It's the 20th anniversary of NASCAR at the Brickyard (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
One word: Wow!
He just proved once again when he steps to the plate he will swing for the fences.
In the span of eight days, while the rest of the stock car racing world was taking some rare down time, the NASCAR boss not only announced a huge shakeup in this sport's competition/R&D department but followed that with a blockbuster $4.2 (B) billion 10-year TV deal with NBC, through 2024.
The guy may come across as aloof, even arrogant, and sometimes his big swings are strikeouts. But, hey, this year already he's padded this sport's bank accounts with a guaranteed $420-million-plus per year for nearly the next decade. On top of the $2.4 (B) billion eight-year deal he signed just last fall with Fox, which is $23 (M) million a race weekend, or about $300 (M) million a year through 2022. And whoever wants those last three Sprint Cup tour weekends still unsigned, well, that looks like another $70 (M) million a year yet to come.
That looks like about $800 (M) million a year till well into the next decade, and that's before a single ticket or hot dog or Coke is sold.
Yes: one word: Wow!
NASCAR gets 10 percent of all that. The tracks (owned principally by the France family and the Bruton Smith family) get 65 percent. The 40-some stock car teams (principally some 10 owners) get to share the other 25 percent.
(Wonder if anyone is pondering 'revenue sharing' and 'franchising' now, with this much loot in the pot?)
Yeah, yeah, sluggish TV ratings for a couple of years now, grandstands less than full and sellouts a too distant memory, and on-track action, well, rather mediocre most weekends....
But France just blew a big kiss at those naysayers who worried that in this next major TV deal, his third, he would have to settle for less money than when the sport was riding so high.
The new kid on the block: NASCAR's Gene Stefanyshyn. Rewriting the rule book? Reinventing the sport? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Maybe getting Dodge back in the fold? Attracting Honda? Pitching Volkswagen again.
Getting this sport back into Canada, preferably Montreal again.
Firing up drivers to fight for more green flag passes for the lead, instead of stroking for playoff points.
And, uh, finding someone who can go toe-to-toe with Jimmie Johnson....
Meanwhile, men in the NASCAR garage await Bruton Smith -- the sport's second-most-powerful -- weighing in on all this. Smith, considering three of the last four tour events have been at his tracks, has been oddly quiet lately. But then Speedway Motorsports, with 12 of the Sprint Cup tour's 36 annual events, will be getting a big chunk of the new monies, so maybe Smith has, diplomatically, just been waiting for the check to clear.
Brian France: now what to do with that new $4 Billion from NBC? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Yes, it may take a while, more than a while, to figure out what all really is going on here with Brian France's two new initiatives...and how successful these two ventures may ultimately be.
But France has certainly injected a big shot of excitement into this sport.
Sorely needed, considering how tough Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus look to be right now in their charge toward what would be a near-record sixth championship (Drive-for-Eight?), and a record-breaking fifth Brickyard 400 win here Sunday.
Knaus gave Johnson a dominating car here last summer, and this season the two have shown no signs of falling off. If anything, they're even tougher, week after week. Even forced to start dead-last the last time out, Johnson rallied to sixth at Loudon, N.H., and could have done more if he'd pushed it.
The only man who has been able to keep up with Johnson is Matt Kenseth, and he's been iffy at times, with four DNFs.
Yes, there are questions, obviously, about how now lame duck ESPN/ABC will handle NASCAR over the final 18 months of the current contract.
France glosses over the details, but Mike Massaro probably won't need to chase drivers post-race to the helipads for ESPN interviews under those windy rotor blades blowing dust in his eyes.
ESPN, remember, helped put NASCAR on the national map, so to speak, during the 1980s and 1990s, with blanket coverage of all the races no one else wanted to cover. (Remember too, the ESPN-NASCAR marriage was brokered by series sponsor R. J. Reynolds, by Jerry Long, in a masterful game plan that alone ought to help put him in the Hall of Fame...if France can ever sort out that Charlotte project.)
About ESPN, France says "We've been together one way or the other for 30-plus years, and they've done an outstanding job of presenting the NASCAR story week in and week out, and we'll certainly miss them in many ways."
On the American sports scene ESPN is the 800-pound gorilla. Nobody else even comes close. And ESPN/ABC/Disney have used the company's 'basic cable' clout to grab huge shares of channel space. How many ESPN channels are there anyway?
And ESPN, over the past decade or so, has padded that clout with what has now become the premier sports-news operation in the country, an amalgam of TV news/talk shows and a mammoth internet operation. ESPN has been particularly influential in the Hispanic market, with programming like ESPN Deportes.
