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Trickle-down economics, NASCAR, and American car culture...

Trickle-down economics, NASCAR, and American car culture...

Big Bill France Sr., George Bush, and Bill France Jr. -- But time marches on.... (Photo: Daytona International Speedway)


   By Mike Mulhern

   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.

   NASCAR Buzz?
   No buzz.
   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?
   Team Ford?
   Team Chevy?
   Team Toyota?
   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)


NASCAR is funcitoning like every major

NASCAR is funcitoning like every major corporation in America right now, and they are geared towards safe advertisements and spokespeople. NASCAR sold its soul the day Richard Petty brought on STP as a sponsor and turned the sport into a marketing device, because that is how NASCAR teams are promoted. Robby Gordon has driven this into my head.

That's why sponsorship dried up when Motorola was booted by Verizon using the Viceroy Rule. Why invest? Some honcho is going to be pissed if a competitor comes on board that's the "enemy". Sure there's Miller and Bud, Coke and Pepsi. But those companies collude against other manufacturers.

You'll never see Microsoft running a car because Google is a bigger part of NASCAR (Google owns the GoDaddy brand). Apple will never show. Of course there was the telecomm mess. So brands that might interest the Gen Xers aren't onboard.

Gen X does like racing but its the "X Game" type of racing with Drift cars and Off-road. NASCAR is a few years away from capturing the attention of Gen X. Some kind of deal needs to be brokered between all these competing interests and neither the Smiths nor the Frances have anyone capable to cut these kinds of deals.

It seems that Nascar's only concern is making

It seems that Nascar's only concern is making sure their coffers are filled, even if they kill off the sport. The so called 'brilliant' move of creating the "chase' has basically made 2/3 of the season mostly irrelevant. It even made the Bristol night race a polite 'After you, Alfonse' affair. Most of Nascar's 'innovations' have priced racing beyond ridiculous, making teams and drivers kowtow to the corporate sponsors. As a result, everyone is concerned with image rather than racing. I don't care how many plush 'fan zones' or 'neighborhoods' they build, if the racing on track isn't exciting, no one is going to bother to come. Bristol didn't sell out for 25 years because they had pricy restaurants or windows to look through at the drivers. Or a casino. Bristol sold out because fans could count on lots of action on the track. THAT'S what puts butts in the seats. Brian France seem intent on proving that he can bury the golden goose.

State of NASCAR

Excellent article Mike. One of the most honest I've read in sometime.
What Brian has done to this sport is unreal.
People in general know that businesses are to make money and have no problem with it, until money becomes the dominate force, then they rebel.
Brian seems oblivious to what is going on. How many times have we heard that he is happy where the sport is. Even as attendance and tv ratings were plummeting.

Automobile racing as a whole has gotten out of hand cost-wise. Even on the local level. In the top level dirt late model, sprint car and dirt modifieds it's taking $50,000.00 to buy a competitive engine to win $2,000.00 in a feature race. NASCAR tops the list in this dept. They have disposable engines and cars. Wreck one, build another, no problem. Do you think owners would have stood for the G-W-C 30 years go if they were totaling cars at the end of a race the way they do now? I seriously doubt it.

I could go on and on about this, but NASCAR officials have their heads in the sand and obviously do not read what race fans all over are writing and saying. They say they listen to the fans but it's just lip service.

Everyone is talking and writing about the Cup Series problems. Everyone is avoiding the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. The attendance at these two series borders on pathetic.

One last point I wish someone would write about is the fact that all of these young drivers that sponsors evidently want in the cars bring no fans to the sport. An example was Ricky Carmichael. The motocross crowd did not follow him to NASCAR. This is what happened to Indy Car racing. The foreign drivers bring no American fans with them. Just like Montoya brought very few fans with him to NASCAR. Of course open wheel didn't have that many to bring anyway.

