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Brian's Take: the state of NASCAR, one month into the new season

  If you want buzz, baby, you've come to the right place: Paris Hilton Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


    Buzz is the word, and Brian France loves it.
    Because the buzz is NASCAR Buzz.

    However the stock car racing boss is still nervous and cautious, only three weeks into a season that runs till Thanksgiving.
    But they've been three darned good weeks, by every measurement.
   "There's still some challenges for us, and for many sports, many companies with still an uncertain outlook for the economy," France points out. 
    "But we're not economists. We're not building around a doom-and-gloom or robust economy; we're doing what we think we need to do."
    France and his sister Lesa France Kennedy, who runs the family's race track empire, have been antsy about this season for some time now. Tweaks here, tweaks there, questions, TV ratings, fans. Too much Jimmie Johnson? Not enough of the other guys?
    Now with two of his sister's races in the bank, Daytona and Phoenix, and with California and Martinsville – tougher sells perhaps – just ahead, and with rival Bruton Smith in the middle of a Las Vegas- Bristol run and Texas looming, France has a right to be cautious.
    After all, the explosive NFL lockout situation is just starting to play out, and who knows how that might affect NASCAR. Major League Baseball is cranking up. And the NCAA playoffs are getting in full-swing. Heady competition.
     The NFL?
     "My hope is they will figure that out," France says, though his sport would seem to be a big winner if the NFL does shut down for a while this fall.
     "We're wishing all the leagues do well. That is just the reality of how we look at that.
    "We don't pay any attention to where they are, where they're not.  It's obviously out of our control."
    Well, that may not be quite the case, since France just ordered the Daytona 500 next year moved back a week because of a potential NFL expansion schedule.

    Brian France. The NASCAR boss is typically solid at the dais...but why not some more folksy and quietly intimate media sesssions? Loosen the tie and tell us how you really feel. (Photo: Getty Image for NASCAR)

    But France says he's got bigger items on his plate.
    Improving the younger demographic, 18-34, "is the bigger question. 
    "Having a young winner…and Jeff Gordon runs up our young fan base too…and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. is competitive more than he was a year ago.
    "The young demo is something we're going to keep working at.  It goes to candidly reaching new young fans. 
    "And this is not a one-dimensional effort here just to get people to tune in on television. 
     "It's to get young fans really interested for the long run in every aspect of enjoying NASCAR."
     Carl Edwards is doing his part to liven things up. And so is Danica Patrick.
     And so (lol) are Robby Gordon and Kevin Conway, whose run-in at Las Vegas in the NASCAR garage, has fueled intense reaction over the internet.
    If France is worried about scuffles, well he just repeated his mantra, and 'Boys, have at it' is still a go: "They're the best guys in the world. We've said 'You have to mix it up, this is a contact sport.'
    "It's made the racing better."
    Yes, indeed.

     "We closed out in a strong way in 2010, down to the last laps," France says. "We hadn't had that in a few years. You want to go out strong; it's really important to have a good playoff, and a good finale.
    "You want to go out on a real high…because we have a very short window to launch."
    And Danica seems to be having an impact again, because of better performances, and her rather aggressive marketing campaign – after all this is the make-or-break year for her, with sponsors needing to see results before committing to the millions it takes to run in Cup.
    France admits there were questions about her last year: "There was some discussion -- did she have the right stuff.
    "She dispelled a lot of that. I think she elevated herself quite nicely. That's nice to see. 
    "She's a very competitive person.  She's always said she's here to compete, not just happy to be here.  That fits my criteria."


   Danica Patrick at Las Vegas, turned it on. Her comeback this season has been surprising. And of course she's pitching a new round of tee-shirts and stuff, like that cardboard standup that would look just perfect next to your fire place. (Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR and DanicaPatrick)

