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NASCAR's TV ratings from Saturday night's Charlotte 500 follow the pattern: Down

  Maybe we're looking at this all wrong: maybe Jimmie Johnson, as possibly the best driver ever in NASCAR history, should be drawing big TV crowds to see if he can indeed win that fourth title...(Photo: HHR for Lowe's Motor Speedway)

   By Mike Mulhern
   Tiger Woods may make for great PGA TV, and maybe tennis star Roger Federer too. But NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson – not to blame it all on him, but to consider a point – doesn't seem to have the same magic appeal to a television audience, it would appear.
   Or at least there's something going on here with NASCAR's long-running television slump.
   Bad races?
   Boring races?
   Boring tracks?
   Less than exciting venues in the chase?
   Too much same old same old?
   Too much follow-the-leader?
   Too many Jimmie Johnson wins?
   Is Johnson's charge toward that fourth straight NASCAR championship hurting NASCAR on the TV front?
   Of course there is more to the game than just that, but Johnson's third win in the season's fifth championship chase race didn't seem to do much to change the dynamic of NASCAR's continuing TV slump.
   ABC announced Tuesday that Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway was down significantly from last fall's event at that track. This year's Charlotte 500 pulled a final national household rating of 3.5, which the network said meant an average of 5,484,745 viewers. The rating for the 2008 Charlotte event was 3.8 (when it was run a week earlier than this year); in 2007 Charlotte's fall race pulled a 4.2.
    This year's Charlotte event followed a 3.6 for the California 500.
   This fall's first three chase events drew a 3.2 at Loudon N.H. (down from 2008's 3.8 rating); a 3.1 at Dover, Del., (down from last year's 3.3); and a 3.2 at Kansas City (down from last year's 3.5)


  Not even sure if Dale Earnhardt Jr. could help pump up TV ratings...and he's not even close to getting back in the game (Photo: HHR for Lowe's Motor Speedway)


While NASCAR promoters are pulling out all the stops to get fans in the stands (and they're already selling tickets to next season's events, to gauge the depth of the problems), what are NASCAR executives doing on their end to help pump up TV?
   Or maybe there are just no worries in Daytona.
   More perspective on NASCAR-on-TV:  The 2008 California 500 on Labor Day weekend pulled a 3.9; the 2007 race at that track that weekend pulled a 4.3. This year the tour's Labor Day weekend race was at Atlanta Motor Speedway and it pulled a 4.1.
    When Johnson was asked bluntly if TV ratings might be off because he's 'stinking up the show,' he was defensive:
  "Man, I'm just out there doing my thing," Johnson said. "I don't think we've been stinking up the show.  Tony (Stewart) had a great start….
   "I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it.  Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger win.  Everybody tunes in to watch Federer (the world's top-ranked tennis player) do his thing on certain courts. I'm just doing my thing. 
    "I think there are a lot of fans excited to see what this car is doing…and a lot of people are happy, and rooting for us to win a fourth (championship).  The rest of them, oh, well…."
   And Johnson points out the 10-race playoffs are only half over, with Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to be run.


   Stock car racing promoters are pulling out all the stops to attract fans, and Jeff Gordon's daughter Ella certainly seems intrigued here...but what's the reason NASCAR's TV ratings keep falling? (Photo: HHR for Lowe's Motor Speedway)


    Despite that, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have been simply awesome – there is really no other word for it – in the playoffs over their career. 
   Still Johnson warns that Talladega is a wild card: "That's the track that you don't have any control at. 
    "We're only halfway through this thing; so much can happen. 
    "Somebody at Martinsville can lose their brakes and clean you out. 
    "With the double-file restart there's going to be a lot of bumping and banging.  And someone can get into you and knock a valve stem out or cut a tire. 
    "I mean it's a nice points lead, but there's no need for anybody to get too excited yet."
    Well, 90 points isn't really that much….but when you've got to try to pick up 90 points on Johnson and Knaus, better pack your lunch and hope they have some bad luck, which isn't likely.
   "We've got good tracks ahead for us, so we're excited and optimistic," Johnson concedes. "But at the same time there's a lot of danger out there, and we've just got to be smart. 
   "I'm not trying to downplay where we're at.  I'm very, very, very happy where we're at. 
   "But there's five races left. That's a lot of racing left. 
    "Not to sound like a broken record, but you just don't know what's going to happen.
    "I feel very good about racing for the championship.  If we don't have any problems, I feel we've got a very good chance to win.
    "But the unknowns we can't control. 
    "And we don't want to get ourselves too emotionally wrapped up in this thing and then have something slap us in the face and take us out.
    "So we're just trying to keep our guard up."

