NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: NASCAR’s Newest 4-Alarm Fire, Furniture Row

Did You Notice? … The sport’s reigning NASCAR championship team won’t even exist in 2019? Tuesday’s announcement (Sept. 4) Furniture Row Racing will shut down this November should send chills down the spine of every racing owner. A sport that for years dealt with mounting financial wounds through indifference or simply covering them up suddenly had the band-aid ripped off in public.

Boy, does it hurt.

What if the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning Super Bowl champions, announced before their season opener this Thursday they were shutting down, effective this coming January? What if the NBA’s Golden State Warriors said they no longer had a road to profitability? Or what if Serena Williams chose retirement from tennis, effective immediately, claiming the travel expenses had ballooned out of control?

Their sport would panic. Emergency meetings would be held, the commissioner would be summoned to restore order and behind-the-scenes conversations with sponsors would be a daily occurrence. A PR blitz would start immediately to calm observers about the long-term health of the sport.

We’ll get back to that. But in terms of a seismic shift in NASCAR, make no mistake: Tuesday afternoon was the earthquake. Team owner Barney Visser, fresh off the highs of a championship, just eight months later lost the necessary funding to stay competitive.

“This is not good for anybody,” he said. “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that.”

The car’s primary sponsor, 5-hour ENERGY, chose to leave the team and NASCAR effective the end of this season. They join Lowe’s, Target, Dollar General and Farmers Insurance as blockbuster corporate entities in a healthy economy dropping their primary sponsorship within the past two years. (Lowe’s will leave the No. 48 team of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson effective the end of 2018.)

Money from Bass Pro Shops remained at FRR but it wasn’t enough for a 36-race schedule. And despite driver Martin Truex Jr.’s status as, you know, the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, no one stepped up to bridge the gap. That meant this single-car team from Denver, Colo. which conquered the odds last season, went from the mountaintop straight to the trash heap.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success,” Visser said. “I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year.”

Question is, where will they find it? A field that has been reduced from 43 cars to 40 is struggling simply to fill those slots. Over in the XFINITY Series, the field will be just 38 cars next season; the Truck Series is only 32. A handful of start-and-park teams litter those divisions just so some small-team owners can survive.

It’s clear from this announcement NASCAR has a four-alarm fire of a problem. It’s not like Truex’s speed had tailed off this season. His four wins rank only behind Kevin Harvick and current MENCS point leader Kyle Busch. What more did FRR have to do in order to retain sponsorship? You could see the frustration in Truex these past few months as 5-hour wasn’t feeling like there was a true return on its investment. One of the sport’s best drivers this decade could go without while a guy like Alex Bowman, still winless on the Cup level, gets upwards of $20 million a year?

It’s no offense to Bowman, one of the sport’s up-and-coming drivers. But the business model in place appears to make no sense. Companies align themselves based on branding, not necessarily talent, while purse money from wins does little to make quality race teams more competitive. You don’t have to be an athlete to make money in NASCAR — you just have to have the right demeanor in the boardroom.

And those sponsors, bailing in record numbers? You openly have to wonder if they’re right. TV ratings are down 15-20 percent this year and up to 50 percent over the last five. Revenue and fan interest, aside from the television deal, is steadily decreasing while the sport struggles to redefine itself in the wake of high-profile driver retirements.

Quick, name one Fortune 500 company that’s added its name to a car (not to NASCAR’s official sponsor rolls) in 2018? You’d be hard pressed to find them. There’s a shrinking number of people willing to bite in a sport whose expenses only keep climbing. That includes Visser, whose Furniture Row company once sponsored his car full-time from the mid-2000s all the way through 2015.

NASCAR’s Race Team Alliance (RTA), the ownership group in charge of capping these costs, hasn’t been able to do so fast enough. It’s notable Visser wasn’t a member, keeping some distance but smartly realizing the only road to a championship was through partnering with a superteam. That’s right — in order to stay competitive, you have to work with one of your rivals and pay them in order to level the playing field.

