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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Take You to the Leader of the Band

With a very displeasing, sneezing and wheezing,
The calliope fell to the ground…
-Bruce Springsteen-

It’s a natural part of any human enterprise, I suppose. At the onset, one must be able to articulate the plans, hopes and dreams of the venture. At the conclusion, one must reflect on how those plans worked and whether those hopes and dreams were realized. If not, one must start over again on a different tact.

This time of year, you’ll probably receive a bunch of holiday cards containing family newsletters chronicling the lives of some folks you likely haven’t talked to one-on-one in years. (The old McLaughlin family newsletters tended to chronicle my four sisters’ academic achievements, engagements, marriages and births. The section about me? It noted that once again, I’d been able to stay out of prison though I seemed incarcerated in an endless adolescent fantasy of beer, bikes, and blondes.)

In the case of the 2016 Cup season, Brian France chose to hold a state-of-the-sport-type press conference at Homestead on Sunday morning. What ensued was a 17-minute train wreck that was so embarrassing to watch it was almost painful at times. To sum up France’s words, “All is well with the state of the sport. Couldn’t hardly be better. Stay the course. Steady as she goes. Ignore the man behind the curtain. Don’t change horses midstream. A thousand points of light.”

What contradicted that theme was the panicky expression on his face for most of the news conference. France was clearly ill at ease and sweating profusely even as he tried to appear upbeat. We’re not talking a sweated brow here; it was right into the class of what David Letterman used to call “fat guys making their own gravy” on the hot summertime sidewalks of New York City.  He constantly mopped at his face with a handkerchief, or alternately fumbled with the button on his ill-fitting suit jacket and seemed at times to be fighting a strong compulsion to readjust his package.

I’ll try to give France the benefit of the doubt. NASCAR, after all, had ventured into the third world realm of Miami and it’s possible he had contracted Zika or Malaria from a mischievous Miami mosquito the size of a turkey buzzard.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
So, what exactly is the state of the sport these days? (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

While I’ve never been a fan of Brian France, watching him yesterday raised my degree of panic about the future of the sport. This guy is someone supposed to be leading a high-profile, multi-million dollar sport into the future? That physical appearance made me feel like I wouldn’t trust him to guide my granny across a crosswalk. (Although Grandma would likely be safer if he did that than if he encountered her on the way home from Happy Hour in his Lexus.)

Right off the bat, France adopted a combative attitude toward the press. I suppose such an attitude is in vogue right now. He flat out lost it when asked to reconcile his celebration of Mexican-born XFINITY champion Daniel Suarez and his endorsement of Donald Trump earlier this year. France abruptly cut the questioner off, noting that absolutely nobody in attendance cared a whit about his personal politics.

France was a day late and a dollar short in reaching that conclusion, which would have served him better back in March when he went on the record. He went on to note his strong championing of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program, which sounded a whole lot like the infamous line “some of my best friends are….” He went on to say that his commitment to the program was so solid that even questioning him in that regard was a “ridiculous thing to do.”

That’s the thing about press conferences. They tend to yield equal parts insight and ridiculousness unless the host is moister than and as spineless as a slug.

As far as the replacement series sponsor to replace the phone folks, France wasn’t able to go on record with any new information. He admitted that given it’s been 23 months since the search started, he’s a bit surprised it’s taken as long as it has though he added NASCAR was “in a good spot with that.” Rumors are swirling that while the sponsor is found (the cardiac-in-a-can folks at Monster Energy) negotiations have dragged into extra innings over the dollar amount and length of the commitment Monster will make to the sport. Both will likely be far below the ten-year, one billion dollar commitment that NASCAR allegedly was initially seeking.

Curiously, despite the fact in every poll I’ve seen, an overwhelming majority of fans dislike or even despise the Chase format, France labeled it and its introduction to the Truck and XFINITY series as overwhelming successes. He went out of his way to praise that and Drive For Diversity often during the presser.

Please allow me a tangent here. When have I ever made it this far into a column without venturing off the trail at least once? Major success, huh? Under the old points system, Jimmie Johnson would have finished seventh in the standings. Kevin Harvick would have defeated Joey Logano for the crown. That seems somewhat fair given that Johnson’s season-long finishing average was 14th, Logano’s ten and a half and Harvick’s 10th.