    And TV ratings…which are up significantly, a good sign.
    Yet France cautions "No one around here is celebrating.  We're obviously pleased we're up dramatically in our ratings, but we know that is ebb-and-flow. 
    "We're focused on a lot of things that will give us growth down the road. We're going to work on those…and not get too excited or too down.
    "I look at the interest level in this sport, and that's growing, after having peaked and maybe dropped back a little, for some reasons a couple years ago.  The general interest level is going up -- and that's what we're going to be working on: creating new fans."
     Resolving the perennial Nationwide tour dilemma must be a top priority. Again. And the latest tweak doesn't seem to be working well. Patrick in finishing fourth got more publicity last weekend than defending series champ Brad Keselowski, who dominated that Las Vegas race but blew a tire in the final miles (and still no official word from Goodyear on why that tire blew). Short fields are worrisome, of course, but TV is all but ignoring that and the deeper issues involved (the expensive new car). The Nationwide tour, it might seem, should be more clearly aimed at the muscle-car demographic…

    Anecdotally there is that sense too, of new fans this spring. We've seen that ourselves by checking out people at the tracks, people in the shops nearby, people in the hotels, and people in the airports.
    On the other side, also anecdotally, the local-area fan base still seems in some markets, West Phoenix for example, and many parts of Las Vegas, seems disconnected with the track and the sport. That's been true in places like Fontana/Ontario for some time. And either these are just hard-sell areas or non-NASCAR areas or areas that just haven't been touched the right way. In Las Vegas, to make a point, some casinos bill themselves 'for locals;' perhaps a 'NASCAR Locals' card for discounts might be a way to start tying area residents into the sport more closely.



   It's nice to have powerful friends: Brian France, clockwise from top-left, with Rudy Giuliani, Elliott Spitzer, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. But then France does have the power to deliver himself....well, except maybe in Alaska. (Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Assessing the month behind us, France points to the obvious: "a very dynamic Daytona 500, a really young star born, the iconic Wood brothers in victory lane…74 lead changes…and  very interesting way the competition played out.
   "Then Phoenix, getting Jeff Gordon back in victory lane…record lead changes again there…attendance up across the board.
   "Competition has never been better. That's been brewing….going in the right direction for a number of months, back well into last year where we made a number of changes in the new car…"
   And those two-car packs at Daytona? It did make for great, unpredictable racing….but Fox-TV seemed unable to portray the drama accurately on the tube.
   France conceded he wasn't sure if he'd like the two-car stuff: "To tell you the truth, we were curious too.  It was a phenomenon.  We'd never seen anything like that.   We didn't know how that was going to play out.
   "But 74 lead changes, dramatic racing all the way through -- although it looked a little different --- the competition level went up. 
    "We like it. It's different. But the races are exciting, we're going to like it."


   It started like this, with Trevor Bayne beating Carl Edwards at Daytona....

  Then Jeff gordon snapped a two-year losing streak with a fender-banging win over Kyle Busch at Phoenix....

   And then Carl Edwards rebounded from that Phoenix crash to beat Tony Stewart at Las Vegas (Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

   Dealing with media – even just trying to define media in today's world – isn't easy.
   It's not all TV and newspapers and radio anymore.
   Newspapers appear dying on the trees, more committed to local-area supermarket readers than any wide, diverse audience. Radio is struggling (Charlotte didn't have a station carrying the Daytona 500.) TV has its own competition.
   And the Internet? It's still the Wild, Wild West.
   Why NASCAR itself doesn't provide some umbrella for all the websites covering the sport is unclear. Why not a 'dot.NASCAR' domain, for example?
   France last summer announced a shakeup in his PR operation, for still uncertain reasons, and with still uncertain focus. Nothing really has changed, so it seems…except some people have been shuffled out and there is a general mood of happiness in that department the past few weeks.
    France hired a New Yorker, Brett Jewkes, to study the situation and make recommendations….and Jewkes, curiously, decided he was the man for the job. Though it's not clear yet just what the job really is.
    France: "Everything that would range from digital media, how effective are we in that new medium, from the fans' experience at track, away from the track, trying to really get connected to our future in some meaningful ways.
    "We spend a lot of time looking at traditional broadcast television. But our cable partners are critically important."
    (It should be pointed out here that in the few races that ABC has carried versus cable sister ESPN, the ratings have been significantly higher, a sign that network impact is still considerable.)
    "We spent a lot of time recently looking at the other media, social and digital media, where that's all going, where people are getting information, content and everything else," France went on.
     "We have a plan, we have a robust plan in the long run. We'll try to capture both. 
     "But people are getting their news -- updates, their fix, if you will -- in lots of different ways today.  We want to make sure we're taking advantage of all of them."