Fans want Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson type "balls to the wall" racing, not fuel strategy. Today only The Busch Boys, Kasey Kahne, Keselowski are hard chargers. Fans don't want to hear Tony Stewart and others say it's too early too race hard. For me to spend tons of money to travel to Daytona, or Talladega, and watch my favorite driver drop to the back of the field and wait until the end of the race to make his move just doesn't get it.

State of NASCAR

For a few hours every weekend, I am in heaven. I'm watching my favorite driver move from the top fifteen or so cars and work towards the front. He gets close but runs out of car and/or luck. Could things be better?
Why do I have to see the same commercials over and over? Why are there so many in a row during the live portion of the race? I watch football and they don't play without the cameras turned on. In NASCAR, all the best moves happen during the commercials.
I know who pays the bills, but geeze. Is pay per view an answer? Maybe for the big races? I would pay.

I enjoy going to the races. I used to go with my wife, but she would rather be home in air conditioning watching Tom Selleck than racing. For me, my scanner is ready to go with a few fresh batteries, but the economy has something different to say. That will change. I worry what will happen in Daytona when everybody returns and there aren't enough seats.

So, what's going on with the politics of NASCAR? I would say things are just fine. My favorite driver comes close but not close enough. I keep watching and cheering and coming back. When I can pay my bills and there is something left over I plan on visiting my local tracks again, but for now, I get to deal with another group of commercials.




Mike, I pretty much agree with everything you said.
There are several things that I think have really hurt Nascar.
One is Toyota. Oh, I know a lot of people buy them but still a lot of core fans still are Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Etc. and Toyota is still a Japanese Company. And, like Jack Roush said, Toyota would drive the cost of racing up because they wouldn't get in it not to win.
And, if you look at what's going on, that's pretty much true. Now, they seem to be pretty dominant. Toyota has made Kenseth look like some super star driver all of a sudden.
Now, we know why Kyle started winning after going to Gibbs/Toyotas.
Next is the chase. Us true fans know you can't have playoffs like Baseball, football, etc. Racing is completely different.
A Champion in Nascar ought to based on the whole season, not just the last ten races, where a great driver can get in wrecks not of his choosing or blow an engine and he's out of the championship picture.
Sure, these things can happen during the season, but when you have thirty-something races, sometimes you can overcome these situations.
Next is the racing. Heck, they even talk about it on tv now. The drivers even say it. They just hang around till the final laps, depending on the track, before they actually race.
Another thing, cup drivers shouldn't be in the Nationwide or Truck Races. Nascar is letting Kyle Busch pad his record by winning all these Nationwide and sometimes truck races while having the best equipment, crews, etc.
Why would anyone want to watch Kyle win another Nationwide Race week-in and week-out, seems like? Oh, and wasn't that Nationwide Race last night at Daytona boring? You have to have two cars together to run and there is no way you can call that racing. These cars need to be able to pass on their on without any push from another car.
And I don't agree much with Kyle Petty but he was right on with Danica. And most drivers and crews and even Ole Darrell and the other announcers know it's true. Even Danica's boyfriend, who probably doesn't have as good equipment as Danica, is running better than her, and is 20th in points while she is 27th.
Oh, she might win a race or two eventually, but I just don't see her ever being in contention and running competitive week-in and week-out.
Anyway, that's my two cents worth!


Many great points in this article. I'm in the die hard category, or at least use to be.
As a life long resident of North Carolina I have seen the sport grow from its outlaw days to the mega billion dollar business it is today.
But somewhere along the way NASCAR lost its way. The sport just isn't that much fun anymore.
And while I use to be a season ticket holder at Martinsville and attended many races in Charlotte and Rockingham as well, can't say that I've been to the track in 6 or 7 years.
In chasing big dollars NASCAR lost touch with the dedicated hard core fans that have a real appreciation for the roots of the sport.
Whether it was running moonshine with no lights on in the backroads of NC, or dirt track racing on Saturday night at mom and pop tracks, that is where the sport started.
Now it is mega glitz, with little substance.
Personalities have become muted by a image conscious NASCAR.
While I support rules changes that have made the sport safer, some have taken the excitement out of the sport.
The tracks are "cookie cutter" with no real personality, and many are located in areas non-traditional to the sport.
I passed by the North Wilkesboro Speedway recently, and it was so sad to think of the track sitting there, overgrown with weeds. There were so many exciting races there with Richard, Dale and DW battling it out. Now it is just the sound of silence, sitting there as a monument to a time when the sport was fun, interesting and genuine. Now, not so much.