If you're going for a trifecta in Sunday's Brickyard 400, here are the three. Now you pick 'em. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But it's in with the new -- NBC/Comcast's new cable sports channel -- and out with the old.
The question here, how fast can NBC get up to speed.
Is France putting his family's sport on the leading edge of a new wave? He's banking on it all working, though it remains to be seen how quickly NBC/Comcast can get its act together with enough wide-ranging coverage to successfully battle ESPN.
If only David Poole, the most common sensed of all stock car racing journalists, were still around to be leadoff batter...
And don't lose sight of Fox' own new general sports channel, and the looming demise of SPEED TV, and what that might mean for NASCAR racing too.
And who knows just what CBS Sports might come up with, on those other channels.
It is so ironic that just as TV sports is getting even hotter as a 'journalistic' property, the print media world is in complete collapse. Even the AP has cut back, instead of expanding to meet the new frontiers.
Steve O'Donnell: NASCAR's new Les Richter? Well, he's the guy with the battle plans. Is he also the Director of Common Sense? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Part of this NASCAR-ESPN-NBC story, though, seems to be what looks like a failure of ESPN to really deliver for NASCAR on all that was initially hoped for.
Check the ratings.
Even given that in the fall NASCAR has always played in the shadows of football -- college football and the National Football league -- it does appear that:
-- either ESPN/ABC/Disney was unable to use its considerable leverage and promotional powers to move the needle on NASCAR racing to a more prominent position on the national sportscape,
-- or NASCAR's product itself, on the track, simply didn't deliver.
(Whatever happened to ESPN 3D anyway? Imagine what this sport might look like in 3D....)
Did the ill-fated car-of-tomorrow sink this sport?
It might not be sheer coincidence that this sport's slump began sometime in late 2006, 2007 and 2008, during the COT's coming out.
Which brings us to another of Brian France's dramatic moves, these 2013 stockers, which he's dubbed the Gen-6.
Actually the 2013 project began in early 2009, when Detroit realized the common-template COT was a marketing disaster, aside from its on-track issues.
And the 2013s are darned fine race cars, maybe the best pure race cars this sport has ever created. Downforce, good looks, the 2013s have a lot going for them.
Except they're not putting butts in the seats or fans in front of the tube.
The early season track-by-track reviews, attendance and ratings, have been flat or mediocre.
Throw in a bunch of wild and crazy decisions the past few months by NASCAR officials, including France, and momentum was knocked askew, so to speak.
You think this thing just looks scary? Try to race against it... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Cue Gene Stefanyshyn.
Never heard of him?
Join the club.
He's NASCAR's new vice president for "initiative and racing development."
How much Stefanyshyn might know about this sport of stock car racing is unclear. But he's suddenly been charged by France with redesigning and rewriting the rule book.
Will this ambitious part of France's new game plan for the sport be inspired genius or another 'car-of-tomorrow,' or 'Let's move the Southern 500 from Darlington to Los Angeles'?
Stefanyshyn, a General Motors executive for 30 years, seems pretty new to NASCAR, which may be good in one respect but not so much in another.
In his first press conference, last week, he talked about "this era of rejuvenation and reinvention of the sport. "
Now read that again.
Rather bold, it would seem, even brash perhaps. Ambitious, for sure.
Stefanyshyn certainly has credentials, 30 years with GM, lately as 'executive director of global product development quality.' Previously he was GM's 'global vehicle line executive of rear wheel drive architecture,' working for a time in Australia with GM's Holden (precursor to the soon-to-be-marketed Chevy SS in the U.S.)
And he's got a cool Twitter handle: @66SS396.
Now if Stefanyshyn had a '65 SS 396 Z16, that would be really cool....
She sings, she dances, and she keeps up with the NASCAR news: but if TNT/Turner/TimeWarner is out of the stock car picture in 2015, will Robin Meade also be sidelined? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
If Stefanyshyn plans to rewrite the rule book, first off, he ought to take the current rule book and the past several rule books and thoroughly analyze them.
A NASCAR rule book is like the fire code -- each paragraph, though not specifically spelling the incidents out, is the reaction to something that happened. Paragraph XYZ may sound like so much gobbledygook....until you go back and review the incidents that led to that paragraph being added.
In effect, the NASCAR rule book is a NASCAR history book....only missing the pictures and quotes and back-story debates, all of which really ought to be laid out for fans and teams to consider. It would make a fascinating Christmas coffee table book.
Alas, some of the men who could best remember the incidents are no longer around, like Morris Metcalfe, the veteran chief scorer for so many years, and a Western Electric engineer by trade, and Jim Hunter, the sport's oh-so-savvy PR whiz.
