No one will argue NASCAR has had a tough time of it popularity-wise over the last decade. Nielsen TV ratings for the Daytona 500 and last weekend’s race at Atlanta, the debut of the 2016 rules package were down a whopping 23 percent combined. In just the last six months, the sport has dealt with the loss of two popular, Hall of Fame drivers in Jeff Gordon’s retirement, Tony Stewart’s back injury and a major bankruptcy/closure of one of its major teams, Michael Waltrip Racing. The sport was facing financial contraction, purses down 10 percent and was forced to sign a charter agreement with its teams in a landmark agreement designed to stop the bleeding. Now, 2016 should be trying to rebuild NASCAR’s image, launching a marketing campaign designed around better racing and bringing new fans into the stands in any way possible. Decisions need to be made that open up new possibilities, branding an all-inclusive sport that is pushing its Drive For Diversity, new ownership and reaching out to a younger crowd.
Instead, NASCAR CEO Brian France is busy playing… politics? That’s right. Monday brought us the news France was busy at a rally both supporting and promoting who he thinks should be the future Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump.
“I’ve known Donald for over 20 years,” France said. “He wins with his family.” Later, in a press release it was noted the sport’s CEO felt Trump’s “leadership and strength are desperately needed,” trumpeted the candidate’s financial success and claimed, “This is what we need for our country.”
France’s rally comments were followed by Georgia native and 1988 Cup Series champ Bill Elliott. Elliott, after awkwardly taking the stage what I think is most appopriate here: “I don’t know what to say.”
What in the world is going on? The sport is two weeks into a rules package whose goal is to bring the focus back to racing, igniting the competition and reviving the fan base. Yet the sport’s CEO is choosing to keep NASCAR in the news cycle by very publicly endorsing a controversial candidate for President? And bringing out its major athletes, clearly out of their comfort zone to go rally around him?
Look, NASCAR backing a presidential candidate (in particular, a Republican one) is nothing new. The sport was very openly campaigning for both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But stop and think for a minute. At this stage of the game, other than famous NFL player Tom Brady supporting Trump what other major sports figure or athlete have you seen go this public with their presidential preference? Even in the case of Brady, he both deferred questions and became embarrassed when reporters dogged him over his comments supporting Trump. Brady wanted to focus on football, what he does 9-to-5 and what pays the bills.
You’d think NASCAR would want to do the same. After all, I haven’t seen the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB stop their busy schedules to dig into the presidential ring and endorse a particular candidate — especially during the 2016 election season. They’re busy, you know, running their sport and stuff. We’re in the third week of the season and this campaign stop is where France chooses to spend his time? Along with Mr. Elliott, his up-and-coming rookie Cup racer Chase (who is now branded with this Trump campaign) and David Lee Regan? Oops, sorry, I meant David Ragan. They couldn’t even get the press release right.[yop_poll id=”5″]
Who France is supporting here is actually irrelevant. Sports tends to tiptoe around the political arena most times for the most simplistic of reasons. People sit in the stands, view NASCAR programming and support their drivers as a form of entertainment. When they want to hear about politics? They go turn on FOX News or CNN. Fans are looking to see whether their driver has a setup capable of winning the race, not a campaign platform that’s capable of winning delegates.
Politics is also that fiery topic with fierce loyalty to both sides of the fence, the one that makes family members throw stuff over the Thanksgiving dinner table and choose to spend time in separate rooms. How do the young voters France covets for his NASCAR stands each weekend, people the sport desperately needs to thrive react to such public support of Trump? In exit polls of the New Hampshire primary 83% of 18 to 29-year-old Democratic voters prefer the most liberal candidate in the field, Bernie Sanders. That’s an overwhelmingly higher percentage than the 37% of 18 to 29-year-old Republicans who voted for Trump. Talk about a very different group of people. Has France just given up on them, turned them off on NASCAR by supporting a public figure they disgust? And how about the 63% of young Republican voters who didn’t vote for Trump? It’s a name that hardly ever brings up “no opinion” and plenty of those Republicans could be sitting there today steaming at France’s endorsement.
The message of exclusivity is being sent at the worst possible time. Why limit your potential fan base when millions have already walked away? The second you’re promoting politics over product it’s the actual product you’re selling that gets lost in the shuffle.
It’s hard enough for NASCAR sometimes to shed its old school image as a Southern-based, “redneck” sport. Growing up in the north, it was an image you had to fight all the time the second you said you were a young fan, years before I got to work in stock car racing. But France’s declaration here cements that branding even more during a time when the sport should be trying to reinvent itself. Instead of talking about the racing, those 18-29 year-olds could now see the CEO of our sport as little more than a “Donald Trump supporter” in an age when presidential politics is dominating our news cycle. That alone may be enough to turn them off on taking a longer look at watching NASCAR.
If the sides were flipped, of course and France was openly supporting a Democratic candidate you’d see the same result: millions of Republicans would feel alienated and start thinking about political issues that shouldn’t bleed into their 3.5 hours of entertainment each weekend. That’s why sports and politics stay on their own islands, a clear separation of church and state. You don’t want to give fans a reason not to come to your own event that has nothing to do with the sport itself.
I’d like to sit here and talk about 29 lead changes Sunday. I’d like to tell you about the ways I think the new rules package took a big step forward in reigniting the sport. I just wish France was right here alongside, working his full-time job.
Who knows, Trump may make America great again. But I see nothing about stopping NASCAR’s downward slide into irrelevancy. Can someone in Daytona get working on that if France doesn’t want to?