Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The State of the NASCAR Nation

2008 saw a serious decline in ticket sales at the tracks and a drop in TV viewership in general for NASCAR. Layoffs abound at the many shops, and the Big 3 American automakers are in deep financial doo doo. Is NASCAR simply an innocent victim of the times? Well, yes and no.

Certainly, higher fuel prices during much of the 2008 season led to lower ticket sales at the tracks. Try as hard as they could, the TV networks covering the races, especially in the latter half of the season could not hide the numerous empty seats at many of the tracks. But NASCAR should share the blame for lower ticket sales as well, since even though they're not selling as many tickets, they haven't lowered the prices on most of them either. If you want people to come to the track to watch your races, price the tickets accordingly with the economic times. That only makes sense. Why would most people miss paying the rent or the light bill just in order to go see a race? The answer, of course, is that most people wouldn't. The US is currently enjoying low fuel prices at the moment, so hopefully that will translate to more people going to the track in 2009, but if even a medium range ticket costs somewhere in the range of $70 - $100 at some tracks, will people bother to make the trip? I wouldn't.

In the 1990's, NASCAR had a very viable product that was growing by leaps and bounds. In 2000, they inked the first of their huge TV deals with Fox and NBC. New tracks were being built, and NASCAR seemed to be destined to move into the backyards of all the major American markets, and even some in Canada and Mexico as well, as well has even providing NASCAR's style of entertainment in countries overseas as well. The sky was the limit, or so it would seem.

Actually, the limit came way lower than the sky, and was embodied by the man named Brian France. As did his father, Bill France Jr., Brian came into control of the family business burning with desire to change the sport and make it ever bigger and better. Brian France began tweaking with practically everything, including qualifying, initiating the Chase for the Cup, and directing that the sport level the playing field, by developing the Car Of Tomorrow. Brian France also began an aggressive campaign to enter markets previously largely untapped by the sport. Forays into New York and Seattle encountered hard resistance, and eventually NASCAR capitulated.

In no particular order: The Chase for the Cup has been thrilling at times, but boring at other times. My biggest beef with the Chase is that it's probably been driving sponsors away from the sport since well before 2008. At first, only the top 10 drivers in points got in, but that was later expanded to the top 12. The net benefit of this was that NASCAR could claim they had a playoff system, as do stick and ball sports. The net disaster is that NASCAR is driven by corporate sponsors. Sponsors that weren't on cars in the top 10 or top 12 were hardly given any TV time once the Chase started. The result? Sponsors began only competing to be on teams that they viewed to be likely to make the Chase, and ignoring smaller teams that desperately needed the funds in order to compete. Remember Eastman Kodak? They're gone. Hopefully not forever, but as of now, Kodak has left the building.

The Car Of Tomorrow sounded like a very good idea, since it was designed to be safer and more cost efficient than it's predecessor. The COT has been a partial success, at best. The new car, as it's now called, seems to be able to absorb more punishment than the old car did. One chassis can also be used at a wider variety of tracks than could the old car. It's probably the safest car ever to run in NASCAR. But with the improvements, so came the drawbacks. In my humble opinion, the racing has suffered since the COT was introduced. The cars are ill handling, meaning that most of the drivers are simply trying to keep the car on the track and out of the wall, rather than racing other drivers. Many teams have still not figured out how to effectively race the car. One week, they hit the setup, other weeks they miss completely, and never find it. Only 3 teams seemed to have figured out the COT's mysteries in 2008: The 48 team of Jimmie Johnson, the 99 team of Carl Edwards, and the 18 team of Kyle Busch. Most of the other teams were mired in mediocrity for much of the season. That, to me, does not spell exciting racing.

Possibly my biggest problem with Cup racing, and indeed all NASCAR series is qualifying. Many times in 2008, we saw qualifying rained out, and starting position was set by points. NASCAR claims that they want to allow easier access to the top levels of the sport to small teams, but the very system it has devised is killing small teams. I understand that qualifying is a scheduled event, much like the race itself. TV has schedules to keep, but why just cancel qualifying because of rain on Friday afternoon when Saturday blooms bright, beautiful, and most importantly, dry. For examply, small team owner John Carter, of Toccoa, Ga, attempted several races in 2008. He managed to get into one, mostly because of NASCAR's prohibitive qualifying policies. This was the owner who's driver at the time, Kevin Lepage, finished 8th in the Daytona 500 in 2005. Today? A reliable source tells me that John Carter's shop has a big 'For Sale' sign on it.

With the general financial crunch that most of the country is feeling, it's understandable that many corporate sponsors are leaving the sport because of their own difficulties. More are likely driven away by the fact that the NASCAR system favors the super teams such as Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, RCR, and a few others. With massive layoffs at the shops, beginning in the middle of the season and continuing today, there is a huge feeling of disbelief among both the fans and the teams themselves. 2009 appears to be a very important year for NASCAR, because the very survival of the sport is at stake.

In a perfect world, the higher ups at NASCAR would examine their history and discover that certain things that worked well for them in the past have been abandoned, at least partially. I say let the racers race, let the crew chiefs innovate, and let the best car and driver win.

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