I’ve got to call into serious question at least whether a caution flag needed to fly for the Dylan Lupton incident late in the race when it became apparent Carl Edwards held the upper hand in the title fight. “Dag nab it!” you could almost hear someone in the control tower scream, “We said it was going to be exciting right down to the last lap and we’ll just see that it is.” More contrived excitement. Even the uber-diplomatic Edwards went on record as saying he hoped the reason for that caution was legitimate, because it sure messed up his evening. Even if you accept the Chase and the likelihood it will make the last race of the year entertaining, it’s sad that the system tends to make the first 26 “regular season” races less meaningful. Anyone remember what happened at Talladega a few weeks ago? No, I didn’t think so.

In the Truck Series, stalwart Johnny Sauter claimed the title by four points over Matt Crafton. Had the old points system been used Sauter would still have been champion. William Byron would have finished second, perhaps a bit more fitting in that the kid did, in fact, win seven races in that series this year. And the margin of victory in the title hunt would have been three points, not four. More exciting, huh? Yes, in the old days under the old points systems sometimes a driver would clinch the title with several races left to run. Thing is, I seem to remember some of those post-title races as among the best I have seen with everyone running for pride and bragging rights, not points.

In the XFINITY Series, Elliott Sadler would have won the championship over Daniel Suarez. And yes, the gap between the two would have been pretty substantial. Sadler’s average finish was 6.8 this season, a pretty astounding number. Suarez managed a still-stellar eighth-place result. Draw your own conclusions here.

France also interrupted and dismissed a question by ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. As best I can interpret, Pockrass had a perfectly valid point. With TV ratings and at track attendance both down, some teams are having an increasingly difficult time landing adequate sponsorship to compete for the entire season. This question is different than how the search for NASCAR’s title sponsor is going and perhaps even a more important one regarding the future health of the sport.

The marketing types don’t commit huge amounts to race sponsorship because they covet hot garage passes to the big events. They want their corporate logos in clear focus before a set number of eyeballs watching the races, both in the stands and on TV. They divide that amount of eyes (usually divided by two, since most of us are bi-ocular) into the dollars they are committing and decide if it’s a good fit. If not, they allocate those marketing dollars to commercials during Seinfeld and Friends reruns on those upstart cable networks in the 400 tier.

Having quite enough of any Negative Nellie questioning of his regime France, by this point looking like a mermaid with a bad combover, used a whole lot of words not to answer the question he refused to hear out. Yes, while it may appear that TV ratings are not only down but down substantially (even during the Chase) that’s simply a result of the still engaged and loyal fans “sliding” (What, are they driving on Goodyears in the rain?) over to new electronic mediums to consume the sport they so dearly love. NASCAR’s digital ratings are “off the charts,” France assured everyone, without offering any proof that is the case.

Of course, the medium is still in its infancy, so when you start at a level of zero any presence at all can be hyped as huge growth. France noted he had recently “watched” a Duke basketball game digitally in about seven minutes and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bully for him. The difference is the various players in the game weren’t wearing logos on their jerseys that some sponsor hoped were clear and in focus. My guess is the two TV networks that present the sport to those who still prefer to watch on TV aren’t enamored of the idea of fans choosing a seven-minute digital highlight package that also conveniently bypasses the incessant commercials. And finally, given NASCAR’s average demographics of hardcore fans (to put it politely, we’re “graying”), as a member of the more mature set I can assure you most folks my age have an innate distaste and distrust if not outright dislike for internet programming. I couldn’t tell a Hulu from a Zulu or a Netflix from hot chix and like most folks my age, I didn’t drop a ton of coin on a big screen high def TV to watch races on a two-inch screen that locks up constantly and requires me to download nefarious malware to access it.

Again, only as an aside, but I’ve determined Google is the most effective weapon Satan has in his arsenal. This whole “ratings are down because people are accessing content in new ways” argument stinks of the Gillian Zucker Defense. When she ran the track in Fontana, Zucker was asked about all the empty seats in the stands. She opined that wasn’t a result of unsold tickets but so many fans being under the grandstands doing a little shopping and lining up for delicious track food.

