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The state of the sport? Confusing.....

The state of the sport? Confusing.....

NASCAR as Pro Rodeo? Kyle Petty here doing some bull riding for a few seconds....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern
   mikemulhern.net


   DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
   Has NASCAR Marketing gone amuck?
   Not talking about excessively milking Lightning McQueen or Ricky Bobby or Danica Patrick....This sport has never been bashful about trumpeting itself, never worried about embarrassing itself with excess. Too much is never enough....
   A book about NASCAR marketing through the ages wouldn't be just one volume; it would be an encyclopedia.
   Usually all in good fun.
   Not even talking about the Sprint Cup series featuring so many AT&T commercials and other anomalies...or just what to make of the 'integrated marketing' project that NASCAR has been running the past year or so...or why NASCAR continues, in this day, to allow teams that fail post-race inspection to keep the win...or even what really happened to @kylepetty's Twitter account.
   
   
   But the last few weeks some other curious things have been going on.
   And it's not clear just what.
   Is NASCAR, as officials are negotiating that new TV package, starting to press, even panic?

 

   Ever get the feeling that NASCAR racing is always on stage.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

 

   Is this straight poker, or three-card monte?
   Lost? That may be too strong a term, but certainly there are a lot of questions...and apparently no one who is willing to try to answer any of them.
    Maybe too many are simply tone deaf.
    Press releases keep coming out about shakeups here, new hires there....
   Who are these guys?
   The worry: Is NASCAR still hiring the clueless?
   Bigger question: Is NASCAR a train with too many engineers elbowing through the lead cab?
    
   Like, what to expect out of this 'new' NASCAR.com thing, now that its writing and 'reporting' will come tightly under the thumb of NASCAR execs?
   Is this supposed to be a 'web journalism' program or just more NASCAR marketing/promotion gimmickry?
   Hash tags?
   #NASCAR?  
   Wonder what the point of that is all about.....
   Unfortunately there are precious few still around willing to peek around the curtain, or who even care enough to poke about it.   

 

   Kurt Busch as Ricky Bobby? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   One point: There is a clear sense that the sport's competition department has lost control of its machinery.
   Just look at 220 mph straightaway speeds at Michigan a few weeks ago...
    ...and the fact that the sport is essentially down to three or four mega-teams...
    ...and the fact that the stock car engine building operation overall has become a joke -- without direct and extensive Detroit factory support a NASCAR team simply cannot even make it to the starting line, much less play this game competitively.
   Perhaps this sports misses more than ever the commonsense of a Jim Hunter and a Bill France Jr.
 
   So NASCAR just hired another half dozen people who apparently don't know much at all about NASCAR racing? Not sure. Still trying to find someone who can decipher the press releases.
   But then maybe selling/marketing/promoting this sport isn't much different from selling/marketing/promoting burgers or car insurance.
   Does any of this offend the sensibilities and intelligence of the sport's hardcore fan-base?

 


   

   The boss, prepping for Friday's state-of-the-sport (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Brian France is polishing up his notes for a Friday meet-the-press here, and maybe he'll have a little more to say than he did in late May at Charlotte, his last media briefing, which lasted just a little over five minutes.
   France may do the dais thing with panache, yes, but when it comes to those folksy nose-to-nose get-togethers that his late father Bill Jr. was so good at, well the third-generation France seems distinctly uncomfortable.
    And maybe that's really one of this sport's problems at the moment, that the leader of the sport -- though he can hire and fire and delegate and pontificate and adjudicate -- can't seem to come across with any warmer, better personality.
    And since the death of Jim Hunter, the France family's go-to man on issues of impact and import, there has been a major void in finding someone to translate things to the media and thus to the masses of fans.
    Remember back when this sport was riding so high -- with all those Fortune 500 companies champing at the bit to play this game? Back when even Indy's Tony George threw wide open the doors to the grand American racing temple? Back when major league TV finally decided to bite the bait and join the game?
     There is a sense that this sport's high water mark was hit somewhere in 2006-2007, and things have been ragged since, particularly with the economy -- and exorbitant hotel rates -- sucking the life out of so many long-time fans.