Why doesn't NASCAR add a 'Dale Earnhardt Jr.' medical rule, allowing driver substitutions for serious injuries? Reference Carl Kiekhaefer.
And second, Stefanyshyn ought to ensure fans and the media can get copies of the rule book. Why is NASCAR the only major sport with secret rules?
ESPN trooper Mike Massaro (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Here's how Stefanyshyn describes the job ahead:
"There are three major initiatives.
"The first one is to simplify and increase the objectivity of the rules book.... to migrate from a rule book which is largely text-based to one which will be math-based. CAD drawings. This is absolutely critical.
"We began to tiptoe into that as we were working the Gen-6 car. Most of the teams said that was a very, very good initiative.
"This migration to math will enable us to remove a lot of the gray zones. People can then spend their energy working on things that will help us improve the sport, as opposed to talking about interpretation of written words.
"The second area is a parts approval process. We've heard loud and clear from some of the teams 'We want more transparency, ' so all the teams know where they play, how they play, how the decisions will be made.
"We want to set up a regular cadence of meetings, and this will also include peer reviews. We're quite confident it will increase the level of communication...(where) everybody feels they're being treated fairly.
"The third element is to bring more consistency to our three national series. And we also want to provide assistance to those teams which are in multiple series.
"All this is about reinvention, and to put money back into the sport, to grow the sport and take it forward."
That should keep him busy for a while....
There is much more to France's plans to reshape his competition department, with a January 2015 deadline (curious that that is when NBC is to take over from ESPN and Turner).
Steve O'Donnell, the sport's senior vice president of racing operations, points to 'cleaning up the appeals process, and making it more transparent,' and 'categorizing penalties' to eliminate some of the well-criticized subjectiveness.
O'Donnell, on another tack, says France wants the sport to be more technologically innovative: "So we started out going out to leaders in technology. We met with a lot of the leading universities, and gathered data (on) new, emerging technologies..and how we, at NASCAR's research and development center, needed to evolve, to become worldwide leaders in innovation."
However that does sound expensive.
And what happens with Fox' Speed channel? A lot of TV stuff going on in this sport. Wonder where Wendy Venturini (R), here with Patrick Dempsey, winds up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
To think through all these ideas, NASCAR hired the high-dollar, well-respected consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.
....though asking a management consulting operation like that about how to fix things here in NASCAR seems, well, a bit odd. Here is one view of such consultants in general.
But then Brian France has, for some reason, made it a point to go outside the sport for many of his top executives.
NASCAR historically has shied away from hiring 'the best and the brightest,' preferring 'inside men,' with backgrounds in racing itself.
France has conspicuously gone against that grain....though many, perhaps too many, of the people he's hired have too little understanding of the sport of NASCAR stock car racing, to be honest. Is that good or bad? Maybe.
So what we have here, at the moment, is a sharply new game plan for some key aspects of the sport.
It all sounds fairly well thought out.
Not sure if France, in shaking up competition like this, is offering a veiled vote of no confidence in the way things have been going, or if he simply wants some new ideas...
Hopefully this is a solid game plan, and everyone involved can keep an eye on the big picture, and not get lost in the forest.
However it's still not clear if this sport's key powers are looking at things from a fan's perspective: too many $300 hotel rooms... too much boring action on the track... pit road and restarts about the only places to pass...criticism of the playoff system with its emphasis on the championship more than Sunday's winners...
The chase, the chase, the chase. Is it good or bad...or just not a line item right now on this legal pad?
Adding yet more engineers to the sport, adding more bells and whistles to the cars, writing more new rules...is all this just another example of NASCAR over-engineering things?
Tightening the 'box' hasn't seemed that a great solution so far.
Maybe the Joe Gazaway inspection process -- 'I just don't like the way it looks, so you're not running it that way this week' -- is more than a bit out of date. But how many crew chiefs and competition directors has Stefanyshyn been talking with since he took this job in late May?
This is, after all, a rather simple sport at heart: go fast, turn left, keep turning left...and keep paying your bills.
Does any of all this really strike at one of the key problems facing this sport -- economics? Or does it merely raise the cost of racing?
How much of this will generate more sponsorships?
Has the oligarchical nature of the sport worked well, or would the sport be better off -- and the fans too -- with 'less' rather than 'more'?
The goal is to fill the stands with fans and provide sizzling action and colorful characters. Each race weekend should be memorable, for something other than a rules debate.
Maybe someone here should consider the problems from a crew chief's perspective: when things are going wrong, stop innovating and get back to basics.
The first rule of engineering, after all, is to define the problem.
Now, just what is the problem we're all trying to solve?
So that's Jimmie Johnson's secret: his feet never touch the ground? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)