Ryan Blaney was the latest young gun to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race this past weekend. As the guard changes in the sport to the younger generation of drivers, will the new faces bring new fans?
Bryan Gable: I’m cautiously optimistic with the next generation of drivers. It’s good that some of NASCAR’s rising stars have a social media presence and are comfortable with showing some individuality. The previous generation of drivers came of age during a time when being a good sponsor representative was of utmost importance for driver behavior outside the car. These days, there’s more of an emphasis on engaging with the fans instead of just trying to sell the product. Having new faces in Victory Lane with a different off-track approach should work to NASCAR’s advantage.
Vito Pugliese: By the very nature of new drivers becoming the face of the sport, you’ll have new fans. But the long-standing attendance and ratings declines continue to persist, and at some point there has to be a recycling of talent which will attract new eyes to the sport and regenerate growth of the series. Seeing the same guys winning gets a bit tired after awhile. If it’s the same drivers and the same tracks and the same outcome, why bother watching?
Amy Henderson: Having someone they can relate to should attract younger fans. As popular as Dale Earnhardt Jr. is and as good as he is on social media, he’s still a 40-something, and how much does a 17-year-old relate to someone with that kind of age gap? The youngsters are talented and engaging. Do I think they’re going to bring in droves of new fans? Probably not, but if they get some youngsters interested in the sport, it’s a step in the right direction.
Michael Massie: The crowd at Pocono went absolutely nuts when Blaney took the lead this past weekend. That may have had more to do with them cheering for Kyle Busch losing the lead, but Blaney is still having an impact on fans. Guys like him are good for the sport because they are transparent. You get a real sense of their personalities every time they talk. NASCAR is the most fan-interactive sport there is, so it needs to play off this in order to draw in news fans. I am a big fan of Aaron Rodgers, but I have never met the guy and there is little effort from him or the NFL for me to learn anything about his personality. This is an area where NASCAR is winning, and it needs to take advantage of it.
Speedway Motorsports, Inc. announced a partnership with ISM Connect to enhance digital fan engagement at its tracks, including more outdoor screens, mobile apps and weather and traffic information. Is this a good thing?
Pugliese: The whole digital experience is best used outside of the track; if you’re there, you should be in the moment and watching the race. The old tools still work the best when going to a race: scanner, headset and a cooler with snacks and beverages. Some iteration of a Jumbotron, a live scoring display to keep up with the stage points and an audio source that can drown out open headers would be the most effective digital additions.
Henderson: It could be really great, if it’s done right — that is, leading up to the race. Once the race starts, it just needs to get turned over to the action on the track with necessary replays on the big screen; anything else would be a distraction (heck, there are times that my FanVision distracts me with all it does; I sure don’t need more). Before the race, though? Go for it. On the same subject, I’d like to see more digital content available to fans at home, things like reliable timing and scoring that doesn’t cost a fortune. Fans at home should have access to the same information as a fan at the track with a FanVision on race day.
Massie: Lipstick on a pig. I see big crowds at the local short tracks that I go to. These tracks do not have a Jumbotron that provides instant replay. If they have a leaderboard, it is only for the top three-or-so spots. There is no digital experience, but people go because the on track product is exciting. Get the racing perfect and then worry about the digital experience. The only way a digital experience will make NASCAR’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway more exciting is by showing Days of Thunder or Cars on all of the screens and loudspeakers so that people forget there is such a boring race going on.
Gable: It may not be a question of excitement vs. distraction, but instead about how to enhance the race day experience. It sounds like the new technology is supposed to create access to info that fans would have if they were to watch the race on TV or to help them plan their race day activities. SMI’s plan is a worthy experiment and one that probably will not distract fans from watching 40 loud, fast cars as the main attraction.
The hot topic on social media this week was driver autographs, after a video surfaced of Danica Patrick calling out a fan at Pocono for booing her after she refused an autograph, and the question was raised about whether signing autographs was part of a driver’s job or not. Is it?
Henderson: It absolutely is — at the right time. The fan who approached Danica Patrick approached her at the wrong time, and that was inappropriate. But when drivers ignore fans when walking back to their motorhomes after practice or while hanging around waiting for practice or whatever and clearly not working, that’s not good for anyone. It makes that driver look like a jerks, and fans who are snubbed when they did wait until an appropriate opportunity will never forget that and may never have a favorable opinion of that driver (and their sponsors) again. Yes, you can sign 100 times and the 101st fan will be angry, but for the most part, if drivers take the time for their fans (without whom they would be unemployed), it’s noticed and appreciated.
