NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Disturbing Trends in NASCAR

1. The elephant in the room

The fact that looms over NASCAR these days is the decline in both ratings and race attendance; it simply can’t be ignored, explained away, or overlooked. There are pieces that can’t be fixed, like the steady erosion of American car culture. That’s outside any realm of control for any motorsport. It just is. And all the tea in China can’t bring it back.

It isn’t really just NASCAR; it’s all sports. A race or a game lasts for three-plus hours, which is the perfect stretch for the purists. But to a generation who communicates in 10-second text messages and 300-character social media posts, anything that lasts longer than maybe half an hour is too much.

So NASCAR (and other sports as well) are in the middle of a catch-22. The longtime fans hate the gimmicks and the micromanaging. But without them, can they attract new, young fans who will stick around? It’s a problem Major League Baseball in particular is also struggling with. How do you keep your most loyal fans happy and at the same time bring in new ones who think the current offering isn’t instant gratification enough?

So the question becomes, if NASCAR dropped the stages and the playoffs and everything else tomorrow and returned to the rules from 20 years ago, would it bring fans back in any significant number? Would it even stop the bleeding?  Maybe, because the best way to bring new fans to any sport is for an older person they look up to to introduce them and show them how it works. That person will teach them to love the sport and its intricacies. But the sport would have to count on older fans coming back in droves and bringing in the next generation. Is it simply too late for that to happen? Hopefully not.

But the point of no return is awfully close.

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2. The buy-a-ride trend

I’m sure it’s always been a thing, but it seems like more and more drivers are getting seats — sometimes good ones — because they bring sponsorship dollars. It works out sometimes. Paul Menard is never going to set the world on fire, but he’s solid enough to keep his ride.

Other times, though, the choice just seems wrong.

There are a couple of levels of this problem: (1) a good driver has the right connections and lands a ride, sometimes out from under another, and (2) drivers who have no real business in a given series but bring enough dollars for the team to overlook it. Neither really sits right.

It’s one thing for Menard or Brendan Gaughan to land rides that either had an empty seat or created an extra team in an organization. The other end of that are those who have a ride bought for them as a seat to fill. Clint Bowyer, when he ran at HScott Motorsports for a year waiting for his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing to open up is one such example. Perhaps Ty Dillon is a second if he moves to the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing next year. Those moves just don’t feel right. Each car had capable drivers under contract already. Tossing them to the side for a year or two of cash? Teams need the money, sure, but that doesn’t make their choice go down smoothly.

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Finally, there’s a handful of drivers who will not, or do not, have rides because someone else brought the money and landed the seat. In some cases, that driver doesn’t have the same amount of talent or experience but will have a ride over a better driver who sits on the sidelines. It seems rampant across multiple series, and it’s probably not doing the quality of the racing any favors.

3. And the lack of solid sponsors…

Part of the above trend is a shift in what sponsors are willing to do. It’s not as much about winning as it used to be. Many companies don’t use the drivers to directly sell their products anymore, so their credentials as drivers aren’t as important as they once were.

Sponsor searches used to consist largely of team owners pitching a driver they believed in to a sponsor. They struck a deal to fund that driver based on the performance the team believed the driver could produce. Rick Hendrick could bring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson to a company, promise results (which bring TV time for the car) and base the deal on that.

Now, the team has only had a couple of companies go deep enough in the process to offer hope for a deal. Johnson is the winningest driver in the Cup series right now, with 84 to his name. If he can’t find backing, what about the rest of the field?

4. …which is largely because of the ridiculous cost

In the late 1990s, when the sport was booming, the price tag to sponsor a top team quickly became massive. But sponsors still kept coming, because there was enough return on investment to make the outlay worth it.

Now, that’s not the case, but the big teams still don’t really feel a need to bring costs into line. NASCAR isn’t doing much to encourage that, either. The sanctioning body makes small cuts but nothing to bring spending down significantly. The sport switched to automated inspection and officiating to save money in recent years. However, the move inadvertently drove costs up for teams as they scrambled to build optical scanners of their own. The big teams have them, but all that keeping up with the Joneses just drives the need for even more sponsor dollars.

It wasn’t that long ago when a team could be competitive for $10 million a year, a figure sponsors could afford. Now, it’s more than doubled, and that makes companies who might be in at $10 million walk away.  A smaller team that might be able to operate on that and be happy to do so doesn’t provide the exposure the company needs (which is partly the fault of the TV broadcast). And so it goes. Teams priced themselves out of the sponsor market, but nobody can afford to take a step back.