There has been a cloud lowering itself over a lot

There has been a cloud lowering itself over a lot of the country. Basically you have to go along now, just get along. People that upset apple carts very rarely succeed. Big egos seldom make big front page news. The need for front page news is seldom based on the news. Economics of the news generally decide the news. Old Mr. H. L. Mencken has probably turned over so many times in his grave his bones are worn out and in disarray.

Times change. Time moves forward in a linear motion, always had but only lately at the speed of light. A speed that exceeds my digestion rate and only several very large beers can slow it down. History repeats itself so I'm told, but we never seem to live it with the same gusto again.

Gusto, now there is something I remember.

So, I will now resign my self to trying to accept the things I can not understand and when it all gets to be too much to comprehend there is always the crickets that live under the back porch and one more cold one.


I wish you could hear my group of long-time fans applauding this column. I hope copies are sent to the entire "braintrust" (using the term loosely) of NASCAR along with every team. Great job!!

Nascar Racing and pitting

Take the racing out of the pits and leave it out on the track. Let em enter pit row as they finished their last lap. Put on tires, gas and new tear-offs. Come out of the pits as they were in the last lap no speeding fines, no accidents on pit row from rushing or missing a lug nut. Just let em race on the track and see who really has the fastest car not the best pit crew or spotter. They all get as much time to fuel, and change tires that they need. Nothing comes from Detroit anymore. That's what is really wrong with this new Nascar crap. The yuppies and their leader Brian France have ruined Nascar as we once knew it.

Long gone

Spot on great article Mike!
But come on guys. Long gone are the days when Corporate America will tolerate anything but vanilla ice cream. An example is Paula Deen.
Think about it! The major car owners are all aging out. All of them. They will tell you they have plans for succession but I don't know.
Junior Johnson, Robert Yates, Waddell Wilson, M C Anderson, to name a few could not thrive in todays Nascar world

Several articles have come out in the past few

Several articles have come out in the past few days regarding the state of young adults in the economy. Many young couples are putting off having children because of the amount of debt they are under. NASCAR is also eliminating the cheap seats in the backfield (which I myself usually sit so I can watch the chaos of the third and fourth turns). So NASCAR in it efforts to wrangle more money out of seating is going to make it harder for those on a budget to come to the shows.

What happens as big team owners retire?

A major issue in NASCAR is the future of the many top race teams with elderly or aging owners. Jack Roush now is discussing his transition to retirement. Richard Childress is likely only continuing in the sport to ensure that his grandsons have the best chance for success in their Sprint Cup careers. Joe Gibbs is 72 years old and must be grooming successors but history has shown us that teams often do not survive the retirement of the founder. Hendrick Motorsports remains a powerhouse but excellence requires competition and some other team must be considering a preemptive strike by signing Johnson for 2016. Mike Waltrip\'s operation may be the next dominant major team but Waltrip has to bring in top drivers with proven winning records (Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards) in addition to Clint Bowyer to reach the next step. Thanks for a great analysis, as usual, Mulhern!

nascar pimps

do you think any of the wuss's over at nascar.com would have written this article.All they know is danica this and danica that or what the hell jr ate for breakfast. I would love to see Mike writing articles for them; then it would actually make that site good again.

First off everyone but nascar hates that friggin chase format.This is racing not a stick and ball sport.If I wanted to see a playoff format I'd being watching something else besides racing.