Massie: Let me preface this by saying that I am the guy that would go the local Macado’s on wing night while I was in college to ask for the autographs of the football players I thought were going pro. I’m sure it was annoying, but I always got an autograph out of it. The thing is, I was always polite, and if they had said no, I would have walked away; I am not going to start an incident with a guy that is a foot taller and double my weight). It’s absolutely a driver’s job to sign autographs. If there were no fans then these drivers would be working a real job or some bogus job at their daddy’s company. Most of a driver’s salary comes from sponsors, but these sponsors would not be around if there were no fans. Drivers should sign autographs as often as possible if the fan asks politely. If a fan is rude, then the driver needs to ignore them and walk away or jab a Sharpie into the rude fan’s eye, either is acceptable.
Gable: I will invoke the Richard Petty principle: autographs and interactions with fans are a way of thanking them for their support. The limits of a driver’s job go well beyond duties related to driving. Spending time with fans is an important aspect of a driver’s profession; to suggest otherwise is a cop out. However, fans are never entitled to an autograph. Drivers have a lot of demands on their time, especially at the racetrack, and sometimes they have to make hard choices about how to use that time. Whether or not they have the availability to sign autographs must remain at the driver’s discretion.
Pugliese: First of all, that fan in question tried to blow past a security guard to get an autograph. Security in the garage area is there for a reason, and accosting a driver for to sign something when they’re just getting down with practice isn’t acceptable. Secondly, fans who are trying desperately to get an autograph are often not fans at all — they’re sports memorabilia proprietors looking to get things signed so they can sell them on eBay. I remember seeing Richard Petty cornered by a guy once who set a stack of photo albums on the table in front of him, as if to imply, “you’re signing all of these, right?” At Michigan in 2008, a couple of fans literally ran into Kyle Busch, desperately seeking an autograph for a hat. They literally shoved it into his face, causing him to recoil backward. He snatched the hat out of their hands, scribbled on the bill, threw it skyward and Usain Bolted to his hauler. Not saying that was the right way to handle that encounter, but at least I was doubled over laughing at it. That said, the time it took Patrick to go over and brow-beat fans for booing, was a bit theatrical and could have easily been spent signing a few things. But drivers are on the clock, and they’re responsible for millions of dollars of funding, equipment and personnel. Part of that demands they give fans time, but fans should respect their obligations to their team as well.
The Camping World Truck Series ran at Texas Motor Speedway last week as a support event to Saturday’s IndyCar race. Now that there’s not a conflict between title sponsors, should NASCAR and INDYCAR explore an IndyCar-Cup weekend?
Massie: IndyCar and NASCAR already run a lot of the same tracks, so this needs to happen soon. I would like to see the two leagues work together to have a companion weekend, as well as promote the running of the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day. Maybe they could set up a bonus where if one driver wins both races in the companion weekend and the two Memorial Day races they get a $10 million bonus. The two leagues should not be fighting over the same fans but instead should be trying to make people fans of both.
Gable: I’d like to see that. It would do both NASCAR and IndyCar some good to cultivate interest in each other’s fan bases. Figuring out the venue and some of the logistics would be a challenge, but it is at least worth a try. American auto racing as a whole would benefit with more interdisciplinary collaboration.
Pugliese: It should be done and has been a long time coming as well, combining IndyCar Series events and NASCAR races. The more eyes on the sport and more value a track can provide to the fans would help tremendously to address the attendance issues of both series. Shorter same day events could be run, particularly at tracks that have lights and favorable weather.
Henderson: Absolutely, and there should be some kind of incentive to encourage crossover entries. You could persuade a few teams to bring the cars to do that, and it would be great for both series and the drivers. How many times do you hear a driver in one series say they’d like to try the other? If you ran IndyCar on Saturday (possibly at night, depending on the venue) and NASCAR on Sunday, it would be a great value for fans who wanted to travel to a race. Plus, there are drivers who could perform well in both races, and it would be a blast to see them try.