France did note that right now, all major sports are facing the same ratings challenge. Remember how effective a strategy it was to tell your parents “everyone else is doing it” to explain away whatever you’d been caught doing?

The issue here is that NASCAR itself is doing just fine thanks to that eight billion dollar TV deal with NBC and FOX. (Or more often these days, NBCSN and FoxSports 1). But people don’t tune into races to see a sanctioning body or a TV broadcast. They tune in to watch a race. More money needs to trickle down to the team owners and drivers to make for better competition.

Remember the “Rule of Holes”? When you find yourself in one, stop digging. Mercifully, the “media availability” slated to last thirty minutes concluded in 17. Last year, it dragged on for 38 minutes.

Am I being too tough here? Watch for yourself…if you dare.

In the end, my takeaway from those 17 minutes is that this sport is in big trouble and it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. The first step to solving a problem is to admit there’s a problem that needs solving. Maybe France ought to appoint himself NASCAR’s Pharaoh because right now he’s the King of Denial.

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kb

Brian and The Walrus always looked unkempt and unprofessional to me, including their presentation of what ever they were trying to sell, hucksters at best. They always looked like they came out of a steakhouse luncheon with a bloody rare steak and Manhattan’s for presumed food fortification.

DoninAjax

Brian looks like he’s facing a divorce lawyer asking about his income.

kb

HEHEHHEEEHHEEE….all that money and still looks like crap. Goes to show ya…

Bill B

I will pass on watching dickhead France tell us “remain calm, all is well”. As I was reading your article I realized that you really had to earn your money this week to even spend the time watching it.

You could probably just replay his last “state of the sport” speech and it would have been indistinguishable from this one (I wouldn’t know because I haven’t watched one in years). Something about wasting time while someone pisses on my head and tells me it’s raining just doesn’t appeal to me.

I hope they start next season without a series sponsor because it will be fun to hear him spin that as a good thing but I am sure he will. What a jackass.

janice

amen!!!

and watch old brain fart sweat even more so if earnhardt jr has issues getting back in car and being competitive. they need the earnhardt cash cow.

Russ

Always tough to put a positive spin on a product that is, to anyone that doesnt remember the 70’s, boring. But at least he didn’t come right out and say “hey we’re still making millions, so what’s the problem?”

Tim S.

You don’t have to compare it to the seventies. Videos of the most nap-inducing 1998 intermediate track races look like action movies compared to today’s slot cars.

Russ

referring to the age of the fans when I referenced the 70’s.

Tim S.

I just meant that you didn’t need to go nearly that far back.

Russ

Well I think it is going to be really difficult to engage the young people of today with stock car racing in particular, motorsports in general.
And if the can’t the sport is doomed, because we are all mortals and father time is on nobodies side.

