week merchandise will be sold for the foreseeable future.

(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)­
The Busch brothers, including champion Kyle were honored for their NASCAR accomplishments in their hometown of Las Vegas last week. But is that location really the right spot for the season-ending awards banquet? (Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)­

I’m guessing popular non-Chasers like Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart will have souvenirs available, too. Maybe they should call it “the Championship 16 and friends”?

Or maybe NASCAR should simply take its Sprint Cup awards banquet back to New York City?

Granted, not all traditions are worth maintaining (as in “Black Friday” that now begins on Thanksgiving Thursday) but there was something dignified about taking NASCAR to The Big Apple. The smaller size and higher cost of The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel venue might have limited the number of team members who made the trip but that added to the banquet’s allure. Being part of such a select group made winning the championship even more of an exclusive experience.

Given the amount of lodging available in Las Vegas it makes sense that the more in attendance, the merrier. Not that teams didn’t party hard in New York but Vegas is the natural location for such revelry.

Still, moving the Sprint Cup banquet to “Sin City” seemed to cheapen the event.

I’m not saying NASCAR and New York City meshed perfectly either. Our sport was still a bit rough around the edges back in 1981, the first year when then-Winston Cup cars rolled into Manhattan. Legend has it that when the maître d’ at the famous “21” required Junior Johnson to wear a necktie if he was dining at the respected eatery, Johnson responded by walking out the door and simply buying a hot dog from a street vendor.

Maybe it was the “old money” feel from R.J. Reynolds’ sponsorship way back when. Maybe it was that a sport born and bred in the rural South could celebrate its annual achievements by occupying the most recognized hotel in America’s largest city. Maybe it was the way NASCAR proved to Madison Avenue that the gamble it took on stock car racing in the wake of the 1979 Daytona 500 paid off.

It all gave NASCAR a little extra legitimacy. Until 2009, of course when NASCAR “went west” in search of a new-and-improved audience. Too bad other improvements, by that time, were slow in paying their own dividends. The Car of Tomorrow was a perpetual work-in-progress, drivers were criticized as too “vanilla”, and the late Bob Latford’s point system had been swapped for an early version of the Chase format.

As I grow older, I recognize that today’s NASCAR is a far cry from the NASCAR of my youth (and even of my days working directly within the sport). Times change, and so should NASCAR Nation, but it still – after seven years – it seems discourteous to take the Sprint Cup banquet away from New York City.

Don’t get me wrong. Las Vegas is a great city. I caught my first tires on a crew there, had many friends there, and I enjoy the energy of the place. What a homecoming it was for Kyle Busch as he accepted his championship trophy.

It’s just that, for me, at this time of year, I’ll always be in a New York state-of-mind….

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About Mark Howell

Mark Howell
Dr. Mark Howell is a college professor whose life and area of specialization is all about motorsports. He has published two books on the topic, has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to talk about NASCAR and has been part of the Frontstretch team since 2011. Mark also spent three years (2001-2003) as a part-time pit crew member in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. As a professor, Mark teaches courses in advanced writing, popular culture, and film studies. He is also on the nominating committee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Florida. In January 2017, Mark was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It has curtailed his writing for Frontstretch, but he still manages to provide content whenever possible.

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25 comments

  1. Avatar

    in general – the whole thing is really only good if you’re in person. I used to go see the lap in NYC – and there were lots of fans out there for that. We’re also forgetting the weather factor, meaning – it’s really NICE in LV that time of year, NYC, not so much – so why not treat fans to the nice weather as well.

    Following that – the actual banquet itself is boring, the only people who show their character is the winner (unless you’re JG this year). I go back and watch highlights, it’s on avg – about a minute recap, why they’re happy, then it’s a circle j*rk for the sponsors, Nascar, officials, broadcast media, goodyear, blah blah blah. More content and driver color, less advertising

    I liked the idea someone mentioned at having it at a track, and all fans can come watch for free – that’s very original.

    I also wanted to say that – the drive for diversity has been an over publisized attempt at getting more color and women into the sport – whoever it was that made a comment above failed to realize that it’s not a quota for this many blacks, mexicans, women, etc – it’s a door opener. They still – like their white counterparts have to succeed. This puts people like Wallace and Suarez into seats, and display’s the talent. However, when you’ve got one black guy, one mexican and like 3 women – the odds work against them for moving up – there’s just “too much” competition from the majority. While nascar shouldn’t force a diverse group of comepetiors, it’s nice to see there are methods in for those with the same racing background since age 4, minus the dollars.

    And – to that point – realize – that there are 43 white drivers, and there are still black, latino, asian, etc. fans. So, what should be focused on is the product on the track, perhaps that draws in the rest…..simple, i know.

    my opinions, not looking to cause any strife…it’s the holidays after all. Oh, and Merry Christmas, cause i dislike saying happy holidays.