FRR didn’t do this alone. JGR’s four-car alliance gave them a helping hand in both information, engines and chassis setup. It feels the RTA is perfect for the high-class owners with those resources to protect themselves. What does it do for the little guy trying to make it? Visser’s remained silent in his absence from the RTA other than it didn’t work for him, but you would think this situation should cause the organization to rally around a fallen owner, no? Instead, all indications are JGR raised the price of their alliance at a time FRR was looking for money. Wounded, the bigger shark ate the fish instead of ensuring its survival.

The 69-year-old had a heart attack last year which he admits changed his life perspective. But he’s also an incredibly smart businessman, building one of the top home furnishing companies in the country with Furniture Row. He understands financial realities and when the climate tells you it’s time to get out. And let’s not forget, this man had two NASCAR teams as recently as 2017 but shut down the second when there was no way it would remain financially viable.

It shouldn’t be surprising he’s doing the same here.

Toyota also plays a role in supporting a program like FRR but they’re only willing to support so many cars, it seems. Their roster (pending Leavine Family Racing) could drop to only four next season as Truex will be absorbed into JGR. (Reports from multiple outlets have Daniel Suarez ousted from the No. 19 in favor of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn). NASCAR’s two other manufacturers, Ford and Chevy, may soon consolidate if costs in terms of chassis and equipment keep rising.

Which brings us back to that doomsday scenario. NASCAR’s Roger Goodell, Brian France, currently finds himself in rehab one month removed from a DUI and drug possession arrest out in the Hamptons. Replacement Jim France has yet to hold a press conference since assuming a temporary role. This chaos surrounds persistent rumors the entire series is being put up for sale.

And yet… there’s nothing, not a peep from the guys at the top. There’s no firm understanding of the sport’s long-term direction. There’s no rerouting of additional television funds into ownership to ensure survival. There’s no plan to shore up the franchising system which, at the present time, isn’t working well. Don’t expect a lot of money for Visser’s guaranteed charter spot considering the last one, at now-bankrupt BK Racing sold for .09 percent of what the last NFL sale was worth to Front Row Motorsports.

Could you imagine an actual company out in the business world working in this way? The story sounds more like a Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy than what is (still) one of the largest national sports in America. There’s still time to right this ship and keep it from sinking.

But what the sport needs is a leader, willing to step up, fix the problems and find a way to put out the fire. Instead? The fire truck sits parked in a stall down in Florida somewhere. It’s just watching as the place burns and people flee.

Visser’s the latest to find his way out. Who’s next?

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

25 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
sall

So this is what Brian France’s “brilliance” has brought Nascar to. I guess this tells us how successful his playoff idea has been.

Mike

“But what the sport needs is a leader, willing to step up, fix the problems and find a way to put out the fire”

And that leader won’t have the surname “France”. If I were king for the day, I’d put a fan, racer, and owner at the top. Thinking Tony Stewart, Brad Kezlowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, or even Carl Edwards.

On the other hand, I really don’t give a !@#$ what happens in Daytona. There’s other (and much better) stock car racing series out there.

Funky D

Rome burns, but the France family keeps fiddling away.

DoninAjax

Emperor Brian is in the vault counting his money before he heads to his favourite watering hole.

David Edwards

There are very few parties involved in the sport of stock car racing who haven’t had a part in its decline. Plus dwarfing all of that are the societal changes swirling around us. Those changes will ultimately cap or limit the sport of stock car racing.
But its kinda fun to watch all the people that blame Brian France, who definitely deserves, along with his family a major portion of the blame. At the same time those that believe some ex race driver can be the savior of the sport.
Meanwhile the usual suspects are getting rich off of this declining sport. And the band plays on.

Andy

I know understand France’s drug and alcohol problems: he simply cannot deal with the fact that the sport may burn to the ground under his watch.