   Juan Pablo Montoya, one of Chevy's hottest drivers right now, gets to call his shots on this Los Angeles PR appearance for NASCAR's California Auto Club Speedway, so he packed his favorite model airplane for some sky-dueling. It might be a stretch to put Montoya in NASCAR's 'diversity' camp, but he's the highest profile non-traditional racer on the Sprint Cup tour. And he's got a shot at the championship this year. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Is France discouraged that, just as his drive-for-diversity program was just starting to hit some good licks a few years ago, the U.S. economy became plummeting, and getting sponsorship suddenly became extremely difficult?
   How is France looking at the diversity game plan now? Last weekend NASCAR honored Wendell Scott's first major race, in 1961, and with an interesting TV show to boot. Danica Patrick and Juan Pablo Montoya, though not quite the promising up-and-comers the diversity program has targeted, are still excellent role models. The Mexican drug wars may have put a quietus on NASCAR's south-of-the-border marketing for a while (but Carlos Slim, the chief back of that project, is still the richest man in the world and getting richer.)
    "I really didn't have a timeline; after all there are limited seats available in the first place," France says. "We've had to change the program to maximize it…which has given some of these talented, diverse drivers a better opportunity to show their skills.  It's not just giving them the opportunity, it's giving them the right opportunity.
    "I will tell you Darrell Wallace is a young African-American driver that's winning. He's doing that now. 
    "We're going to have a breakthrough in that area. It's going to be on my watch. And I'll be very proud when that occurs."
    Wonder if Lewis Hamilton might want to have a go at this stuff? Now that would be a game changer.

 Yes, Trevor Bayne is still selling tickets for NASCAR, here in Detroit, in a Michigan Speedway promotion. In the three weeks since his Daytona 500 surprise, Bayne has learned anew the feeling of jet lag. Hope he's got a fast one, and a good pilot. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


I noticed not one word from

I noticed not one word from France on the 5x consecutive champion. Interesting???? Whether you Mike, other sports writers, France and his family, Helton, Pemberton, etc. etc. want to admit it, Jimmie Johnson has put Nascar on the map. No other driver in the history of the sport has done so, Earnhardt, Petty, Jeff Gordon...not one of them, until Jimmie Johnson came along. We all know the real reason the sport continues to be tweaked...Jimmie Johnson...France and his band of merrymen don't want Jimmie Johnson winning another championship. Are we going to blame everything that is wrong with our society, our world, our climate be blamed on Jimmie Johnson. I'm tired of the whining and complaining by France about the sport. You couldn't have a better ambassador than Jimmie Johnson. I want a driver that's articulate, professional, happily married with a beautiful family, who is willing to laugh at himself (even though majority of the press refers to him as being too vanilla). Vanilla is a great scent, it's soft yet noticeable, it's a delicate fragrance which inspires, and it's used to add flavour and spice to our baking. What's wrong with being "too vanilla?" The Nascar Hall of Fame has lost over 1 million dollars since its' opening...is Jimmie Johnson going to be blamed for that too? Unemployment is at a record high in the U.S. is Jimmie Johnson going to be blamed for that? There are races which still need to be shortened, there are tracks which we don't need to be racing two times per season, there are still things Nascar needs to do...how about taking a huge international swing. Catering to just American Nascar fans isn't the answer. If France wants to reach out to ALL Nascar fans, then ALL NASCAR FANS SHOULD BE REPRESENTED INTERNATIONALLY, not just American. Canadians attend races, in addition to tourists visiting from other countries. The sport may have been discovered in the south, but the sport goes a way beyond that southern hospitality. France needs to broaden his focus, take off the blinders and give the sport more international representation.
N.A. Johnson

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well said, well said, and i

well said, well said, and i agree with almost all your points. i would suggest part of the problem here is jimmie johnson needs a better business agent, someone more aggressive. and i like the international angle...but nascar had to be pulled kicking and screaming into canada. and it got gunshy about the japanese market back when. there was talk, when mexico city was running, that nascar would push the nationwide series as something more international, but that hasn't gone far. heck there wasnt even a full nationwide field at phoenix. this new car may be safer but the economics of it all are really bad, at this point in the economy.

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