  2. Avatar

    You might want to do a little research before you write. Brand Sense Partners is still in business. There is a nice picture of that “marketing genius” Brain France. And yes Britney Spears is still listed as a client.

    Here is a link: http://bsp.com/#portfolioContainer

    Brian France couldn’t market paper bags to grocery store. And it has NOTHING to do with the recession. Stop buying into the Daytona beach propagaganda

    • Avatar

      Yikes! Here I was hoping that BF had liquidated his entertainment ties to better focus on the sport he inherited. At least Britney is trying to turn her fortunes around…. maybe Brian hopes to rekindle her hopes of making a movie about NASCAR. My Recession angle had more to do with the fact that the sluggish economy kept many fans from being able to afford trips to the races. Fans have told me that they simply couldn’t justify spending big bucks on tickets, fuel, food, and lodging — no matter if the races were lousy or not. NASCAR did little to make the competition better, thanks to BF advocating “innovations” like the CoT and the Chase format. Let’s hope the new low-downforce package delivers what we predict it can. We’re running out of options….

      • Avatar

        I don’t hold hope for an aero package changing much of anything. It’s the same old song and dance heard every year followed by the loud sucking up sound of the cheerleaders touting that this year it’s the best, most competitive and exciting racing ever. Even a push to pass option would have more hope than yet another aero adjustment. BZF, instead of trying to invent a stock car that is interesting on 1.5 mile track, try inventing shorter and slower tracks that are naturally interesting with stock cars. More road courses too. So, didn’t BZF recently sign long term contracts with existing tracks? I hope they don’t have enough life boats.

  3. Avatar

    NY never liked NASCAR. They tolerated us and you could tell. Las Vegas loves us and you can tell that too.

  4. Avatar

    I’ve been a fan since the early 60s. I remember when Fireball was killed like it was yesterday as I was listening on a transistor radio. I don’t care if the banquet is in NY or LV or even if there is one. I would rather they have it at a southern track, have it in the infield and invite the fans to sit in the stands at no cost and watch it on the big screen. The “show” has replaced racing and they wonder why fans are leaving in droves. I expect the “show” to continue until it is equal to professional wrestling and NASCAR will be equally respected.

    • Avatar

      Wow, I am dead serious, what a great idea Ken. I like it ALOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Avatar

      When Brian hears “at no cost” it’s game over. I’m sure Brian is pitching to the WWE as the next title sponsor of NA$CAR but Vince is a lot smarter than Brian.

  5. Avatar

    I always feel like the comedian mc’s have never watched a single race until they prepped for the show. I think the mc should be a racing journalist or if they use a comedian, use Jay Leno. He’s a hardcore gearhead.

  6. Avatar

    Mark, reading your bio told me everything I needed to know about this column. NASCAR is in decline because of “the Great Recession?” (capitalized no less!) Do you write speeches for Hillary or Bernie in your spare time, which as a professor I am sure you have lots of.

    NASCAR is in decline because the racing sucks! Do you think if Childress, Rousch or Petty could have afforded another 7 post machine they would have scored more wins? NASCAR has become a techno spec series that the racers and fans both dislike.

    If the racing was good the stands would be full. Here is a little secret for you. Race fans work for their money. If the product was good they would be there.

    Only a liberal hack would try to portray Brian France as a victim of the Great Recession! Geeez.

    And while I am on a roll, here is the reason you don’t have diversity in motorsports, you have to want it bad enough to work to get it. I don’t mean practice, I mean get a job, earn and save money, learn to build a car or bike and then race it. Maybe the government should give out affirmative action racing grants? Crapola!

    Oh, one more thing, the banquet should be in Daytona.

    I feel better now.

    • Avatar

      I feel compelled to reply, much like after reading a Jordan article. The only thing I might agree with you about is Daytona but I won’t even agree with that based on principle.

      • Avatar

        You’re obviously liberal, what principal?

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          That name calling is kinda funny. The principle is that I disagree with everything else you wrote. The article only names the recent depression as a contributor to NASCAR decline, not the singular cause and it would be silly to say that it didn’t contribute. I’m no Grammar Major so I Googled Great Depression and capitalization seems appropriate. To say that money doesn’t equate to wins is borderline delusional. The majority of drivers now days didn’t get a job, save money and blah blah blah, their Daddy or Granddaddy did. Finally, minorities don’t corner the market on lazy. I know because I work with a lot of white people. Just my opinions.

    • Avatar

      Perhaps you did not read my column closely enough. I never said Brian France was a victim of the Great Recession. France (and NASCAR) actually made money while working and middle class Americans lost their jobs and homes. My comments about Brian were sarcastic in that the guy running NASCAR used to manage pop stars and TV deals — he’s the person guiding the future of stock car racing? Again, maybe this explains why he took the Cup banquet to Las Vegas and loaded the lineup with comedians, movie people, and music acts.

