And Daytona executives are blaming drivers for being too critical of these 200-mph crashes? Maybe they should strap in themselves (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Watch out, Tony.
Looks like NASCAR doesn't want to hear any complaints from drivers.
The Daytona mantra this season: Shut up and drive.
Does anyone remember the days when Richard Petty and Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison would go nose-to-nose with NASCAR boss Bill France Jr.?
Sometimes it seems like NASCAR officials are doing their best to emasculate the men who should be this sport's big stars.
Remember when Tony Stewart, after a crash-filled Talladega race last spring, was critical of the maddening bumper-to-bumper 200-mph racing? The fans, he said deadpan, didn't get their money's worth, because there were still cars running at the end of the race. And he added a line about maybe Figure 8 racing would be a better option.
Now Daytona execs are trying to pin some of this sport's problems on such complaints.
Drivers' complaining about tight racing at Daytona and Talladega, with those restrictor plates, is nothing new. However there appears no easy solution to how to race modern stock cars on 1960s race tracks.
So drivers will crash and complain in one race, and then they'll all have almost an informal pact for the next race not to do anything outlandish until the last few laps. Not that such strategy works, as Stewart and Michael Waltrip showed at Talladega last fall.
Whether anyone in Daytona is even bothering to talk with these drivers about all this is unclear.
Maybe the new 2013 models will change the dynamics, maybe not.
The state of the sport, as Daytona's SpeedWeeks approaches? One view comes from Daytona execs themselves, who are, naturally, under pressure to produce more butts in the stands and more fans on the couches in front of TVs this season.
However listening to these execs, it appears there is still a huge disconnect between the men in suits in the corporate suites and the men down in the trenches. The suits sometimes sound too much like the blind men trying to describe an elephant.
And these execs, in last week's International Speedway Corp (ISC) call with Wall Street analysts, made these points:
-- Stock car racing fans, the core group, are still hurting economically, particularly in the Talladega market area. There is "concern" about those fans, and that NASCAR demographic is described as "extremely volatile," whatever that means.
-- Sponsors, on the other hand, are not just hanging in, but some, like Toyota and Kelloggs, are "stepping up with very sizeable in-market activation."
-- What these execs describe as "negative storylines" have had impact on fans.
-- One Daytona exec, curiously, even calls two-car push-drafting at Daytona and Talladega as "pathetic," trying to blame weak crowds and lackluster TV audiences on this type of racing, (even though NASCAR officials essentially banned that, with a series of rules that have had drivers watching their engine temperatures more than their competitors).
-- Casino gambling at Watkins Glen International? Daytona execs are watching that prospect "very carefully," with New York state politicians considering gaming options for upstate.
-- Brad Keselowski Tweeting from his car in the Daytona 500, according to ISC boss Lesa France Kennedy, was good for the sport. (And then why did her brother Brian France, the NASCAR boss, turned around last November and fined Keselowski $25,000 for Tweeting?) Keselowski at 20, she says, is one of the sport's primary demographic markets. And 'social media' is now very big for this sport (more so with the collapse of the U.S. newspaper world, once a communications staple for NASCAR.)
-- The new 2013 NASCAR stocker is a major marketing gambit for the sport (coming after six painful years of the disliked car-of-tomorrow, which may be one of the big reasons for the decline in popularity of this sport over that same span). It is being billed as the 'Gen-Six,' an catchy marketing tag. The key is to reestablish brand identity with Detroit, at Detroit's behest it should be pointed out, and coming with Dodge/Chrysler's abrupt withdrawal from the sport.
-- Ticket sales at ISC tracks was down five percent in 2012, better than the 10 percent decline for 2011.
Analysts point to the continued "lack of spending power" among NASCAR fans as a major worry.
On the plus side, Fox' new eight-year contract will be about $2.4 billion over that period, significantly higher than the $1.75 billion Fox is paying under its current eight-year contract.
Analysts project that if NASCAR plays negotiations right, the next eight-year TV package overall could jump from today's $4.5 billion (Fox/ESPN/Turner) to more than $6 billion. On a yearly basis, that could pump up the sport's TV income from $560 million today to $750 million in the next period.
How about ISC itself? Despite the U.S.' economic mess, ISC has earned $450 million in free cash flow over the last five years; this season the company should generate $65 million (even though some analysts say Kansas' Hollywood Casino is "lagging" expectations).
More on the overall positive side:
-- This sport has virtually no significant competition in its niche. It is second only to the National Football League in TV numbers. Its events are a prized 'live' commodity.
-- Fan interest, at the tracks and on the couches, appears to be stabilizing.
On the negative side:
-- Hotel prices, typically outrageous for sports weekends, are still all-but unaddressed by the sport.
-- Rainouts continue to be a major drag (California's rainout last spring was a classic case); Texas Motor Speedway's Eddie Gossage may have hit upon a logical answer, by offering discounted tickets to the next similar event, in case of rainout. However no one else has jumped on board.
-- Downright bad racing, too much follow-the-leader stuff, and no caution periods to bunch up the fields, continues to be a drag.
-- No 'star power' any more. This sport's "personalities" have been too often hit by NASCAR penalties and threats of penalties at anyone who dares criticize. The concept of drivers as "too vanilla" has become a major drag on the sport. And that problem has been exacerbated by NASCAR officials themselves by hitting drivers and others with hefty penalties for speaking their minds. To hear the recent reaction from Daytona execs to driver complaints would seem to add to that problem, with the not so subtle threat to drivers just to 'shut up and drive.'
-- No great "rivalries" any more. No Petty-versus-Allison, no Allison-versus-Yarborough, no Pearson-versus-Petty, no Earnhardt-versus-the-world.
-- TV ratings have steadily declined since 2006, with NASCAR execs only now finally looking to address the issues with something other than platitudes.
All that does not bode well for NASCAR's next round of TV contract negotiations....unless the early weeks and months of the 2013 season are jammin'.
Tony Stewart. Wonder how this three-time NASCAR champion will take Daytona's new edict to shut up and drive? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)