 

  Matt Kenseth (L) and teammate Carl Edwards. Kenseth is looking to become first man since Bobby Allison in 1982 to win both races at Daytona in the same season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
     
    The early line on Saturday night's 400 is easy -- Matt Kenseth.
    Kenseth - Greg Biffle 1-2 in the Daytona 500...with Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. waiting in vain for Biffle to make a move on Kenseth in the final laps.
   Then Brad Keselowski at Talladega, a race dominated by Kenseth, until it went overtime after a 10-car crash.
   The twist here, after a series of engine issues, overheating, led to a rash of criticism from drivers, who said they spent more time at Talladega watching water gauges than actually racing, is yet another new engine cooling limit rule, a bit more lenient. The purpose of the NASCAR cooling rules is to break up those two-car drafts that NASCAR executives don't like....and that television can't seem to figure out for the viewing audience.
   One complication is that Ford's FR9 is superior to the rest in engine cooling. Ford teams have had an edge in cooling the past year and half; in February Fords were six of the nine fastest in qualifying, and at Talladega, Fords were six of the 11 fastest.
   What happens here of course is up for debate. And unless NASCAR officials and team owners order drivers to draft at speed in big packs in practice, the answers won't be known until Saturday night.
   Of course the last year and half at Daytona and Talladega, it's been routine for the unanticipated to occur, be it the two-car packs or excessively overheated engines. Should it be unsettling that race day at these two well-aged tracks seems filled with too many questions that could have been answered weeks advance?

 

   Jeff Gordon: is he the only guy in the sport that still knows how to smile? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    
    A major story at this point of the season is Brian France's negotiations for new television contracts. That story is of course mostly behind closed doors.
    However France can be expected to pump up the sport in Friday's briefing.
    Few aspects about this sport generate more fan reaction -- and typically anger -- than its TV coverage.
    But just what is going on behind the scenes with NASCAR's TV operations?
    With all the changes underway, it might be time to ask 'who are these new guys?'  
   Is NASCAR in the process of doing what it has traditionally done so well -- hire a bunch of people who don't know the sport?
   NASCAR execs have been in overdrive doing that the past year.
   The vaunted NASCAR 'Integrated Marketing Department' is seemingly filled with people who don't know, or don't care that they don't know. It is almost, to be blunt, a bunch of people trying to sell the hole in the donut.
   And now NASCAR execs are taking over this NASCAR.com operation, staffing it with more unknowns...and the feeling is that this 'new' NASCAR.com will be even more 'marketing' than any real journalism. The worry is too many of these newcomers couldn't pick Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick out of a crowd.
   Of course maybe it doesn't take people who know something about NASCAR racing....
   But it does seem somewhat disconcerting that the sport is increasingly being packed with people who know virtually nothing about NASCAR racing, nothing about the sport's history, nothing about the sport's hardcore fans.
   No wonder there is the sense in  the garage area that NASCAR's competition side cares little for this new army of 'marketeers.'
   Are NASCAR executives just too scared to hire people who actually know the sport and the business?
   It sure seems that way.
   Once this sport was filled with the savvy, like John Cooper, who once ran Daytona International Speedway and then ran Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and who also played key roles at both Chrysler and Coca Cola.
   Maybe there is a new John Cooper or Jim Hunter coming on board, and maybe criticism of the current round of shakeups is unfair, and maybe there is a big game plan in play here, and maybe it's just that the NASCAR army of journalists is down to just squad-size (and that on a good week).
   And maybe Brian France can fill in some of the blanks here Friday.