DoninAjax

If Visser’s alliance with Gibbs is over where will Gibbs get a replacement deal and how much money will Gibbs lose?

paltex

France is not the only one to blame, what about Helton and others that are involved in the decision making? They are all in hiding afraid of their jobs after performing poorly. Not to pardon France as the head guy hires these people that obviously are incapable of running a business. So the blame needs to be spread around. As I have mentioned before, NASCAR has become a product of sponsors, political correctness and racing does not mix. Too much money involved, recently heard for the teams to be competitive they had to have a piece of hitech equipment that cost 300000 dollars. Get real. Reminds me when I was racing in a entry level sprint car. Suddenly a rich kids dad bought him a new car, an enclosed trailer and a crew chief to train him how to drive. Then another rich guy did the same thing with an experienced driver we had no chance to win with home built cars and motors. GUESS WHAT, IN ONE YEAR THE DIVISION FOLDED. WE COULD NOT AFFORD TO RACE. Same with NASCAR only a few can run up front. Its all over.

Upstate9fan

Don’t forget about ISC and SMI. They decided to build all these 1.5 mile multi-purpose tracks that gunked up the schedule and made it impossible to take them away because of the TV money. The track owners get the bulk of the TV money, they should take more responsibility in fixing the situation. And, I’m not talking about more “fan zones” and amenities. They should be investing that money to make the racing more competitive at their facilities. I’m talking about taking a facility like Chicago and making it not a 1.5 track. I give SMI credit, they have started to do that with the Roval, and the reconfigurations at Texas and Kentucky.

David Edwards

You cannot separate ISC from Nascar! The France family owns both. So the way the TV money is split up they get far and away the majority of it.
As for the Roval at Charlotte, that is a vast improvement on the road course that has been there for years.
But whatever, they are still making their millions and its not off me so good luck to them.

Moparjeff

Don’t forget that NASCARs new cup sponsorship plan will include multiple sponsors instead of just one – further limiting the pool of available sponsors for the teams.

Upstate9fan

The whole sport shares blame in this (NASCAR, owners, track owners, etc.) When the sport was a rising “fad” in the 90s and 2000s lots of shortsighted decisions were made to maximize on that fad. Business plans assumed the growth would never stop. That’s why we got races at boring new 1.5 tracks in “new markets”, team budgets exploded to the tens of millions per car, drivers became more corporate and slews of changes were made with the rules to attract “new fans”. What happened, the recession hit and the gravy train ended. Causal fans moved on to the next sports fad (MMA, soccer, etc.) and the business model for owners began to fail when companies wouldn’t spend $30+ million a year to sponsor a car.

Brian and co. have been looking for a “magic bullet” since to try and reverse it and failed (stage racing, elimination playoffs, etc.), but it’s crystal clear now, the sport has to get back to basics. That’s quality on track competition and exciting/relatible drivers. I think the basic elements are there. A lot of the new drivers have a ton of personality and on track competition has been good throughout the summer. There are a lot of rumors about big schedule changes in 2021 and a new Cup car coming down the line. Jim France and others should start going before the public and talking about those.

Steve Cosentino

Living in Denver I’m devastated but not shocked by this news. I wonder how the fact that MTJ was outrunning 3 JGR teams consistently each week had any effect on the alliance between JGR and FRR. Joe Gibbs could not have been happy about that scenario each week. This is really a sad time.

JT

NASCAR will survive into the future, barely. They are heading down a similar path to irrelevance that Indy Car/CART did back in the 1990’s.

Like the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 will still draw well and get decent TV, but expect the 36-race NASCAR schedule to get seriously pruned prior to 2021. To facilitate that shrinkage, look for NASCAR to call in the lawyers and look to modify their TV contracts. The networks will act like injured parties, but will be relieved to be free of a grueling schedule of expensive-to-cover races that are getting harder and harder to sell ad time for.

Then again, Lesa and Jim may allow Brian to return to his old job after his “Road to Recovery” is done. If this happens and I’m a NASCAR sponsor, I’d be heading for the exits as fast as I can.

