The season hasn’t even gotten started yet and already, Kyle Busch is feeling aggrieved and voicing his displeasure (doesn’t he know doing so is the sole province of the media?)
As usual, the NASCAR Media Tour itself was largely lost in an avalanche of words and predictions concerning the upcoming Super Bowl. Living here in the Philadelphia TV market, the coverage and hype has been crushing, to say the least. But then, when it comes to sporting success, Philly seldom has much to celebrate. I don’t know if you will be reading this article before or after the game (or at all, actually), but I’ll offer my thoughts on the contest. Being an Eagles fan is like being Wile E. Coyote. Even when it seems everything is going great and success is all but inevitable you know…. deep down in your heart you accept that whistling sound overhead is an ACME brand anvil ready to crush you flat just as your fingers grasp the neck of that pesky bird.
In a way, it’s almost a blessing. If it weren’t for a chance to demand that the coach, the quarterback and even the peanut vendors all be fired after a big loss, a good percentage of Philadelphians would be rendered mute from now to the start of the preseason. That’s why I don’t write about football. I write about stock car racing.
Yep, one paragraph into the new season and I’ve already swerved off on a tangent. It’s going to be a long year.
So anyway, what was it that set Kyle Busch’s teeth on edge this time? A feeling NASCAR officials aren’t being properly deferential, the Toyotas have some sort of disadvantage or that Joey Logano hasn’t been incarcerated? Nope. What has Busch hopping mad is “those damn kids.” Busch feels that NASCAR is paying way too much attention to promoting the younger drivers entering the sport. That includes guys like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both already fan favorites. This year, we’ve got Darrell Wallace Jr. and Daniel Suarez both competing in Cup, helping showcase the sport’s diversity. It’s a mix that up until recently has been whiter than the Klan’s laundry order ready for pickup at the Old Dixie Laundromat.
True, we lost our token chick and all, but they’re working on that. Does Stormy Daniels know how to drive a stick?
Alex Bowman is facing the unenviable task of taking over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride, a feat every bit as daunting as NASCAR trying to lay out a course for its future minus its Most Popular Driver of a decade of more. Then there’s the strange case of one William Byron. If Byron didn’t exist, NASCAR would have had to invent him. (I’m already hearing rumors Byron was genetically engineered from Jeff Gordon’s DNA.) On-track, Byron has been wildly successful in the Truck and XFINITY series. He’s also good looking, well-spoken, young and about as bland as a loaf of Wonderbread wearing a Bobby Sherman wig.
Because I am older than dirt, I’ve seen this cycle of young drivers entering the sport just as some older and extremely popular drivers retire. But this period in the sport’s history is somewhat unique. Tony Stewart, the original Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and even Dale “By Gawd” Earnhardt Jr. have all packed up their rocks and rolled in a short period of time. Back when Richard Petty retired it was also a seismic shift in the sport’s foundation. But NASCAR was also in the midst of its boom years of exponentially explosive popularity. Today? Well, not so much. The loss of big name drivers right now is like tossing a drowning man a bottle of water.
So yes, it makes sense NASCAR would run some promotions highlighting their younger drivers now that the once-Gillette Young Guns may be near to collecting social security. But why should this phenomenon bother Busch? Well, as it turns out, these younger drivers are a lot different than the generation of current stars. They are more willing to participate in marketing opportunities, no matter how far-fetched, to promote the sport and upcoming events. The older drivers will beg off such things, reminding everyone they need some time at home with their families, too. Yep. They’ll hide in mansions racing salaries built for them with kids they’ll one day have to put through college.
Not only that, but these young drivers are also willing to drive for lower salaries and less perks than the stars they are in some cases replacing. Star drivers who, in some cases, had not actually decided to retire.
The math is simple. Less viewers and fans in the stands means sponsorship for race teams are harder to find and likely at lower amounts than once considered the norm. That means everyone has to accept the reality of lower wages somewhere down the line. Some of that missing money doesn’t go into aerodynamics and engineering to improve the cars, either. If that sort of spending is reduced, it is likely that the teams will enjoy less success, making them even less palatable to marketing partners. In some cases, downsizing will involve replacing a veteran championship-level driver with a rookie. To borrow a phrase from Linda Ellerbee, “and so it goes.”
Other than that, there wasn’t much to take away from media week. Everyone seems quite sure that everything is wonderful. That’s not a unique preseason state of affairs in what is, after all, a marketing opportunity. The Media Tour never serves as a reality check or an intervention. But with looming signs that things are not so wonderful after all, it seemed there was increased fervor in everyone saying life couldn’t possibly be any better. Remember when you were a kid and used to whistle walking past the graveyard?
Ryan Newman must not have gotten the Pollyanna memo. He spoke out rather forthrightly on numerous issues including the new inspection system, the lack of importance of consistency in the playoffs, the new pit crew rules and whether the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a viable move, earning him a stern rebuke from NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell on Twitter (Which O’Donnell later said was his mistake. He should have phoned Newman rather than using social media. One wonders if Newman even had O’Donnell’s phone number so he could have voiced his views through that venue).
The only other notable quote to come out of the Media Tour was Brad Keselowski saying if he could change one thing about the sport, it would be to have Brian France at the track more often. I have to strongly disagree with that. It would seem that France is once again pursuing his lifelong dream of owning an NFL franchise, to whit, the Carolina Panthers. Ideally, France would buy the team and turn his full attention to that enterprise, leaving others with a clearer vision of NASCAR’s future and a greater interest in it to take the reins after France’s decade-and-a-half-long reign of terror. It’s one that has seen the goose who laid the golden egg strangled and served up nugget-style with an array of dipping sauces.
O’Donnell may have inadvertently let slip some of his own vision of the future. Caution laps after each stage of a race will still count in 2018 despite the fact a lot of fans are irked by the lengthy delay. He says NASCAR will “try” to shorten those breaks up. Sure. And I’ll try to write a Pulitzer-winning column this year, but I’m not dusting a space on the mantle for it just yet. In fact, while admitting that the whole concept of stage racing isn’t universally embraced, NASCAR is keeping it around because it appeals to a specific demographic: males age 18-34.
That’s been a troubling demo for NASCAR, which has seen significant shrinkage in numbers since the glory years, as fandom has grayed and fallen away like body parts from a leper on a trampoline. It’s also the most coveted demographic among advertisers and sponsors, as it turns out. But NASCAR is going to try to appeal to and swell the ranks of those young dudes as a step in the path back to relevance. Meanwhile, they’ll continue the trend of ignoring and taking for granted their actual fan base, graying though we may be. You know, the folks whose cash actually pays their bills and has to date kept the TV ratings just high enough to avoid having the race broadcast on same Spanish language cooking channel in the upper 400s tier of cable networks.
I was once 18-34 myself… back in 1993. I watched as a new, fickle sort of fan with a larger expendable income had their dalliance with NASCAR. And to borrow from the Book of Bruce, “I’m still here, they’re all gone.” Guess they got bored in the U.S.A.
Stop me here. I think I’ve seen this movie so long ago it was in black and white. The daring if somewhat drunken teen (with perfectly white teeth and flawless demographics) is at the wheel of his hot rodded Model A showing off for his “best girl.” Alongside in the background we can see a massive freight train (the Great Northern out of Cheyenne?) rumbling along in the same direction.
“Dang it, Betty Lou, I just know I can beat this train to the crossing!” the driver hollers, grinning and flooring the throttle. “What’s the worst that could happen, anyway?” It’s been a long time, but I don’t recall that moving picture as having a happy ending.
Fade to black.