 

  Wonder what Fox'  David Hill is thinking about NASCAR and those negotiations for a new contract? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Meanwhile, among salient TV points to consider:

    -- Fox has seemed somewhat less than enthusiastic about NASCAR the past year or so, particularly with ratings declines and boring racing. Fox' big hook here has been its SPEED cable channel; Fox has needed to fill that channel with NASCAR stuff.
    Now however comes word that Fox executives are apparently considering a major revamp of SPEED, perhaps even turning it into something wildly different, like a wide-ranging sports channel a la ESPN.
     While ABC has ESPN as its cable partner, and NBC now has NBC Sports (formerly Versus, and still in some transition), Fox has no such wide-ranging cable sports channel.
    SPEED over the past few years has been NASCAR on the weekend but not during the week. SPEED's weekday programming has generally been a mish-mish of, well, mish-mash. Rather weird programming, to be blunt. And not that much NASCAR, for some reason.
   And some NASCAR-SPEED stuff has been really weird too, for some reason.
   Is that financially oriented -- that perhaps NASCAR shows don't sell that well any more?
    Remember when NASCAR officials had hopes and plans for The NASCAR Channel, on TV, something that it appeared SPEED would become?
    Something may have happened along the way...

 

   The late Jim Hunter (R): a talent at defusing difficult situations, and a master at using commonsense. The sport sorely needs a new Jim Hunter today. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    

   -- ABC has given up on NASCAR's championship chase playoffs, turning that over to ESPN. Whether that's a plus or minus is up for debate. Demographics might says ESPN delivers for NASCAR....but it's still not network, which was the whole point of the TV package in 2001, remember.
   But there has been the decided sense the past few years that to ESPN execs NASCAR is just another show on the channel, that NASCAR tends to get lost in the vast mass of sports ESPN covers. ESPN's Nationwide ratings don't appear to have gone anywhere much during its time in the sport.

       
     -- NASCAR's own NASCAR Media Group, an in-house operation based in Charlotte, has been undergoing a quiet shakeup, and what that portends isn't clear.
    Key veteran TV figures like Hunter Nickell and Paul Brooks and Jay Abraham have disappeared, seemingly rather abruptly, and it's not really clear why.

     -- How TNT might fit into the new NASCAR TV package is not clear.
   But then NASCAR is taking over NASCAR.com from Turner, and making some major changes there too.
   And NASCAR.com will apparently become even more of a house-organ than it is right now, if that's possible.

    -- NBC: will NBC, which gave NASCAR a big boost during its time in the sport, make a bid to return? The 'chase,' remember, was created in part to try to entice NBC to renew its contract. With the new NBC Sports cable channel, the network has more angles to play.
 
   -- Is Pay-per-View a possibility for NASCAR? How about paying for the entire Sprint Cup season, perhaps subscribing?
   If under the current TV package, each Cup weekend pays NASCAR and its promoters about $16 million, then a subscription fan base of some three million paying about $190 a year would match that.
    Would three million viewers be willing to ante up $190 a year -- about $16 a month -- to watch the full NASCAR package, Cup, Nationwide, Truck? Without commercials?
     The NASCAR Channel?
    
    Just not sure where this train is really headed.....     

 

 

   The Family (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





 

Pay per view

I like the idea of pay per view if we would have all 3divisions under 1umbrella. The problem would be that all cable/dish companies would need to be on board, otherwise too many fans would be left out. Also wonder how that would impact sponsorship for the teams. It would be easier to determine the number of people tuning in, but in reality a good many fans would not spend the money....it\'s too hard to come by in this economy. On a personal note, I have stayed with my cable company for over 20 years simply because they offer Speed channel within their basic service, it would be a shame if Speed went in some other direction, I don\'t watch during the week ( except for race hub and BJA). I will have practice and qualifying on...like right now for instance. I know that I don\'t count when it comes to viewers ( too old) but I am a loyal viewer and would hate to lose Speed in its present format. Thanks for \"listening\" to my rant....Sylvia Louch

Will NASCAR even be here 10 years from now?

As a fan since 1964 I've seen the great NASCAR, the good NASCAR and now the ugly NASCAR. I'm envisioning Big Bill Sr. and Billy Jr. spinning in their graves. NASCAR needs to clean house in upper management. And that means especially Brian France. He has personally run what was once a great sport into the ground. I predict with in 10 years there either will not be a NASCAR as we know it or it will be back to a regional sport like in the old days.

The TV package over all is pathetic. They are not attracting new fans and us older fans are leaving in droves. I used to never and I mean never miss a race. I started watching when all you saw on TV was 10-20 minutes on Wide World of Sports and that was it for NASCAR coverage.

