Big Bill France Sr., George Bush, and Bill France Jr. -- But time marches on.... (Photo: Daytona International Speedway)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
So what's happened in the sport of stock car racing the past few weeks?
Uh, well, er, to be honest, not much at all.
If you went to Bolivia right after the Charlotte 600 and just arrived back here, rest assured you didn't miss much.
Work at the sock factory has been pretty slow and boring.
Truthfully, that's been the story in this sport for some two years now.
Most drivers spend most of each race trying hard not to make mistakes, some trying to get in position for an end-game charge, some just trying to race for points to make the playoffs.
Except for some snookering moves on restarts, there really hasn't been much to watch.
TV's generally disappointing production work, plus tons of commercials, too many so frequently grossly ill-timed, makes it all even more difficult for fans to stay engaged. If it weren't for Kyle Petty's rebel-rousing, there wouldn't be much to talk about.
No wonder track promoters are using words like "flat" to describe the economics at play here.
The TV ratings needle over the first half of the season hasn't moved from a year ago, despite all the hoopla and heavy-handed marketing about these new 2013 stock cars.
Attendance is not growing, some key tracks are reporting fewer fans than a year ago, and track promoters are tearing down seats by the thousands.
The entire Daytona backstretch – the 'SuperStretch' – is going. Frontstretch seats will be widened. The upshot of all this is that this track, one of this sport's anchors, is being cut from 168,000 seats to 101,000 seats.
Finding sponsorship, for tracks and the radio networks as well as race teams, is still very difficult.
The U.S. economy may be turning around, but in too many NASCAR markets there hasn't been that much trickle-down.
Ironically, U.S. car sales are the strongest in six years, on target to hit 16 million in annual sales.
But how does that relate to NASCAR racing?
A big issue, for NASCAR and Detroit, is that many of today's Gen Ys simply don't care that much about cars in general, as these articles discuss: here and here
Kyle Petty, one of the few men in this sport still fearless enough to tell it like it is (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The backdrop for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 is the France family's plan for a $400 million makeover of Daytona International Speedway over the next few years.
…and what looks like the start of a new mid-summer NASCAR marketing game, to push this sport back into the national spotlight.
It's the Fifth of July, and USAToday's Nate Ryan makes a great point here, that this sport is wandering aimlessly through the American sportscape.
Ryan points out, with devastating accuracy, "an indictment of the recent lack of compelling story lines in NASCAR's premier series, which should own the headlines during the lull between the end of the NHL and NBA playoffs and the start of football season.
"…instead of staying front and center during the dog days of summer, NASCAR seems caught weekly in a social media-driven echo chamber of vacuous analysis and outrage over recycled quotes."
The current furor over the grossly over-hyped Danica Patrick is evidence. She is a cute marketing machine, yes; nothing wrong with that. But she hasn't done much real racing at all. She was on the Daytona 500 pole, led five laps, and finished eighth, and that's about all she's done this year. She's a 25th place driver, on average.
But she's 'demographics.' Maybe for that 18-29 male demo...a segment of the population that is rather less interested in NASCAR racing than the general population.
However 'demographics' is mostly just a game, played to woo potential sponsors, for the sport and for TV.
If Patrick were somehow to win Saturday night's 400 here, how would it change things, really?
What's happened to this once great, rough-house sport? Remember those heady days not so long ago…..
For one, Brad Keselowski, that fresh, brash talent this sport dearly needs, has been defanged by NASCAR, just as Kyle Busch was defanged.
Two men who should be in the forefront of this sport's push to expand to new, younger fans.
Brad Keselowski: defanged (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR racing has two audiences: the classic audience of real hard-core, long-term race fans, and an audience of relatively new fans.
The new fans are more fickle, less dedicated.
And the classic audience, in significant part, has been ticked off the past few years by some of the sport's uncomfortable changes….and the new regime's gruff, in-your-face ambitions.
Ticking off your core fan-base simply isn't smart for business.
So is the NASCAR glass half full or half empty? Are things getting better, or just hanging on?
Is the sport of NASCAR racing fading, or faded?
Has this sport lost its golden touch? Has it become too polished, too predictable, too autocratic?
Certainly it's become too boring.
What the heck went wrong at Sonoma? The 'new' Martinsville was decidedly disappointing two weeks ago.
Certainly this 400 shouldn't disappoint…especially if it comes down to another green-white-checkered.
But to be honest, the Indianapolis 500 six weeks ago, that sizzler of a race, may have marked a turning point in American motorsports. NASCAR's Brickyard 400 two weeks from now is not expected to be anywhere close to that exciting.