  Maybe we should be asking Bruton Smith (L) his ideas on the TV situation? (Photo: HHR for Lowe's Motor Speedway)

   And perhaps part of the TV picture is the car-of-tomorrow. Is it just coincidence that the new car came out just about the time NASCAR's TV ratings started to plunge?
   A big reason for the new car, of course, is safety, and it's proven well in that regard.
   However other reasons for NASCAR to order the switch to the new car: it supposedly would be cheaper, and it supposedly would entice more new car owners into the game, and it would supposedly help equalize the competition, and it would supposedly let teams have smaller 'fleets' because they could use the same car at different tracks.
   On all those points, the car-of-tomorrow has been a decided failure.
   And NASCAR's testing ban this year has all-but locked in the advantage the multi-car teams have over the smaller teams.
   Teams, with the old standard car, typically had fleets of 16 to 18 cars each season. Knaus says he and Johnson this fall "have got it right at 14 cars."
   Well, 13 for a while following Saturday's win because NASCAR takes the winning car, and a few others, back to its Concord R&D shop for further examination. "We don't get them back until late Tuesday, so we've planned in accordance for that," Knaus says.
    "We've got our fleet of cars:
    "-- We came into the chase with three or four relatively new intermediate-track cars, that we had raced one or two times in the season to kind of get the bugs worked out of them.  
    "-- Our short track cars have been solid the last couple of years; we've got two of those cars sitting there, so if something were to happen and NASCAR takes one, and they have it until Wednesday, and we had to go somewhere else, we've got the fleet that we need."
   The real reason for so many cars in the fleet is because NASCAR's torturous tour – Loudon, N.H., one weekend, then Dover, Del., then Kansas City, then Los Angeles, then Charlotte…..now Martinsville, Va., Talladega, Ala., Fort Worth, Tex., Phoenix, and Homestead-Miami.
   That's hard enough on the truckers (even though they can now make it from Fontana back to their Charlotte base now in 36 hours straight, some stretches out west at 80 mph), but think of the crews who have to load the cars each week, unload them, rebuild them or tweak them, and then load them again.
  Car owner Rick Hendrick: "You just can't control wrecks and losing a car…and a couple of bad wrecks back-to-back. 
   "They've done a good job making the car safe. The teams have done a good job of making the cars competitive (well, that's debatable, since Hendrick's teams have dominated the entire season).
   "But if you've got to run this many races (38 each season)….
   "Now the theory that -- and I think they've talked about it in the Nationwide series -- you can do it with (just) four cars (and put serial numbers on them, so teams can't fudge)….there's no way you can run that many races with four cars.
   "You can't run every week, and have back-to-back wrecks, and then get your guys to have a car turned around and ready to go cross country the next week.
    "So part of it is a product of racing as many weekends as we race….and again these double-file restarts (since June) --  I've never had a car torn up as bad on a road course as we did out in California (in late June). We had to cut almost the body off Mark Martin's car to get it in the trailer (to haul it home).
   "There's some aggressive racing out there. 
    "So the answer to the question is we need them (that many cars in the fleet) just so we don't kill our people."


 And Jimmie Johnson probably isn't finished winning this season either (Photo: HHR for Lowe's Motor Speedway)

All the "NEW" fans that

All the "NEW" fans that followed the sport that provided the surge in growth have lost interest and moved on. Many of those fans followed because it was COOL to be a NASCAR fan. After a couple of years of watching 5 hour race days for 9 months who can blame them for losing interest. Shorter races and using current technology is the only thing that will keep the casual fan excited. Us old timers aren't gonna live forever.

Shorter races never work, and

Shorter races never work, and technology in racing is overrated. It's a simple deal - Shameless plug warning - noted by yours truly on this link here - lack of winners and lack of lead changes is why the ratings are plummeting.

I disagree and I

I disagree and I agree.
Shorter races will work. The American TV-watching public does not have the attention span to watch more than 3 hours of anything, no matter how exciting it is. The NFL learned this a few years ago. NASCAR needs to do the same. Shorter races lead to more intense racing and less "riding around" saving equipment. They would also have the side-effect of making the races slightly cheaper to run: less tires, fuel and wear-and-tear on equipment. Unfortunately, somehow we got the idea that every race has to be a "500" (miles, laps, kilometers?). Isn't it great to see the caution at the end to give us a 25-lap shootout? Trim the races down to increase the intensity of the racing and match the attention span of Mr. and Mrs. America.
I agree that the lack of winners and lead changes is hurting NASCAR. This is one of the main reasons people tuned out. Fans get tired of dominance. Whether it's the 49ers of the 80s or Yankees of the late 90s we get tired of watching the same old team win. If there is little suspense in the outcome, there is no drama. American's want drama. When the NFL introduced "parity", ratings went way up. On any given Sunday, a team like the Raiders has a reasonable shot at beating a team like the Eagles. That's a lot easier to do in a franchised league than in NASCAR. In a franchised league you implement revenue sharing and a collective bargaining agreement. Everyone has the same resources and access to the same people. I don't know how to solve this in NASCAR where one of the greatest attributes is the independence of the teams and the potential for new teams to enter (e.g. Red Bull and MWR). Of course this puts big pressure on teams to spend big money to thrive (e.g. Roush and Hendrick) while other established teams struggle to keep the doors open (e.g. Wood Bros. and Petty).
What would help make NASCAR "cool" again is getting the cars and drivers back to the cars and drivers we could all relate to: when Petty's Dodge looked like the ones in our driveways and you could see Dave Marcis bending an elbow at the corner tap (or Trickle smoking during cautions). Now the cars look like ... well, they look like crap and we can't tell one from another. Drivers look like astronauts (wearing huge helmets with hoses and wires coming out of them). They leave NYC in their own jets, land on the infield in helicopters and stay at the track in million-dollar buses. Let's get back to the good ol' days when the cars on the track looked like the cars in the parking lot and the drivers looked like the guys in the stands.