Why does nascar feel they need to tell teams what springs/gears/spoiler angles/cambers/etc to run?They have turned the sport into a monkey see monkey do series with no room for innovation

Lord help us if one of the drivers say the wrong thing.Brad and Denny get socked for stating a opinion but stewart can cuss and rant all he wants to .

Nascar has way too much; double jeopardy. Not everyone is a jr fan or thinks he is the next coming.Why was bill elliott so popular?Because he wasn't Dale Earnhardt.He won races on ability and didn't feel the need to wreck someone to win.He was a ford driver taking on and beating the nascar gm teams.

To be perfectly honest Jr hasn't been a threat or a real major player in almost 9 yrs, yet every nascar.com article is seemingly about him or danica.WHY ?

Besides being semi-attractive, why all the hoopla about danica? She has the worst losing streak of any racer I can think of. Why is she even relevant. Thank God Kyle Petty is still in the sport to call it the way he sees it. You can agree or not, but at least he is truthful in what he thinks is right.In saying that get dw\'s kissing toyota, biased carcass off the tube. He has over-stayed his anchor job by a long shot. He went from being a rebel to a nascar yes-man, along with hammond, who has to be the worst tv reporter ever.

Slow the cars down. The faster they go, the less racing there is going to be. It's not hard to figure out nascar.

If nascar were serious about major reworking of daytona, why not move the grandstands back. Have two fences between the fans and the cars. If not that, why not move the front stretch in toward pit rd by half the distance it is now and pit rd on back the same distance. or is that too easy!

lastly, nascar is a southern sport, plain and simple. The new cookie-cutter charlotte copy-cat tracks are boring. Bristol did not need fixing; it was great the way it was. Where is martinsville's duck pond? why is north wilkesboro gone and places like vegas here? Who in their right mind thought getting rid of darlington's race was a great idea. Why 2 pocono races, or even one for that matter. It's the worst track on the circuit. What happened to the 4-team nascar limit, when hendrick basically has the 48 24 5 and 88 and, if you have a brain, the 39 10 and 14 are basically hms cars.

nascar's need to police everything has only one problem.They don't have a leader to police them!

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Paul Watson's Epistle

Paul Watson, you ask numerous questions here. Some responses -

1 - "Why was Bill Elliott so popular? Because he wasn't Dale Earnhardt." That's true, but he was closer to Dale Junior than people seem to realize - Elliott was good, but he benefited enormously from Ford's mid-80s escalation of the technology arms race; his 1985 blitzkrieg we now know from ex-Ford engineer Louis Duncan (who later worked for DEI when Dale Junior had his only run of sustained success) came with what amounted to a 7/8-scale racecar; once the rest of the field figured out what he was doing his muscle dropped precipitously.

2 - "Why not move the grandstands (at Daytona) back?" Because their location is not the problem; you had just gotten through advocating slowing the cars down.

3 - "The new Charlotte copycat tracks are boring." Compared to what? You go off on Bristol; while surprisingly better now than it was for most of the first two decades it has been concrete, it's merely back to what it was 1989-91 - a track where they wreck a lot of cars and some of the racing is good, by no means a showcase for the sport.

"Why is North Wilkesboro gone and places like Vegas here?" Because North Wilkesboro ultimately is a lost cause - it can never be a major league facility because the audience for it just isn't that strong. Vegas may not be a good racing demographic but it's better than what Wilkesboro now is.

"Who thought getting rid of Darlington's race was a great idea?" The reality of a shrinking market in that area - Darlington hasn't been able to justify having two races anymore.

"Why two Pocono races or even one? It's the worst track on the circuit." Exactly the opposite - third all-time in per-race average number of lead changes, Pocono usually is a better race than over half the schedule, plus it is a strong racing demographic. The worst track on the circuit is Darlington - a hideously outdated bowl they can't race on. Bristol is second, the road courses third as worst track on the tour.

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