5. No place for new teams and underdogs

The result of all that is the sport is more competitive than ever in terms of big, competitive teams. But there’s also no room for new or underfunded programs. Instead of rooting for the underdogs as many once did, many fans simply look at teams struggling to gain a foothold with disdain and contempt.

That’s a shame as new teams being able to enter and grow were once a hallmark of the sport. Hendrick Motorsports was one race away from shutting the doors in 1984 when a win kept it afloat a while longer. Because of that, the team built an empire of more than 200 wins and 12 Cup titles. That kind of transition doesn’t happen anymore, and it isn’t good for the sport.

Oh, it almost happened. Furniture Row Racing went from missing races with regularity, sometimes due to mistakes experienced crews would not have made, to winning a Cup title in a little over a decade. That’s the sport’s version of the American Dream right there… except we all woke up. FRR is shuttering their race shop after this year, despite the fact that Martin Truex Jr. is still very much in the hunt for a second consecutive title.

Why? A jump in the cost of staying in the alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing that makes the team competitive and the loss of a sponsor.  The math just didn’t add up.

Startup teams? Forget it. Most don’t have a chance to gain the foothold they need to get bigger sponsors and more money to move to the next level, and then the next. Underfunded teams in today’s NASCAR appear destined to stay underfunded. They either do the best they can in what they have or they fade away quietly.

Car counts are down. Having fewer teams that are capable of racing for top finishes and wins is not worse than having a lot of teams but only a couple who can reasonably contend. However, is it really that much better?  Again, the point of no return is at hand.

In many ways, the sport is at a now-or-never kind of crossroads, and the options are limited.  It’s easy to blame the racing, but that’s far from the whole story.  There’s a lot at play here, and NASCAR can’t afford to lose.

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kb

Fans with a half a brain have been saying all these things for years, and now it cannot be ignored? PFFFTTTT. We were told we longed for the “old days”, blah, blah, blah and were out of touch with reality, etc. Hmmm….

wildcatsfan2016

ha, kb, you are so right. The fans who talked about this were treated with disdain and scorned by NASCAR AND the various media but NOW suddenly they “get it”. I doubt that NASCAR even now understands where they went wrong. IMO it has passed the tipping point.

Al Torney

Well written article. However I think most writers miss an important fact. NASCAR ‘s fan base got old. I attended 6 to 8 races a year with my cousin. This went in for about 40 yrs. we are to old to do this anymore. There are many ex fans that are in 5he same boat. NASCAR has made rules during the last ten years I don’t like but it is more my age then that. Another deal everyone ignores is the youth and diversity movement is a really bad economic deal. They are taking an expensive spectator sport and trying to appeal to people who are at the lowest end of economic prosperity. This is not to sound racist but the facts are that African-Americans, Hispanics and young people just cannot afford to attend these races. I know tracks have reduced ticket prices but that is not the total cost to attend a race. Other sports have the luxury of drawing local people to attend their events. NASCAR tracks depend on people driving long distances to attend. Gas, food and lodging drive the cost to attend a race sky rocketing. Another problem no one addresses is that these young guys bring no fans with them. They don’t come from racing series that have a large following. So they have no national name recognition.
I wish they would stop this BS that the sport is so damn competitive. When most races are dominated by one or two drivers that will lead 75%, or more, of a race it is not competitive. Actual green flag passes for the lead are far and few between. And it has always been the case in auto racing that there are no rules that are going to make ooorer teams competitive with richer teams. I don’t care if it’s a bullring in Iowa or Daytona super Speedway. It’s not going to happen.
NASCAR has always passed rules that cost teams money. May I mention the COT and restrictor plate racing.
This new breed of drivers has shown a marked disdain for fans. Richard Petty considered it a privilege to give a fan an autograph. These new punks think the opposite that it is a privilege for the fan to get one. Some are opposed to having to make too many appearances for sponsors during iff days. Read wher DE Jr. didn’t want to do many for Budweiser years ago.
Although there are many reasons for the decline in popularity of the sport many were, and still are, caused by NASCAR decisions. When I see my favorite driver race his ass off to put a driver a lap down and the guy get it right back because if a caution it’s not racing.

z

A recent article by another writer (Ryan McGee,ESPN, http://www.espn.com.au/racing/nascar/story/_/id/24714369/nascar-cup-series-big-three-2018-brings-back-memories-1974-drivers-richard-petty-cale-yarborough-david-pearson-bobby-allison-earl-ross) had an interesting quote by Richard Petty:
“I say this all the time, whether anybody wants to hear me or not,” Petty explains now. “There’s nothing we’re going through here that we hadn’t already been through before at some point. Whether it’s too little money to go around or too many changes all at once, or too few guys winning races.”