Right on, bro.....let's get

Right on, bro.....let's get these stock cars back to looking like something other than iroc cars with weird wings on the rear and whatever that thing is on the nose that looks so silly. Detroit, though, is guilty too -- common template cars makes it easier on them to pass the buck. the hell with that. ford has the right idea with the mustang; chevy will get on board too if nascar execs would get off their high horse and throw away about 50 percent of these templates. and i still laugh when i remember asking drivers back in january about their cost-cutting plans in this grim economy, about dropping those jets and flying commercial like the rest of us peons. if nascar officials and drivers had to stand in line with the fans at TSA airport checkpoints and endure all the hassles of travel that real fans have to put up with, they might sing a different tune. too many are prima donnas. and cancel those helicopter flights too. tell 'em to drive in traffic like the rest of us. i remember when drivers really did have to drive to the race track each day....gee, no wonder fans gets turned off.

It's interesting that you

It's interesting that you brought up the drivers' reactions to your questions about cost-cutting measures. On the LTN Hour last week (Oct. 17), Ed Cluka said that drivers' salaries are going to be cut significantly and soon. Maybe that will bring some of these guys back down to Earth (Get it? Jets, helicopters? Down to Earth? HA!). Anyway ... Ed specifically mentioned that this might push J. Gordon over the edge and into retirement. If that develops as a trend, it would be nice to see some young, hungry, aggressive drivers get their shots.
Have you heard anything about cuts in drivers' salaries coming?

Nope, I haven't heard

Nope, I haven't heard anything about cutting drivers' salaries. They're usually set in contract, with performance clauses, and bonuses and such, so I'm not sure it would be easy to 'cut.' But crewmen have been getting 10 percent cuts, or more. And there are a heck of a lot of veteran NASCAR crewmen still looking for work, after being laid off at the end of 2008. I get job requests/questions nearly every day in the garage, and that may get worse.
But then part of a driver's deal is typically souvenir sales, and with the one mega-souvenir company losing money (what, can't sell many of those $2 made-in-Taiwan die-casts for $80 anymore?), a big part of a driver's salary may be cut back already.
No helicopters, no motorcoaches; drivers have to stay in regular hotels, drive in traffic to the track like the rest of us fans, and fly commercial (they're going to love the TSA guys, aren't they). No more prima donna treatment. I remember when Richard Petty used to have to drive his own truck to and from the track each week. And Richard Childress too.

Interest in racing goes in

Interest in racing goes in cycles, like in other sports. Basketball was big for a long time and is fading dramatically. Baseball destroyed TV ratings and fan interest for years with its strike/lockout and is just now returning as something to talk about. Hockey tried to be a national sports during the Gretzky years but it didn't work out. Tennis is a TV disaster now and F1 just a blip on the TV radar. The NFL alone is the giant. The point is that NASCAR is in a declining cycle and should be marketing to retain what is has instead of thinking that a return to the glory days will happen soon. And if Nascar isn't careful, the current self-perpetuating drop in attendance and TV ratings will get worse, and quickly. The long and boring races don't help. Neither does one team dominance. Jr is an enigma. The disappearance of sponsors is a core problem. Attendance is sliding. Nascar should put in innovative short term fixes and develop a longer term strategic plan to turn the corner before the current TV deal runs out. Some short term fixes would be bringing in Danica, making the cars more competitive with more downforce instead of just talking about it, introducing a half time show (during which the cars could be repaired/changed to improve racing in the second half), and emphasizing the drivers with personality (Kyle Bush, Dale, Mr. Backflip) instead of turning them all into Mr. Bland.

Yes, you're right, on all

Yes, you're right, on all those counts (when MM.net gets bigger, I'm looking to hire you as analyst) I like the halftime concept. change shocks, springs, rear ends....NASCAR execs look like deer in the headlights. Don't just stand there, do something. What's the corollary to 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.....'

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