David Edwards

Think the France Family/Nascar/ISC are going to let any of their very expensive properties sit idle any longer than necessary. Horse shows and fairs dont bring in nearly as much money as a race. So if there is a reduction it will be on the margins to begin with. Tracks not owned by the Frances or Bruton Smith.

Another Viewpoint

NASCAR and its fans need to accept its role as a niche sport and move on. There are too many teams and too many races. This is a good thing in the long run. Brian France’s biggest mistake was thinking NASCAR could compete with the NFL. That was never going to happen. The fans’ biggest mistake is thinking they could roll back the clock. That is also never going to happen. FS writers’ biggest mistake is thinking that underfunded teams add anything to the sport. FRR was a one-off, much like Alan Kulwicki. That happens once every 30 years regardless of who is leading the sport.

If Bowles thinks this is the equivalent of a fire, let me remind him that fire is nature’s way of renewing the landscape for new growth. Let it burn itself out and stop crying about it.

David Edwards

Perhaps our biggest mistake is in thinking that the sport is more important than it is. That because we care about it it gives some aura. While it does generate a lot of money for some of the participants, what have become stakeholders maybe its not. If it weren’t for the money that nascar is able to suck out of its incestuous relationship with the three automakers that are involved we’d be right back in 1964.
But if people choose to think otherwise that fine with me.

Bill B

Even more important is the money being sucked out of the television contracts.

David Edwards

the money from TV and the money from the OEM’s are two different things. Its the manufacturer support, both money and technology that really fuels the teams.

pb

I think most racing fans would be more than happy to go back to the good old days when Brian France wasn’t hallucinating that his car racing playoffs would take on the NFL. NASCAR is a niche sport. Not a damn thing in the world wrong with that. Look where a solid 15 years of trying to be too many things to too many people has gotten it.

Bill B

The powers that be can dig their heels in as much as they want. Owners can continue to spend money if they can get it and drive up the costs. Track owners and NASCAR can resist getting rid of dates and trimming the schedule to better mirror demand. In the end market forces (i.e., reality) will force the adjustments that need to be made, be made. They will just be the last to know because it will be forced on them. I think that’s what we are seeing here. A top tier team with (up to now) top tier funding can’t continue on given the current reality. Who’s next?

DoninAjax

When the tracks don’t have their guaranteed date(s) it will be interesting to see what happens. The schedule can’t be reduced until then. And then there are the networks who have what seems to be too much influence.

Budreaus

Things that have helped kill NASCAR…

1. The Chase. Do I really need to explain this one.

2. Toyota. Many die hard fans left when NASCAR decided to open its doors to Toyota. Yes, I know that Toyota’s are the number 1 vehicle produced in the US. But, to many old time, hard line fans, they’re still “Made in Japan”.

3. NASCAR forgot who brought them to the dance. Some of the best races ever were at N. Wilkesboro and Rockingham. Indy should have been dropped from the schedule 10 years ago. It’s novelty has long since gone away.

4. Danica Patrick. Nothing more than a cash cow for SHR. May have brought some young women to the sport as fans. Even young women can’t be fooled by mediocrity.

5. Franchises. What incentive does this give new teams? Can you imagine Harry Melling pouring money into the Bill Elliott team today? Neither can I.

6. Of course, the loss of Earnhardt. The retirement of Gordon, Stewart and Dale Jr. have had an impact. NASCAR was doing quite well before any of them were part of the sport. And, given the right management, it could flourish again without them.

And finally, in my opinion, The lucky dog. Double file restarts and the new qualifying format haven’t done much to enhance the sport. When a driver can be 5 laps down and come back to win, something just isn’t right.

My $ .02 and I really don’t give a hoot about rebuttals.

Budreaux

Don in Ct

The “leadership” at NASCAR is incapable of running a lemonade stand. Keep fiddling while the ship sinks!

tcfromaz

Motorsports is a wallet war. How long you last has always depended on the size of your wallet. Escalating costs have ruined many a racing series but the ego of the folks with fat wallets never notice till its too late.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch