Time to light up the night? Well, not like this.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Is this sport holding its own or losing ground?
Can we perk things up by solving a few problems?
Here are some idle musings on a long, long Saturday afternoon, awaiting Round Five of the NASCAR championship chase.
Hey, let's fix this Daytona-Talladega problem. Let's make Indianapolis more competitive. Let's get Los Angeles back in the sport.
Let's make qualifying more exciting. Let's make pit road safer.
Let's run Talladega under the lights, like Daytona.
Let's put some fire back in this sport.
First, let's look at the big picture, as best we can.
Glass half-full, or half-empty?
When the Talladega grandstands are as empty as they were last weekend, this sport has a problem.
When Talladega Blvd is traffic-free at 8 a.m. on race morning, this sport has a problem.
When even rock 'em, sock 'em Talladega, the wildest track on the stock car tour, has trouble selling tickets, this sport has a problem.
When Talladega Sunday those 40 TV sets at the Lake Norman sports bar, in the heart of stock car country, are all tuned to something else besides the big race, this sport has a problem.
When race tracks on Fridays, be it Talladega or Dover or Atlanta or wherever, are only large aluminum echo chambers, this sport has a problem.
And that's before Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped his bombshell on this little neck of the woods...making it oh-so-ironic that this Charlotte 500 looks to be the first NASCAR race since 1961 without a North Carolina driver in the field.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sidelined for two weeks, the sport faces more problems (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is there a real problem, or is it just 'optics'?
Maybe the sport is just one great race away from bouncing back.
Certainly NASCAR has an battalion of workers firing away.
But is it working?
Now maybe NBC is indeed wining and dining Brian France in hopes of spinning out ABC/ESPN for the second half of the Sprint Cup season, when that new TV contract comes up for debate.
And maybe an NBC-NASCAR reunion might really be just what this sport needs, to create a new dynamic. This sport had some of its best-ever TV ratings back when NBC carried NASCAR each fall.
But that's still a while off.
NBC returning to NASCAR? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
More immediately perhaps could be the looming 'death' of SPEED, with parent Fox planning to use cable tier channel for more general sports shows.
What does that say about how Fox execs look at NASCAR?
Meanwhile, with the death of newspapers (now even speculation that USAToday may "30" in a couple of years), ESPN has become the American sports world's pre-eminent quasi-journalistic portal, with its multi-channel approach and its army of sports specialists...although it sometimes appears to view NASCAR racing as a niche sport. Then again maybe that's what NASCAR has fallen back to.
And maybe NASCAR is going the way of Formula One, where the live crowd is only peripheral to the really important TV audience.
SPEED? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However an Old School look at this sport might show things in a different light.
Should NASCAR be playing more to its traditional strengths? Can NASCAR reenergize its classic demographic?
If so, how, with whom?
For all its heavy-hitting marketing, NASCAR execs may need to consider that this sport's most poorly served demographic is the blue-collar demographic....people who remember when Richard Petty, after the race, would sit on pit wall signing autographs until everyone in the crowd was satisfied.....
...before drivers and team owners took to helicopters and jets and $1 million motorcoaches.
(Do you sometimes get the feeling that some people in this sport have just gotten too big for their britches?)
Richard Petty: remember when he'd sit on pit wall after the race until the last fans got their autographs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So let's solve some problems here...and perhaps pinpoint where the logjams really are:
Maybe the challenge facing this sport boils down to something really simple: competition. The late Bill France Jr. focused on "good competition" as the bedrock of this sport, the most important selling point. With good competition, everything else pretty much falls into place.
But this season in particularly, with so many gas mileage races and less than thrilling action, competition on too many NASCAR tracks has been less than compelling.
What's wrong here?
Are too many key people in this sport simply going through the motions, week after week after week?
Are there simply too many races? Maybe less is more.
Does the Sprint Cup tour calendar need some major revisions?
Is it time to drop the 'chase' championship format, as now counter-productive for this sport?
Is it time for NASCAR to get back to basics and limit owners to no more than two teams, to clean up this 'satellite' system of farm teams, to get more owners into the sport? With only five big owners running this sport, there is heavy incentive to keep it a closed shop, unattractive to newcomers. And that's not good for this sport, which needs more owners and more engine builders.
Why not the Daytona Twin 150s under the lights, prime time TV? But is Daytona really pulling the plug on the 150s? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One wag, when looking at the empty grandstands on too many Fridays, says the problem is easy to see: "No one's home."
Now that might be a bit harsh, and even hard-core NASCAR officials have glazed eyes at this point in the nearly endless season.
But there is the distinct sense that there's a dearth of common sense in several areas... a sense of no more fire in the bellies... a lackluster, even disinterested leadership class... a sense of too many people in this sport just going through the motions, trying to get to the end of the year.
Sometimes -- take the 2013 car marketing fiasco -- it's like no one is really in charge, or no one is paying attention. Sheet metal, sheet metal?
Maybe it is time for Jim France to hop on his motorcycle and head this way to straighten some things out....
California fans robbed by rain. NASCAR needs a new rain policy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Why is it there a sense of 'us versus them' in NASCAR marketing versus NASCAR competition?
Marketing may complain that it's hard to market this product without better competition out on the track....and yet Competition too frequently seems to be oblivious to big issues?
Like, uh, too many gas mileage races, and increasing costs, and continued hemorrhaging of sponsorships.
For example, the cost of racing is about to go up yet again with the introduction of some new $500,000 piece of laser inspection machinery, that teams are probably going to have to buy.
That piece of machinery will improve competition and put more butts in the stands and eyes on the tube just how?
And with the new chassis rules and body rules for the 2013s, how many of these hundreds of 2012 cars are within six weeks of total obsolescence?
Where is the Director of Commonsense here?
Where is the man, or woman, with a good big-picture sense of this sport?
Where is the next Jim Hunter?
Too many good sponsors have been leaving the sport....and it may be because this sport doesn't appear to provide them a good return on investment -- why?
Time to fix the Brickyard 400. Single-file racing just doesn't get it. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So let's look at a few quick and easy fixes that could help:
-- Los Angeles.
One of the most populous and diverse metropolitan areas in the world, it has been a NASCAR tour staple since 1958. It once boasted three big tour events, in late January, mid-June, and early November. RJ Reynolds marketers realized how important that market is.
However since spiffy new California Auto Club Speedway opened in 1997, at the junction of two of this country's most important Interstates, the racing has been deathly boring. Year after year after year.
That's 15 years now, and NASCAR and its sister International Speedway Corp (ISC) have steadfastly, inexplicably, refused to change up that dynamic.
And there is an easy fix: raise the banking to 18 or 20 degrees or more.
It's current 14-degree corner banking was a major design flaw, and at the 210 mph speeds racing is single-file and long strung out.
To make the point of NASCAR/ISC lethargy here even sharper, Homestead-Miami Speedway, which opened in late 1995, has been reconfigured twice. To make that point even sharper, Kansas Speedway, which opened in 2001, has just been reconfigured too. Talladega, Daytona, Darlington, Michigan, Pocono, Bristol, Phoenix, all have had major redesigns/repaves in the 15 years since California Speedway opened.
Why NASCAR/ISC have refused to give Southern California fans a better racing product simply defies logic.
The solution -- fix the track, more banking, new asphalt.
Just do it.
Jimmie Johnson: here's one NASCAR demographic (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Despite its storied history and allure, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, since NASCAR first raced there in 1994, has featured more boring racing. Single-file, strung out. At the sizzling speeds into the flat corners, drivers have fought aerodynamic issues the nearly 20 years now.
Moving the Saturday Nationwide event from the IRP short-track nearby to IMS this summer was misguided and a disaster. The race was boring; the crowd was negligible. It only accentuated the problem at that track.
Perhaps the solution here is to look to the past, to Ontario Motor Speedway, a virtual copy of IMS, which hosted NASCAR races from 1970 to 1980 (when it was sold for $3 million, for a shopping mall). Ontario races were something like this: http://bit.ly/WgTZNB When was the last time you saw stock car guys going three-wide into the first turn at Indy? They could go three-wide at Ontario because the cars were 30 mph slower, and boxier too.
The solution: fix the cars, slow them down.
It's one of this sport's most important events. So just do it.
Brad Keselowski: the future of NASCAR? Hope he doesn't get too polished (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The most boring part of the race weekend, better of two laps, no sex appeal at all, and typically no crowd to speak of, even for the Daytona 500.
Why not qualifying races, like the Daytona Twins?
Well, now word is Daytona is dropping those two Thursday 150s. Lack of sponsorship...and then Thursday afternoon isn't quite prime time TV.
But those two 45-minute shows typically feature some great action, in a tight time frame. Why NASCAR/Daytona isn't running them Thursday night under the lights, as has been suggested for years, would seem to point to a major missed opportunity for increased visibility for the sport.
And maybe Talladega should be running one of its 500s under the lights too, to liven things up.
Sometimes thinking in this sport seems too lethargic.
Grassroots, and diversity: Darrell Wallace Jr. But maybe a national powerhouse sponsor might pump up NASCAR's weekly racing series (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Half-way racing.
It's time to reconsider this 'get to half-way and we all go home.'
The California 500 back in the spring was a definitive case. Fans effective got robbed by rain.
Can't fix the weather, but the sport can make it up to the fans by give them half-price tickets to the next 500 if rain forces an early end. That's only fair, particularly in some of this sport's key, tough markets like LA.
It's not 1975 any more. Fans spend a heck of a lot of money, on more than just tickets, to attend these races.
-- Grassroots racing.
One of the great marketing moves during the RJ Reynolds era was the weekly short track program. It tied in perfectly with Sunday's big shows.
Again, it is one of the great mysteries in this sport why NASCAR and Sprint have not used that classic marketing idea.
Yes, NASCAR's K&N Series is a good one, and a lot of hard work is going into it. But the heart of the weekly racing series marketing concept is nationally recognized marketing with a nationally recognized sponsor.
The solution: NASCAR and Sprint launch a weekly racing series marketing program. Cheap and easy.
Just do it.
Maybe it's time for Bruton Smith to weigh in on how well NASCAR promoters are doing these days. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But if officials aren't even moving in those obvious directions, why expect them to fine tune other problem areas:
-- Pit road.
Drivers are becoming increasingly careless when pitting, putting crewmen in danger.
NASCAR has steadfastly refused to penalize a driver for hitting a crewman on pit road. It has numerous pit road safety rules, speed limits, and enforces drive-through penalties for violations.
But remember the reason for all those pit road safety rules -- Mike Rich. Killed on pit road at Atlanta in 1990.
Why not the logical safety rule of a penalty for hitting a crewman on pit road too?
NASCAR's response: that might prompt crewmen to jump out in front of a rival's car, to get hit and thus draw a penalty.
The solution: a pass-through penalty for hitting a crewman.
Another solution: keep pit road open the entire race, so any driver can pit at any time. 'Closing' pit road, with that traffic light, was done originally because NASCAR could lose track of scoring. That is no longer a legitimate rationale. Open pit road.
Pit road is tough and tight on the best of days....and some days are tougher than others for over-the-wall guys (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Just where was the finish line for last weekend's Talladega 500? Why are officials the only ones privy to that?
Now with embedded scoring loops, NASCAR scoring these days is usually without question. However last weekend's 500 ended in scoring chaos, with that 25-car crash, and no clearly delineated finish line scoring loop.
It took NASCAR officials an hour to sort things out, and the results are still pretty much 'just trust us.'
That chaos and those questions are not fair to the fans.
The solution: paint the scoring loops, so fans can see just what is going on.
Would you want to have to score this finish? Where is the finish line anyway? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Those are some easy problems to solve.
Here's a much tougher one:
It's not even clear what the demographic shape of this sport is today, much less what it should look like, or where the marketing attacks should be made.
Focus groups? Focus-hocus-pocus....
Fathers bringing kids to the track is a pretty simple way to handle demographics. How well is NASCAR doing at that? How successful are promoters?
Does NASCAR's current crop of promoters need to get cracking?
How about something like Free Fridays? Qualifying on Friday afternoons, Truck racing Friday night...and make it all free.
Wonder if Mad Money Jim Cramer has a buy, sell or hold on NASCAR racing? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now maybe America doesn't have the car-culture it once had.
Can Detroit and these 2013s maybe help revive that?
Or is that wishful thinking....
Does NASCAR racing face a 'cultural gap' because it is so car-centric?
Hispanics? How is that program going? Is NASCAR's diversity operation all but dead in the water because sponsorship monies have been so hard to come by for too many years now, the U.S. economy being what it is?
This sport's new 'integrated marketing' operation, with an army of specialists and technocrats, may see the big demographic battle in a different light.
How does the current crop of 18-24s really view this sport?
How do the 29-45s see all this?
Is NASCAR in danger of losing a key generation of fans?
Maybe if competition were better we wouldn't have all these questions.
They just don't make 'em like Harry Gant any more (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is it another example of marketing miscues or misdirection that NASCAR is pushing 'Breast Cancer Awareness' month with 30-year sexpot Danica Patrick? What is the demographic for that campaign anyway?
Remember when every owner and sponsor wanted 'the next Jeff Gordon?' Well, the garage appears filled with Jeff Gordons now.
So where's the next Harry Gant, the next Dale Earnhardt, the next racer that the common man can relate to?
Can that be Brad Keselowski? Or will he too become too polished?
Perhaps there is an even more basic problem here: Maybe this sport needs a working class hero.
A blue-collar guy, like Harry, Dale Sr., Neil Bonnett, Cale Yarborough...
And let's make this point: working class heroes don't have townhouses in Manhattan, working class heroes don't fly to the tracks in helicopters.
Think Neil and Dale bush-hogging the Back 40.
Think Harry roofing houses on Monday's after the race.
Jimmie Johnson could have been such a working class hero; he grew up in a rough-and-tumble area near San Diego, his mom was a school bus driver, his dad is trucker. And sponsor Lowe's, a North Wilkesboro company originally, remember, could have been perfect for some of that 'Harry Gant' marketing.
The sport opted for sophistication instead. Not necessarily a bad idea, now, but the sport needs to figure out a way to better relate to its blue-collar core.
The solution: change up some of this marketing, find some Old School racers, stop trying to polish everything up to such a sheen.
But then sometimes it's not even clear if anyone really cares.
"And then I decided to go low and block Michael, and the next thing I knew...." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)