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Daytona's SpeedWeeks beckons...and there's more to debate here than Dale Jr. and Saturday's Shootout

  Things tend to get hot on Saturday nights, and Daytona's Bud Shootout -- here the 2010 version -- is no exception. Maybe that's one reason Fox boss David Hill suggests NASCAR run more Saturday night races (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Jon Lowder is precisely the type of guy Brian France wants to get more involved with NASCAR racing.
   He's a soccer nut  -- ESPN…ESPN3 -- father of three teenagers, one heading toward college.
   He's computer-savvy, social-media attuned, runs his own blog on the side, http://www.jonlowder.com/ .
   So we're sitting in funky Café Roche in Winston-Salem, having early morning coffee,

talking NASCAR, and trying to figure out which way the sport is heading –  back up, further down, or just slippin' sideways.
   Part of mikemulhern.net's fan council….before heading south for Daytona's SpeedWeeks melee.
   And we talk about the 'new' media, and the 'old' media, and how to market things in general, whether it's jonlowder.com or mikemulhern.net or NASCAR or Winston-Salem or whatever.
   What does matter in today's world? Big stuff, little stuff?
   How to get the word out….synergies.
   And I'm listening as hard as I can.
   Jon Lowder: Transplanted from Washington D. C. to North Carolina eight or so years ago, he's got friends and relatives involved in NASCAR, from several angles, and he follows the sport from the edges.
   He's been to several races. He knows Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway, and Dover International Speedway, and Daytona and Talladega and North Wilkesboro and Martinsville.
   Jon Lowder is precisely the type of casual sports fan that Brian France wants to see more interested in NASCAR, more involved, more eager to see races in person and on TV.
   But right now he's still on the sidelines.

  What would it take to turn soccer dad Jon Lowder (white jersey, left) into a NASCAR dad? It's a key question for NASCAR executives as the stock car racing season opens (Photo: Cafe Roche/Jon Lowder)

   What would it take to get Jon Lowder, and others like him – heck, we're talking the heart of stock car racing country here, because Winston-Salem/Greensboro/HighPoint has the biggest percentage of NASCAR TV viewers in the country, bigger than even Charlotte – to put some skin into this game?
   But what makes NASCAR racing fun? What's the attraction? How to keep the interest up…over the 10-month season.
   Lowder muses:
   "I love Bowman Gray Stadium, love that TV series 'Madhouse.'"
   That was an amazing marketing program, almost by accident. The History Channel was so successful that three busloads of fans even hauled all the way from Phoenix AZ to Winston-Salem to see just what the hoopla was all about.
   Yes, grassroots NASCAR! And maybe a lot of that has been lost over the past few years since R. J. Reynolds was forced to pull out.
   That was one of R. J. Reynolds' key marketing game plans: pump up enthusiasm for the big Sunday NASCAR shows by plastering every key short track in the country with Winston Racing banners, Friday night and Saturday night grassroots marketing, cheap at twice the price.
   Why Sprint hasn't picked up on that has been a long-running question, because Sprint, which has been series sponsor since 2004, has hundreds of outlet stores around the country, which could be an easy base for grassroots NASCAR marketing. (But then Sprint has seemed at times during its sponsorship too disconnected with the sport itself…perhaps because the men who did the original deal with NASCAR have long since been pushed out.)
   Grassroots marketing.
   Point one.
   Point two: where on TV are these races anyway, Lowder asks?
   The NFL has made a simple science of it: Sundays at 1 pm, and Sundays at 4 pm.
   NASCAR has, well, at the bottom of this story we have the starting times for this season's Cup events, and you decide….
   Point three: what the heck has happened to the print media and its once-vaunted coverage of NASCAR? The newspaper industry's retreat from the front lines of the world to cheaper, local coverage may be a major issue in the decline of NASCAR's general popularity the past two years or so. The two have come side-by-side, and probably not ironic.
   Point four: Maybe the NASCAR season is just too darned long. Thanksgiving? Once it ended in October…..
   Point five: Does the playoff chase really work, or is it simply a gimmick? Does it add anything to the sport? And why can't NASCAR change up some of those final 10 tracks, and offer some variety? Will the new point system make any difference? Does anyone really care, until the fall? (And how does 48-42-41…..make it all more simple than 190-175-170 anyway?)
   And there's more…a lot more to mull over on the run to Daytona.
   And maybe more to listen to over on jonlowder.com….






  Maybe Brian Vickers' comeback this season will help spark NASCAR. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR).





The Varied Points Raised

The piece raises several points, all worth some analysis.

1 - David Hill was wrong first when he suggested shorter races, because shorter races have never proven to be better or more popular; on the contrary the sport's most famous races have tended to be its longest - people still talk about the seven-hour World 600 of 1980 and the varied overtime races of the last few years have garnered a lot of attention.