      Not sure why you attacked me about the lack of diversity in motorsports. I didn’t mention that at all. I agree that racers need a strong work ethic to gather funds, build a car/bike, and race their way to a career, but — based on my 20 years in NASCAR — I can safely say that it also helps to have family connections. Would Kyle Petty have made it in racing if his name wasn’t Petty? How about Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Dale Jarrett, or Casey Mears? Seems like their last names meant just as much as their work ethic.

      Better competition means more fans? Yes. Should the banquet return to Daytona? Yes there, too.

      • Avatar

        I did not attack you on diversity, that was simply, as I meant to imply by stating “while I’m on a roll” just a pet peeve.

        Now I must ask you, what do Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett, Junior or Casey Mears have to do with diversity? NASCAR represents a very small percentage of the motorsports industry and certainly, with the exception of Kyle Petty, nobody starts at Daytona. (I was there and saw that ARCA race.) For NASCAR to sponsor a drive for diversity is really kind of amusing. It’s a little like Augusta National starting a “swing for diversity.”

        Sure rich parents and grand parents are buying rides for some young drivers but motorsports has always been a playground for the rich. Many even got pretty good at it.

        But the primary reason for my writing was the competition, or lack of it. I am employed in the powersports industry and my friends and I used to attend 3 to 4 races a year besides Phoenix and Fontana were we are located. We didn’t quit going because of “The Great Recession” we quit because the racing sucked. I used to entertain clients during NASCAR weekend in Phoenix but fewer and fewer people wanted to go. Now they want to go to Barrett Jackson in January. I guess I just think the lack of competition, and the excess technology has contributed more than the economy.

        • Avatar

          You’re hitting on all eight cylinders here: the decline in NASCAR started when the races stopped being competitive. The Car of Tomorrow and the Chase format pushed the sport down a slippery slope. When you see a year (like 2015) where the majority of events were won by a driver affiliated with one of two organizations (either HMS or JGR), and where passing for the lead was an exception (not a rule), I totally understand why your clients want to skip Phoenix and attend Barrett Jackson. There’s more fun in cool cars standing still than in Cup cars turning parade laps thanks to aero push.

          My “recession” fixation stems from fans who tell me that they skipped making NASCAR trips over the years because prices got too high to justify traveling to races that got too dull. The real reason was that BF tinkered with the sport and tried to turn the “show” into “business”. Racing has always been a business, but it also used to be a ton more fun. Toss in the fact that many teenagers have little to no interest in cars, and I fear what looms ahead. Hip young NASCAR drivers aren’t cutting it with tomorrow’s fan base.

          At least we got the low-downforce package approved for 2016. Sure hope it does what we think it will….

      • Avatar

        Mark I agree with almost everything you wrote. My only comment would be that about better competition creating more fans. Once an impression has been created that only the last 20 laps, or whatever after the last “debris” caution, matters why go to the event? The pass for the lead on lap 58 is really irrelevant.
        Anyway lets hope that next year is better.

  7. Avatar

    Personally I thought NYC had acted like having the banquet and championship celebrations there was an inconvenience so moving it to Vegas made sense from that aspect. At least Las Vegas seems interested in putting on a show, which is what NASCAR has become in these past 10 or so years anyway.

    I would still prefer that they have a motorsports person act as emcee though rather than a comedian.

  8. Avatar

    Hometown boy overcomes adversity to win the championship (with a little help from his friend). Right out of a Hollywood script. Another movie starts filming at Daytona.

  9. Avatar

    Do you FS wags ever run out of things to complain about? New York was always a ridiculous venue for the banquet. Way too expensive for the average fan and hardly a hotbed of NASCAR popularity. I remember Bill Elliott once saying he thought the hotel’s prices were outrageous and walked to a deli to pick up a sandwich for dinner.

    Las Vegas is a better fit and more fun for the teams and the fans. (And I LUV NY and Vegas both!)

  10. Avatar

    I have to completely disagree. The best thing they ever did was move the banquet to Vegas. It looks like there is a ton more for fans to participate in v. NYC. Outside of a few pockets of “gear heads”, NYC will never care about NASCAR.

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      I agree with you, Vegas has wayyyy more to enjoy for everyone than NYC. It was stuffy up there while Vegas the drivers and their family and friends seem cheerful and happy and full of joy and fun. No way they ever go back to stuffy NYC. All the drivers and owners are saying the same thing. These are racers who drive hard and party hard and Vegas offers it all to them and their wives. Watch the tv’s click off if they even talk about going back to NY. They just need better writers to write the script for the MC’s and drivers. I saw a lot of smiles and happy people sitting at the tables because it’s Vegas after all, and there is only one Vegas in the whole world.

  11. Avatar

    I don’t remember the last time I cared about the awards banquet, even when my favorite driver won. Might be different if I ever worked on the “inside.”

  12. Avatar

    No way! Las Vegas rules, and the fans there are way more into NASCAR than the stuffed shirts in New York. The cars and burnouts along the strip are awesome, too.