Kyle Busch, defanged (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Pondering NASCAR racing, there are several things at play here.
One, NASCAR's marketers are hot and heavy with promotions. This sport has a veritable army of marketing people, working feverishly, doing great things, on many fronts.
The problem: Where's the beef?
Can't sell the sizzle without the steak.
Billy France Jr., whose savvy is sorely missed these days, had a clear game plan: if the action on the track is good, and hot, then everything else will usually fall right into place.
The current regime seems to be missing that key point. Instead, the game plan is 'keep talking a good game, keep insisting everything is great and getting better,' and woe be to anyone daring to say all is not that well.
Brian France's $25,000 fine on Denny Hamlin back in March, and that 'Shut up and drive' dinner command in February for this sport's champion Brad Keselowski, may be the two most misguided moves by the NASCAR command in several years…or at least since that misguided decision to suspend Kyle Busch at Texas.
The 'near-death' penalty, since overturned, on Matt Kenseth for that Kansas engine was another imprudent decision.
And NASCAR's Texas controversy, on the eve of Keselowski's trip to the White House, for what should have been a major marketing plus, was yet another decision that is rightly questioned as ill-timed.
The Sprint Cup action on the track, for far too long, has been downright boring most weekends. Truck racing and Nationwide racing, on the other hand, usually dazzles. What are we missing here?
And the Cup races are way too long. Three-hour races, with little hard-nosed action, until the final minutes, just don't cut it with today's audiences.
NASCAR either needs to figure out how to liven things up, or cut the shows.
Maybe the season itself is too long. Valentine's Day till Thanksgiving?
Maybe some race weekends are too long. Maybe some one-day/in-and-out events could be added to the tour.
It may be time for this sport's bosses to get more innovative, do more thinking out of the box.
Danica Patrick: pretty, fast... but can she really race? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
A big problem of course is the enormous expense of fielding a competitive team. Without lavish Detroit support, a team owner simply has no way to be competitive. Just ask James Finch.
Is Detroit part of the solution, or just part of the problem?
Why the oligarchies?
Is that really good for the sport?
Are all these drivers really worth $7.5 million a year, on the average, as one report estimates? (Forbes has estimated Danica Patrick's earnings at $12 million a year.)
Too, NASCAR's efforts at cost-cutting have been far too anemic.
Hey, how about chopping maybe $100,000 or so out of these exorbitant team budgets by eliminating all these specialized pit crews? Bill France Jr. himself considered that once. And it may be more economically timely today.
For all the talk about Fortune 500 companies marketing through this sport, stock car teams have essentially priced themselves out of too many sponsorship opportunities.
And why does there appear to be such a disconnect between the companies that advertise on NASCAR TV and the companies that advertise on quarterpanels? When you watch this 400, check out the TV commercials.
It's time for Bruton Smith to step up to the plate (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Another issue: The third-generation racing France seems determined to prove he can flex the muscles…unfortunately not very deftly at times. He certainly doesn't have the savoir-faire of his father. And he appears surrounded by too many yes-men, unable or unwilling to offer that dash of common sense so needed at times. (How in the world did the Hamlin fine get okayed?)
Even in late May the NASCAR CEO was unapologetically insisting, even brittlely perhaps, that other drivers supported his fine on Hamlin. Few if any in this sport bought that line.
That 'state of the sport' press conference at Charlotte was otherwise forgettable, as too many of those recent meet-the-press events have been. France may be effective when negotiating tough deals, but as the sport's 'leader' he is not always that inspiring.
However he's not alone in providing less than thrilling 'cheerleading' for the troops and fans. Even fiery Bruton Smith has been unusually subdued this season.
At this midpoint of the season, France and Smith both need to step to the plate and try to end this malaise.
France needs to let drivers and owners off the leash, let them speak their peace, in the grand American way.
And Smith needs to step into the bully pulpit and fire up.
Drivers, and even car owners too, have been so intimidated by NASCAR's hard arm-twisting that they even snicker about it, when asked by the media – or what's left of the depleted media corps -- to comment on any controversial topics.
Don't expect TV guys or TV-backed bloggers to stand up and challenge things. NASCAR's many TV heads are also making a lot of money and don't care to rock the boat either.
That is a very sad state of affairs.
It's a far cry from the days when Bill France Jr. and Dale Earnhardt could jaw over substantive topics and figure out a way to make the sport better.
Drivers today are either too rich to risk rocking the boat, or too scared.
And this sport is suffering from it.
The sad thing is so few seem to care.
This sport may need some changes if it is to regain the initiative on the American sportscape.
Denny Hamlin: NASCAR's $25,000 fine was misguided (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)