In general, it sounds like Nascar has probably previously experienced problems similar to those of today, but a lot of younger fans and writers are just now experiencing the current iteration of those problems.

Bill B

To some degree what Petty said is accurate but in other ways not so much.
If you graph growth (defined by attendance, ratings, revenue, and anything else you want to throw in) from the beginning to now, you will see a constant rising trend until the early 2000s where it leveled off and then started taking a nose-dive for the last decade. So yes, there have been times where all those factors became issues but the overall trend was always up.
BTW, expansion (and the money that comes with it) is always easier than contraction and that is why this (last decade) has been so painful, the sport needs to contract but is resisting it for obvious reasons.

Another Viewpoint

If NASCAR reverted to the rules of 20-30 years ago they would lose the few fans they have left. Only a complete moron (read kb) would even suggest such a stupid move. The only way out is through. NASCAR can weather the storm and come out the other side as the niche sport it always was meant to be OR they can try to go backwards and close the doors entirely. Amy and her cohorts can continue to whine about the good old days which were never that good, but no amount of whining will turn the clock back. And Thank God for that! The old fans are dying out. And that is as it should be. The old should fade away and make way for the new. Thus has it always been. If more worthless teams leave the sport, fine. The only value the backmarkers add is the late-race caution and we can do without that. Accept reality for a change, oldsters – your time has come and gone and the only thing you have to look forward to is the grave. Please hurry up and fill those graves! You have outlived your usefulness and now it is time to pull the plug on your lives and your worthless opinions.

Don in Ct

Classy comments! Why do I suspect you are a fry cook at McDonalds.

DoninAjax

I don’t think she talks to her grandparents enough.

David Edwards

“Worthless teams”n pretty strong words. But not to worry because as the contraction continues they will soon be gone. And then it will start on the mega teams. Until it reaches it natural point.

I do agree wit you that the cycle of life is only natural and good. Perhaps more of us long time fans need to acknowledge that.

Bill B

“If NASCAR reverted to the rules of 20-30 years ago they would lose the few fans they have left.”

Prove it. Sounds like entirely your opinion which is worth about the same as anyone’s else. Only a complete moron would think they have a monopoly on what’s best for the sport. While your opinion is valid you might want to take some of the bass out of your voice because it is not necessarily true and it is based on nothing but opinion.

Don in Connecticut

Maybe if the teams gave up the Gulfstreams, the Taj Mahal shops and the million dollar motor homes, they could operate a two or three car team for a fraction of what is spent today. Viewership and attendance are both down making sponsorship of teams or events far less valuable to sponsors than it used to be. Until economic reality begins to sink into their collective minds, nothing will change. Toss in the absurdity of segments, playoffs and the other artificial nonsense beloved of Nascars brain trust ( are they still around.) and you have a formula for disaster. Until Nascar gets some strong leadership wiling to do what it takes to create a full, competitive season free of gimmicks, nothing will change.

DoninAjax

Seeing as Brian has a thing for the NFL why not divide the event into quarters and award full points for each one? And maybe invert the lead lap cars for the second? It would eliminate the “stage” TV time outs and the drivers might actually really race each other the whole time.

David Edwards

Hey, Brian is gone and nothings changed. Surprise, surprise! And next year they will bring out another version of parity and by mid season nothing will really have changed.
I think perhaps we can see a trend here.

Bill B

Nothing will change until a decision is made as to whether or not Brian will be allowed to come back to his previous position. Until word comes that he is OUT, whoever is sitting in that top spot is just keeping his seat warm. I wouldn’t expect a decision to be made on his future until after the season. After all, they wouldn’t want to take the focus off of their goofy playoffs.

David Edwards

my point was that the family changed course any time they wanted to. And didn’t. I don’t think Brian’s absence has anything to do with it. Other than perhaps an excuse.

JS

Becoming a new NASCAR fan starts with TV coverage. You catch some races on TV, you get interested. Mike Joy is wealth of racing and automotive knowledge. He treats the viewer with respect, does’t talk down to us. Rick Allen is one of the worst announcers in any sport. Constantly repeats whatever was just said and when he does offer a new thought, he treats the viewers as if we’ve never seen a race before. By the end of the season, we know what loose and tight are. How is NASCAR going to pull in new fans when the TV coverage of their Championship is so bad?