Biff Baynehouse

LMAO! Epic lamb-basting dude! You are my new fav press hero Mr. Matt McLaughlin!! Suarez vs. Trump “…his personal politics” huh? Sure did not seem so personal on that stage when he & a clutch of Cup drivers [Wild Bill Elliot, Newman, Regan, C. Elliot] touted Trump-tanic & his Mexican wall for mass-media consumption. Despite his version of reality, CEO’s are on commission & are on the clock 24/7. So when a CEO goes on stage, the whole idea is to swing his corporate influence like a hammer, to be ANYTHING but impersonal & to get his brigade of fellow corporate suits, other corporate counterparts & lesser employees & families all aboard Trump-tanic. Otherwise what’s the point?
Thanks for the unedited link. I watched all of it & find it interesting how he ordered serveral members of America’s free press to ….STOP! Clearly he has been hanging out with Trump & his comrades at the Russian propaganda pseudo-reality machine, or he would know free-press is free-speech, which is not only a protected right & a constitutional amendment ….it is the FIRST amendment! Then, with the Suarez/Trump question, he jumps to the defensive, long before any inkling that the question would be phrased with a neutrally objective, positive or negative connotation. This reaction is CLEAR indicatory of a defensive, if not guilty conscious, that is most likely consumed with regret & self-doubt. And the defensive posturing started with a blatant 1st amendment denial, consisted mostly of highly questionable rhetorical D4D double speak & regurgitated corporate mush, & most interestingly, ended with an emulation of his political idol, when Nascar’s esteemed, worldly & diverse-minded CEO goes on the verbal attacking offensive, such as that you might expect from a petulant 3rd grade bully, by insulting & calling a press member dirty names. “That’s ridiculous!”, he says. Leaving the only operative question on the topic, since he was NEVER asked a question: WHAT IS RIDICULIOUS MR FRANCE? Obvious answered being, “my self-impugning thoughts & failed leadership.” Two peas in a pod …these adult-imbeciles! Where do we find these dolts? No wonder Nascar & America is floundering!
On side bar #1, if not for the farcical “chase” format, the “Mr. Se7en” we refer now, would in fact have been JEFF GORDON in ’14! And Mr. Johnson would be shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. Harvick, at THREE. And then, they would hardly be within sniffing distance of JG’s, Big E’s or The King’s fire-booties.
Unless he &/or Ford bought +/- 10,000 tickets & dressed them as empty seats, namely in the turn 1 grandstands, Miami was NOT sold out! That LIE as plan as the nose on his face.
Miami’s ratings dipped 25% from year ago. Said to have impacted this was the fact that last years race was delayed by weather & ended taking up almost all of NBC’S NFL/American pregame show’s time slot. I think a better explanation for this dip is as follows & is as big of a ratings issue as the insipid gimmick “chase” format…
Stat side #1: Commercial breakdown of the ’16 Miami Cup race.
total number of laps: 269
total number of ads: 257
– traditional commercials: 106
– split screen commercials: 26
– script & graphics commercials 125
As per cashinjaws [but they only tally the traditional & the split commercials &that is the “total” they list [132, omitting the script ads]. Where as I add the “script & graphics” to the total, since they are also that are clearly bought, paid for & broadcasted]. 269 laps vs. 257 ads …no wonder people (like Mr. France) are seeking alternate viewing commercial-free alternatives!
Interestingly, when press members names, but not their affiliations, are called that is pretty clear indicator that those “press members” are essentially Nascar propaganda machine employees [Lee Spencer, Motorsports (yeah right, she is literally omnipresent), “regular season bonus points.” – Holly Kane, Nascar.com, “charters” – Zack Albert, Nascar.com, “exhibitionist guidelines”]. Seems as thought he needs to pay “media members” to lob big hanging boiled potatoes up to the plate so he can get his designated marketing rhetorical hits in play at the free-American “press conference”. Ahhhh, let’s make America great again ….by flooding mass-media with sanctioned corporate propaganda! Again, hasn’t that model been perfected by the Russian & Chinese commie propaganda machinery? Be advised, do not except an invitation from Nascar for a presser in North Korean. I hear tell they use uncooperative & insubordinate media members heads for tee-ball &/or artillery practice. DOH, just kidding. Which is also why discriminating motorsports fans should NOT take anything drivers say at face value, because the Charter system put Nascar’s drivers on Nascar’s pay roll, literally
Go figure! He cites Chris Buescher’s ’15 Championship as the un-stimulating & uninspiring reason the NXS adopted the “chase”. Oh, that rat ***tard! Since, after-all, the “chase” has been colloquial badged the “Matt Kenseth” format, after he “point-raced” for the latter part of the season & handily won the title in ’03, with “only” one win, even after a DNF at Miami. Most interesting is the manufacture BOTH of those lack luster points-racing “chase” instigating champions were driving? F – O – R – D!!! I suppose it was just too bitter a dose of reality for Brian to shallow the jagged concept that the Fords were really just that much better than everyone, yeah? “That’s ridiculous”! Thank you Brian for removing any shadow of a doubt your corporation is the lest bit impartiality, fair & unbiased. Stat side #2
Last 40 cups: Chevy (GM), 33, Ford 5, Dodge 2, Yota 1
Last 10 cups (“classic” format) : Chevy 7, Ford 2, Dodge 1, Yota 0
Last 10 cups (“chase” format): Chevy 8, Dodge 1, Yota 1, Ford 0
“We are very pleased with formats. [On Friday & Saturday] …you saw the net of it is net better racing. That’s the benefit of the “chase” & the “caution clock”. Because the fans get to see …[us] bring out the best in our drivers & teams.” Yeah, no! Because racers, albeit soccer moms vs. her twin tween gurls would drive 100% no matter if the are racing lawn tractors around two oak trees in the back yard! For Christ’s sakes has he not seen how cut throat some of those Nascar wife’s races have been! You do NOT need a gimmick format or even a purse to incite that kind of racing passion! That is as intrinsic to the act of racing as a snout is on a pig & that is just how clues Nascar’s leader is his bread & butter. To tinker with a motorsports championship format that is as tried & true as a “classic season’s driver’s championship” is to believe you will improve human nature by micro-managing, like an adolescent playing with a Legos or toy solders. This is absolutely off your rocker alternate reality delusional! With this format he believes he is smarter than racers at racing, when clearly he NEVER has done meaningfully. He has created an atmosphere that writhes with systemic manipulation, format induced loafing, & rewards for unsporting acts, no to mention sponsors backing out because of lack of exposure & the plethora of maladies it OBVIOUSLY has. And I am not sure which clutch of fans he is consistently referring too, but somehow I guess they are in his bloodline or on his payroll too. “It requires a different mind-set.” Yeah, an unsporting & unethical integral one, as with #20 at Martinsville last season & #19 at Miami this. And a fan base ignorant enough to appreciate a driver’s champion that missed 11 races & finished 454 points behind the “classic” points leader. I am not sure what alternate version of reality this carpet bagger is lugging around, but I am sure is does NOT exist in the real world. What a twitchy two-faced forked-tongue double-speaking *wat!
The two motorsports terms… “green-white-checkered” & “season’s driver’s championship” …could not have more diametrically opposed definitions. To combine the two, out of fiscal desperation, reduces these Nascar’s categories to a mockery of the sporting World! When you decide them under a gimmick format, like the one Nascar has devised, that culminates in a one race finale, which practically invariably means “shoot-out” &/or one or more GWC attempts, you have a very strong likelihood of deciding the driver’s championship almost entirely independent of driving skill. And you have greatly escalated the likelihood of malfeasance, that otherwise is practically impossible with “classic” formats. He is giving the motorsports fans a circus side-show act because that is what they believes they want. To that I say, even if I were interested in a dog-n-pony show, why would I attend a motorsports event to see one? And THAT, to me, epitomizes the counter-intuitiveness of this championship format. For the last 15 years he has deconstructed these formerly great categories, so as to pitch them to people with absolutely no motorsports interest or motorsports wherewithal, & in the process, exploited & taking for granted millions of devotees. Good luck with that!

DoninAjax

I guess Brian couldn’t find a toady to do his lying for him.

DoninAjax

I saw Father Joe in Victory Lane on Saturday with Danny Boy. I imagine Jeff and Mr. H were in VL on Sunday with Mr. H thinking, “That was money well spent,” as he tried to find Brian to thank him.

Upstate24fan

At what point does his sister and/or uncle step in? Brian lives in a fantasy land, he’s aloof (just ask Smoke). I hope Lisa is grooming Ben Kennedy to take over at some point. It seems Ben has a ton of respect in the Truck garage and his time in the trenches will serve him well. I don’t see all doom and gloom, but problems obviously exist. I think the continued efforts to take downforce off the cars will help with the product. I saw an old ESPN graphic that said a 1994 Cup Car produced just 500 lbs of downforce. That should be a long term goal at the R&D center. I think a sponsor like Monster will help appeal to youth that are watching Motocross or the other action sports they promote. What I saw at Homestead gives me optimism. All three races were competitive. Whatever works at Homestead needs to be translated to other 1.5 mile tracks. The limits on Cup guys in the lower divisions will help. The Xfinity Race on Saturday might have been the race of the year. I’ll disagree and state the eliminate chases work. It’s as close to a true playoff as auto racing can get. It gave exposure to teams in Xfinity and Trucks that would never get it otherwise (e.g. Ryan Sieg, Blake Koch).

All the blame is not on the sanctioning body though. It is just too expensive to field a competitive Cup team, and the sponsorship is not there to support it. The big owners just can’t help themselves spending as much as they can. Whenever NASCAR tries to save them money it just goes to hire another six-figure engineer or buy more wind tunnel time. I think the time has come for some sort of radical action to rein in costs. Maybe NASCAR can put a limit on how many new chassis they will certify each year (minus wrecks).

That said, what I’ve seen says if the product is good people will watch and attend. I go to the Glen every year and that place is packed (90-100,000) people there on Sunday. Why, because the road course racing has been the best racing all year (less areo, drivers make a difference, potential for upset winners, passing, action, etc.) If you can get racing like that back on the intermediates all will be good. However, I don’t expect ratings/attendance to ever get back to mid-2000 levels, not even if Dale Sr. comes back from the dead. It is a different sports landscape, just look at the NFL ratings. Even they are not immune. NASCAR still provides an excellent entertainment value. The cost of a full weekend of races wouldn’t even get me in nosebleed land at Cowboys Stadium.

In the end though, I hope its time for Brian to be pushed aside by his sister or uncle.

Russ

they won’t. They are still making millions annually. If they were they would have done so by now.

But the problem is – either they dont think their issues are different from the other sports – or, they dont know what else to do. Either way, the show goes on as is.

wildcatfan2016

Watch that video? no thanks, I’ve heard that spiel, over and over ad nauseum. I enjoyed the article, though, Matt.

Fernando

NASCAR is done, stick a fork in it.

I hope they put an asterisk next to “Jimmy Johnson Seven Time Champion” in the record books. How much did Hendricks have to pay for that last caution flag?

I have not watched a full NASCAR race in years, and used to watch them all from the drop of the green to checkers. This was from the late ’60s to the mid 2000’s, and now could not care less about NASCAR. I laugh when I see the empty stands because Brian France brought this on all by himself with the “Chase” , “Car of Tomorrow”, parity and taking the stock out of stock car racing. You can also add in the dumbed down race broadcasts (Boogity Boogity Boogity) and pretty boy drivers over talent.

I don’t know how you can keep watching Matt.

Josh

Darrell Waltrip is an awesome announcer in my opinion. As for NASCAR dying….your 100% correct. I live in Ont, CAN and about 3 or 4 years ago they took all of the practices, all of the hours of pre race shows, and they don’t even broadcast truck races for us anymore. No NASCAR victory lane, just qualifying and the race. 1 year ago I wouldn’t have missed 5 minutes of a Cup race but now I’m like you, I’ll watch the start and the end, the middle, whatever. They killed NASCAR in Canada. We can’t even watch our own truck race in Mosport!

tcfromaz

Question, how much did Hendrick pay for the last caution flag? About the same he paid Bill Clinton for the Presidential pardon or the doctor for his phony leukemia diagnosis. ( ever see anyone else gain 40 pounds while undergoing chemotherapy?)

Steve

Boy he sure looked fidgety didn’t he? I will give him a pass on the sweating profusely because it could have been hot under those lights, but the rest of this, including just about everything that came out of his mouth was indeed a train wreck.

I will defend him on one thing. Whether he endorsed Trump or not, I’m glad he cut off the interviewer with that question. Its getting really tiresome having politics being brought into everything, especially sports. Sports is an escape for people, but it appears the media just can’t help themselves and feel the need to constantly cram it down our throats. The NFL ratings have taken a dive because of it, and other sports will too if it keeps up. Nascar can’t afford for its fans to find another reason to stop watching. And I personally don’t care what any coach, player, driver, CEO, actor, actress or musician has to say about politics. All of them are completely out of touch with most Americans, so why would I care. And based on all the celebrities Hillary tried to use to get her elected, unsuccessfully I might add, nobody else cares what they think either.

Bill B

I agree 100% with that second paragraph Steve. Well said.

tcfromaz

The France family is following the classic generational business collapse. The first generation has an idea and starts a business that grows because of demand, the second generation learns from the first and takes the business model to new heights. The third generation is a little different, having grown up in the success that their grandparents and parents created, they assumed a chair at the entitled young millionairs table at a young age, and in their own mind becoming the smartest one in the room. They usually manage to drain the company of its assets pretty quickly.

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