2 - As for Saturday Night racing, this runs counter to the grassroots promotion the sport needs; Saturday Night Winston Cup drained audience away from local tracks and has been a reason for continuing shrinkage in short track racing around the country; it also has consistently failed to be a ratings winner. Grassroots promotion needs to include taking Cup OFF of Saturday nights and sticking it exclusively on Sunday afternoons.

3 - The decline in media coverage of the sport is fairly simple - there's little to nothing to cover than hasn't already been covered. Hendrick Motorsports has won six of the last ten series titles and only two other teams (Roush and JGR) have won titles in the last eleven seasons. Between runaway spending, the technology arms race, and NASCAR's lack of restriction on both, the sport has become a closed loop, with new car owners nowhere to be found and existing ones being absorbed into the three mega-organizations. And the racing outside of the plate tracks has generally continued to be The Dead Lane Era - it's been good in spots at Pocono and Fontana but the kind of sustained combat to win that was once the sport's standard is long gone, and NASCAR cannot figure out how to get it back (if anything its absurd obsession with points consistency constitutes a major ideological roadblock). Get back 50-lead-change racing at places like Pocono, Michigan, Charlotte, Atlanta, etc. and that will go a long way for the sport.

4 - The start times remains an issue as 1 PM starts have been pushed back to almost 1:30 and ESPN bullied NASCAR into reneging on its new start time policy for the playoffs, where 2:30 starts for East Coast races have returned even though those chased away a lot of fans. Start times need to be pushed forward, to where the green flies at 12:30 or earlier, where it is convenient for fans watching on TV AND attending in person.

Also an issue is the limited number of TV partners. The myth that fans were chased away because TV deals were done by the individual tracks instead of the central body led to the present deal and it hasn't worked. ESPN and SPEED should not have exclusive rights to BGN and the Trucks; FOX and CBS need to be brought into those series, while CBS also needs to be brought back to Cup.

5 - The NASCAR season has NEVER been too long - not in the 1960s-71 when it ended in December, not since then when latter November was the usual endpoint (the one time it ended in October was 1973 because Texas World Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway either shut down (Texas) or were yanked off the schedule because of ownership issues (Ontario). That whole argument is nonsensical.

6 - The playoff format does not work, and fans see through it. It artificially locks out 3/4ths of the field from any top-ten points contention in the final ten races and reduces the title chase to a short gimmicky sprint in which no one has reason to fight to win; just keep it off the walls and in the top ten and that's it. That 2010 saw only the third time the point lead changed hands in the final race means nothing. It has drained the life out of the season.

If NASCAR is going to shift

If NASCAR is going to shift Cup races to Saturday night, they need to wait until at least October to do it. Adding more Saturday night races to the summer schedule kills your TV viewership and your grassroots racing. The two go hand in hand. Some people who otherwise might attend a local short track race might opt to stay home if the Cup race is on TV, and those who do go to the short track races would likely watch the Cup race if it was on the air on Sunday afternoon instead. Add up all of the fans at short track races on a Saturday night across the country and see how many viewers that totals up. It's pretty substantial. Wait until October when most of the short tracks are done with their Saturday night season and the NFL has taken over Sunday afternoon, and then your ratings ploy for Saturday night will work. Not that NASCAR seems to care about grassroots racing anymore, but they should care about the fans of who love grassroots racing because that's the majority of the people tuning in on TV to watch Cup races. Adding Saturday night races between Memorial Day and the end of September will not help NASCAR's ratings or NASCAR's image with real racing fans.
There used to be a natural progression up the ranks from the short tracks to the Grand National Series, and then on to Cup. And you actually had to win races to get to the next level. Now that the sponsors help choose the drivers, the owners seek drivers just shedding their diapers, and NASCAR allowing Cup drivers to take over the AA and AAA feeder series, Cup racing is full of guys that did not progress up the ranks as they did in the old days. Why does that matter? Fans don't get a chance to see drivers work their way up the ranks anymore, and it alienates many fans who then are forced to watch drivers they have never heard of be given rides that they have not earned. NASCAR used to pump money into advertising into short track racing and they used to have regional series that drivers could move up to once they had some success in a late model at their home track. NASCAR has since folded the Dash series, all of their late model touring series, and the Grand National East and West series only run 12-14 races. I just shake my head at what NASCAR has done to local tracks and their feeder series', and the fact that they can't understand what's wrong with the state of the sport when what they did was shoot themselves in the foot. Brian France seems to care more about casual sports fans than he does true race fans, and he needs to understand that casual sports fans come and go. When you alienate the real race fans and push them away trying to capture casual sports fans with some sort of a gimmick, the real race fans may not come back once you screw it up.

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