Joe Jacalone

As Amy said, there are many factors at play here. The current cultural climate is a big thing, for all sports. But, in particular, for NASCAR to survive something has to be done about the cost to field a team. As mentioned above, the teams have been milking sponsors for decades for ridiculous things that they want, but don’t need. Jets, giant luxury motor coaches, multiple lavish car haulers, etc. They also have gone berserk with having to have every expensive gizmo tool that comes along. Here is where NASCAR is certainly partially to blame by making the rules so complicated. These cars used to be built in barns and they still went 200 mph. I went to Junior Johnson’s shop at the end of 1992, and what a great experience it was. To be quite honest, a Pep Boys today is way fancier.

Echo

Absolutely no reason for any sponsor to spend 10 or 20 million a year to sponsor a car that unless it’s running at the very front all day, won’t be shown on tv. Way better to buy time through the tv networks and guarantee your products will be seen for way less money. It’s common sense really. Wonder when Geico will wake up ! More sponsors are going to wise up each year, then what happens ?

budreaux

The Demise of NASCAR.

1. “The Chase”. No further explanation required.

2. Toyota Builds more cars in the US that Ford, Chevy and Chrysler combined. To the older fans, they’re still made in Japan. The expansion allowing Toyota in ran, IMO, more fans off than it brought in.

3. The Charter system. AKA, the chosen 35. Can you imagine Harry Melling pouring Millions into a team like Elliott today.

4. Common Template, COT. Parity. The same chassis and body with different front and rear covers for “Brand Identification”.

5. How long will it be before, to appease and draw the Millennials, NASCAR brings in Subaru, Nissan, BMW and VW? Think it won’t happen? Hide and watch.

6. Do away with the dang double file restarts. Let lap down cars earn their laps back by starting on the inside row. when KB won Sonoma from 5 laps down, it simply proved what a farce the lucky dog and wave around are.

7. Finally. Want to fill those stands back up. Make ticket prices affordable to Bubba and his family and stop the mass corporate purchases.

Ozark_Lee

The cultural stuff you can’t do anything about. My kids – 20 somethings – were never a part of the car culture that thrived in the muscle car era in a meaningful way yet they still very much enjoy the sport. It was always a part of our Sundays. My daughter was more of a Car Guy than my son was and having her first car running in time for the first day of high school was a really big deal for her. Even though the car was a piece of junk she owned the parking lot since it was a Guards Red 1985.5 Porsche 944 that we drove to Arizona to drag back home on a trailer and spent 6 months together getting it running. One of her idiot classmates asked her if it was a Ferrari even though it said Porsche in 6 inch letters on the rear reflector so that tells you about the state of the car culture with millennials. When I was in high school I could tell you the exact make and model and model year (+/- a year) of any car made after 1965 at about 100 yards whether it was from the front or the rear. That car awareness simply no longer exists and there is nothing that NASCAR can do about it.

That said, I am lucky enough to usually get a fist-full of comp tickets to NASCAR events due to my job and my son can usually get some of his co-workers or old frat friends to come to a race when enticed with free tickets. They too have become fans even though they don’t really fully understand it. Just standing there at the restart zone in the grandstands for the start of the race is enough to “set the hook” and they are a paying customer for the next race. That is nice since it expands the universe of first timers that my son can get to the track for the next race with the comp tickets. Sadly the number of comp tickets available to media partners has begun to get limited even though the number of available (empty) seats has been increasing.

One observation that I have is that my wife, who is the primary media source with the track, knows a heck of a lot more about NASCAR culture than the people that run the operation. We fight an uphill battle with the track to properly promote the events.

I think SMI may be out front here (again) in this regard. I wasn’t at Vegas but I am intrigued by the Turn 4 concept and it appears a blatant play on the “Snakepit” at Indianapolis. That might be a key to getting a new generation to the track. If it takes beer and debauchery so be it, the infield at Talledega seems to be well populated. If you can just get them to the track once that is half the battle.

To their credit, and it is a good reason to segregate the stuff like “Turn 4” from the rest of the track, NASCAR has been doing a decent job with getting children out to the track. Over the last couple of years I have seen a rather impressive number of under 12s in the stands and they are having a great time.

At some point the adults in the marketing departments at the old reliable consumer product companies are going to figure out that they are just flushing away boatloads of money with all of the marketing dollars they are sending to Facebook and the like and they will return to the sport where they are actually getting a meaningful return on investment.

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