Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Where's the Knight in Shining Armor?

  Denny Hamlin: Tough Talladega....better Texas? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FORT WORTH, Texas

   Can Krista Voda save NASCAR?
   Can Eddie Gossage save NASCAR?
   Can Bruton Smith save NASCAR?
   Despite a red-hot championship race, with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick chasing Jimmie Johnson and only three races to go, and despite a dazzling Talladega 500,

with a near-record 87 official lead changes, and terrific action throughout the pack, NASCAR's Sprint Cup title chase this fall still can't seem to get much traction on TV.
   What changes might be coming in light of yet another dismal TV ratings performance isn't clear yet, from either NASCAR executives or TV bosses.
   But Voda's step up in the TV booth here this weekend might be the first of many.
   She's been doing studio work and such for several years, but this weekend she'll be handling practice for Sunday's Texas 500, which is typically one of the big events on the stock car tour.
   And TV is bringing back veteran Steve Byrnes from the studio for trackside work.
   That's on the Fox/Speed side; no word on from the ESPN/ABC side.
   It's just a few small steps, and NASCAR-on-TV may need much bigger ones.
   Gossage, who runs this mammoth track for owner Smith, has been doing his part – a major marketing campaign to promote this weekend's event, Round Seven of the 10-race chase.
   And Smith himself will almost certainly be out and about here raising hell, to make something happen, anything.

   Talladega's TV ratings were the best for this year's chase, but still nothing very impressive. Down 25 percent.
   Fans, in comments about the situation, point to a number of issues, among them:
   -- the chase itself, which many describe as artificial;
   -- the car-of-tomorrow and the common template body design, which many say have turned NASCAR stockers into IROC/cookie-cutter cars with no definitive personality and little relationship to passenger/street cars;
   -- poor TV production work, and too many commercials.
   Some wonder if the sport itself has simply lost some of its appeal.
   A number of hard-core, long-time fans have been expressing their frustrations, for perhaps two years or more, about some of the changes NASCAR has made. And some are wondering if many of those new fans that NASCAR has been cultivating in its new markets over the past 10 years or so have simply started to lose interest.
   One issue, perhaps, is that there is just so darned much NASCAR on TV. First, the season drags on from early February through Thanksgiving...and Sunday's pre-race shows at Talladega dragged on for hours, nearly as long as the race itself, it seemed.
   Maybe there are too many talking heads on the tube. While many sectors of the U.S. economy are struggling, Disney-ESPN isn't one of them. The TV compound is huge, jammed with an army of people and equipment.
   To underscore the problems facing this sport right now, Smith's Speedway Motorsports (NYSE: TRK) – which owns Texas Motor Speedway -- just announced some setbacks, with lower than expected earnings, and with a not-so-rosy prediction of things ahead.
   Smith is going ahead with a $40 million program of capital improvements for his newest track, Kentucky Speedway, which will debut on the Cup tour next spring.
   However, revenues are off, in part because crowds are off, and in part because ticket prices are lower. (In fact some tracks are putting $20 tickets up for sale, if you buy early.) 
   All that can be considered part of the country's general economic malaise, which has lingered for some two years now.
   But it is the TV part of the NASCAR picture that is worrisome. NASCAR's playoff races this season are off in TV numbers by a whopping 25 percent, which means more than a million viewers have changed the channel...for whatever reason.
   The product out on the track certainly looks pretty darned good.
   So NASCAR and TV people will have to look elsewhere for answers.
   Whatever happens next, the current ESPN/ABC TV cast – Marty Reid, Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty, Tim Brewer, Jerry Punch, Dave Burns and Jamie Little among – may be running nervous....along with the current cast of TV drop-ins. And very likely the guys out in the production trucks.
   Or maybe ESPN could just run fewer commercials. Trying to watch one of these races can be maddening, with huge blocks of commercials dominating the actual telecast itself. (One wag called Sunday's Sprint Cup events 'a NASCAR info-mercial....').

   Smith's SMI reported three-month total revenues for July-August-September down 8.4 percent from a year ago, and admissions down 13.5 percent.
   (Ironically perhaps, SMI's TV revenues for the quarter were up more than $1 million, and up over $4 million for the year so far, part of a built-in annual increase written into the big TV contract when it was negotiated in 2006. That's right, despite fewer people watching on TV, the networks actually have to pay more in rights fees. SMI expects to make about $180 million this year as its part of the TV package.)
   For the first nine months of the year SMI's total revenues are down 8.8 percent, and admissions down 15.6 percent.
   Smith's featured tracks are Texas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Infineon/Sonoma, Kentucky, Las Vegas, and New Hampshire.

   Or maybe these drivers can help turn things around...though it's hard to see what more they could do – Sunday's 500 was three-wide, four-wide, even five-wide most of the sunny afternoon.
   Harvick had one of the best cars at Talladega, even damaged, and he is looking a strong contender to dethrone Johnson.
   But Hamlin, Johnson's closest challenger, hasn't had a really great chase, and at Talladega he struggled, though eventually finishing ninth.
   "It wasn't very fun," Hamlin said of his Talladega. "I didn't get to race as hard as I would like to....and thought I was in a good position there. 
    "I was actually in a great position with two to go --  I had Mark Martin pushing me.
   "I had Jimmie by five spots coming off the last corner, when Mark stopped pushing me. It just killed us.
    "But as soon as we passed Jimmie, he stopped pushing; that's teamwork.  That's what I would expect of a teammate. 
    "But we were in a bad spot; we weren't around our teammates when it counted at the end."
    In fact Hamlin actually lost the draft at one point, and lost a lap and had to rally. And for a long time it didn't look like he'd get back to the lead lap.
    "Just never ran all day, and I hate I had to race like that," Hamlin said. "Unfortunately with our points format, it's how you have to race." 
     Still, Hamlin is only 14 points down to Johnson coming into this week's race. "It's what I asked for -- for nobody to really get killed (in the points standings at Talladega)....and let us settle it on the track, where our cars and our teams can make a difference, and us drivers."


   Maybe Krista Voda can change up some of NASCAR's TV coverage. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com