Now I watch, I would guess, not even half of the races. The TV coverage is an embarrassment. The good announcers have to put up with the likes of DW and his motor mouth little brother Mikey. You can't follow the flow of the races any more, not even if you are a long time fan like I am. There are so many commercials and promos that the flow of the race is completely gone.

As for Pay Per View. Not a chance in hell. Why should I pay to watch what Brian and his brain trust call racing, when I can go down to one of my local tracks. Plunk down my $10-$15 and see real racing with real race cars and drivers with real, not corporate, personalities.

As a long time fan I hate to say it, but NASCAR is dead. It just doesn't know it yet. I grew up in farm country and NASCAR reminds me of the chicken that has just had his head cut off and then runs around for 5 minutes before it realizes it's dead.

Great article Mike. I used to live in Winston-Salem and have followed your career from your start. This article is up there with your best. But I fear it's too little, too late to right this ship.

Vince

BZF

I think Brian France is selfish, apathetic with respect to NASCAR and motor racing...

t.v. contract

If I said it once I said it a thousand times. Its not that complicated. People quit watching and the t.v. is bad because of one thing and one thing only. It used to be The King vs The Man In Black vs Jaws vs The Silver Fox... now all you have is a bunch of little California robots making sure their hair is in the right place and they would not dare get their finger nails dirty.

The only way I would even consider paying to

The only way I would even consider paying to watch Nascar races would be if I was guaranteed a much better broadcast than I am currently subjected to. It isn't just the overload of commercials that is the problem. The lack of coverage of what's actually happening on the track, whether it's at the front of the field, the middle, or the back is a huge problem. Unless I can be guatanteed that I will see something resembling what those actually at the track see, I won't pay a dime.

I can't speak for everybody but I know what

I can't speak for everybody but I know what bothers me.I have been hooked on racing my whole life, I'm 63 now. Looked forward to local short track race all week, looked forward to the NASCAR races as well. A few things bother me, like the wave around, letting a large group of cars back in contention without earning it and generic cars. But what has really soured me, when I see that picture of David Hill is he's clueless.I can't stand the Waltrips anymore, in fact I have stopped watching the FOX portion. Shows like Trackside are UNWATCHABLE!!! I used to watch practice, qualifying, etc, now I watch none of it. To think FOX sends us Larry Mac, that screechy voice and murdering English. Jeff Hammond who has no on air skills, and the buffoon Waltrips. TNT and ESPN are not perfect, but they treat the races professionally, not like a episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. I enjoy watching the TNT and ESPN races but I'm sick to a point of not watching the FOX stuff.I happen to know others who feel the same. So MR. David Hill, your clueless, LESS Waltrips.

I agree

Good job Wayne. I'll be 61 in a few weeks an have been going to races for ever. And FOX's coverage is a joke. Somebody PLEASE get the Waltrips, Larry Mac and Jeff Hammond off the air! They need to go hunt or fish or write a biography about how great they were. I'm sure it'll be a best seller (cough, cough).

Loved your comment about FOX treating the broadcasting of a NASCAR race like an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. Or maybe the Dukes of Hazard. Come on FOX. Quit the yuck, yuck crap and treat us like the intelligent fans that we are.

State of the sport.

Qualifying is going on as I type this and instead of watching that I am watching TT racing on NBCsports.

As a fan of Nascar since the 1950\'s that about says it all.

Hard to imagine the public paying to watch the

Hard to imagine the public paying to watch the product being delivered. It would be the die hard fans of the sport that Nascar has ignored and almost alienated during the Brian France regime. Like any other business in decline, the objective by an owner with long term interests would be to focus on getting the right product to market. To this end, shortening some races (or even creating twin 200's at Martinsville or Bristol or Dover, etc) could help address the shortening attention spans that require constant action. It would also reduce the emphasis on pit stops which I have never paid $1 to watch. Having Cletus screw up a race cuz he tripped over an air hose isn't the reason I want to see the lead change. The core product is cars going around a track with the fastest one winning. The product has gotten steadily worse when that "common sense" has been strayed away from.

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