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Hey, Chicago: What about NASCAR?

Craig Rust, the France family's new boss at Chicagoland Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   JOLIET, Ill.
   As one of the biggest markets NASCAR plays in, the Chicago 400 should be a centerpiece event for the Sprint Cup tour.
   But it's not.
   So the new boss here, Craig Rust, just a month on the job, has his hands full.
   He's fresh off a stint at Watkins Glen, which has a legendary ring to it, but little infrastructure or market to work with (New York City is 250 miles to the southeast). But he earned his NASCAR spurs at Los Angeles' California Speedway, when it first opened, so he understands big city sports demands.
   Now what Rust might be able to do about last Saturday night's poor TV ratings – a 3.0 on TNT's final telecast of its six-week summer run – well, that's up for consideration.
   Maybe a Sunday afternoon starting time might yield better TV numbers, and maybe a bigger crowd too than Saturday's disappointing 45,000 to 55,000 at this modern 75,000-seat arena.
   Saturday night racing in general may not be good for NASCAR in other aspects – first, Saturday night is traditionally for the local short tracks, and by putting on a Saturday night Cup event NASCAR hurts its grassroots promoters around the country.
   At one time NASCAR, dreaming of its prime time potential, pushed for its tracks to install lights. However, NASCAR so far has only been able to pull Saturday night events, and Saturday night has the weakest TV crowds.
   Maybe it's time for NASCAR to reconsider Saturday night Cup events.

   But the first thing on Rust's agenda is filling the grandstands. At 75,000, this is one of the smallest arenas on the NASCAR tour, though in one of the biggest markets.
   To do that, he'll almost certainly have to drop this 'Track Pack' ticketing plan, where fans have to buy a full season's worth of tickets in order to see the Cup race, even if they only want to see the Cup race. That ticketing concept, used at other NASCAR tracks, has been a major turnoff for fans.
    And if you have some ideas, well Rust says he wants fans to give him a shout: "I really want to reach out to the fans.
   "E-mail us through our web address."
  That's HERE.
   "I look at all of those…and we get back to the fans," Rust says.
   "When the fans reach out to us, good, bad, indifferent, if they reach out to us, we've got to get back to them and say 'I saw your letter.'
   "Sometimes they might not like the answer. There are reasons we do some things that they might not understand.
   "But at the end of the day if they're not coming out and supporting us, it doesn't matter what we do."
   In a town as ferocious about sports as Chicago, Rust has to make NASCAR stand out.
   Downtown last Friday, on the eve of the 400, there was little if any indication that NASCAR was even playing here over the weekend.
   Maybe pay the local beer distributors a couple bucks to turn at least one TV set in each bar to the NASCAR channel. Maybe have ESPN Classic featuring NASCAR stuff in those bars each race weekend.
   And of course maybe a Michael Jordan angle might help.
   Maybe bring in some NASCAR stars for one of the city's annual charity fests….
   NASCAR needs to try to become part of the fabric of Chicago.


Maybe new pres Craig Rust should drop this Saturday night thing and go back to Sunday afternoon racing. The weather is typically gorgeous in Chicago this time of year. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Maybe NASCAR and Rust need more marketing and promotion support from this sport's various sponsors. Does NASCAR's roster of official sponsors really do their fair share here?
    LA might be a PR stretch for NASCAR stars, but Chicago is just an hour or so away from Charlotte.
   "We had some guys racing at Soldier Field the other day," Rust said. "Tony Stewart has been here marketing, Kurt Busch, and Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth…..so right now my understanding is: yes, because they understand the importance of this market to their sponsors and to NASCAR, they've been very supportive.
   "And it is important for the track to reach out to them with opportunities: 'Hey, come in to do XYZ with us.'
   "I also want to take a look at the charity end. What are we doing from the charity end? What driver and sponsor can we tie in with, to make a major fund-raiser? Brian Sperber has done a great job with that at Phoenix.
  "We've got to get busy here. There's a lot to do.
   "That's why I'm excited about this.
    "This is a young race track, and a lot of opportunities -- in one of the best sports markets in this country.
   "If we can't get excited with this opportunity – to get this race track on the sports radar, and in the sports mindset, then we're not doing our job."


   Winner Mark Martin was a blur all night at Chicago (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


And Rust has only one NASCAR Cup date. A place like Chicago certainly needs two – if NASCAR can ever really get a good foothold here.
   Or are markets even that important to the sport? That's perhaps debatable.
   After all, the sport grew to prominence with races in small markets. Then, following the Indianapolis breakthrough, NASCAR execs rushed to put big new tracks in major markets. With mixed success.
   Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, certainly works. But Fontana, in the Los Angeles market, doesn't, or at least not that well.
   Is NASCAR's major market game plan really working?
   Well, in part, the idea is that TV viewers might dial in to a NASCAR race in a big city like LA, where they might not even know where, say, Bristol, Tenn., is.
   However, Chicago's numbers bring that into question. This season's big market TV ratings, so far: LA 6.0; Las Vegas 6.5; Atlanta 5.5; Texas 4.7; Phoenix 3.6; San Francisco 4.0; Chicago 3.0.
   "I would love to market this place so that we can fill this place consistently for Cup and Nationwide races, so NASCAR will say 'We've got to come here twice," Rust says.
   Of course California's Auto Club Speedway has two dates, and we'll have to see if the Labor Day weekend spot itself was a reason for small crowds, with this fall's 500 moved to October.
   So what is Rust's game plan for Chicagoland Speedway?
   "Being new here, I've got to get my hands around this place," Rust says. "I was at California Speedway when it first opened, and there was a buzz…and it was a little easier.
   "One of the things is how do we maintain that buzz.
   "And creating relationships with people, the media and fans in downtown, is important.
   "There are similarities here with California. We know there are race fans here. The Midwest is known for race fans.
   "And partnering with other sports teams….I know I've been told this is Bears country, but the Bears aren't playing right now.
  "So we're looking to do things with other sports teams. Miller has a great footprint throughout this market. So Kurt Busch was out at the Chicago Cubs games.
   "The paid media in these big markets, it just gets crazy (on expenses). So using all these opportunities, all these PR opportunities, and what partnerships can we develop to reach the people and create the buzz.
   Having only one NASCAR race obviously hurts, from the promotional standpoint.
   And having this track nearly an hour out from downtown might not help either.
   NASCAR's impact down in the Loop is negligible, and it may take a lot of promotion, and cross-promotion, to change that.
   Maybe some signage at Wrigley Field….
   Maybe a billboard at the White Sox stadium…
   Maybe some thinking outside the box – like the Grand Prix of Chicago, modeled along the lines of the Grand Prix of Long Beach, along Lake Shore Drive…with NASCAR stars like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch in some of Jim France's Grand American cars, to promote the NASCAR Cup side of the ledger.
    (And maybe Gillian Zucker, who runs California's Auto Club Speedway, could somehow tie in NASCAR racers with the Long Beach event….)
   Sure, street races aren't NASCAR's forte, and generally aren't great racing anyway. But…..
   Rust has played that angle at the Glen – with some NASCAR stars running the Friday night Grand Am race there, to promote Sunday's Cup event.
   "The synergies are very important," Rust agrees.
   "I love road racing; I'm a big fan. So I'm looking around here for a road course. Use of facility is very important."
    And weather may be important too. It gets cold here. In fact over the weekend it was only 60 degrees at night.
    "California's Auto Club Speedway has a little advantage in that the weather is nice all the time," Rust says. "Here, like what we faced at Watkins Glen, when it's cold outside it's tough to get people fired up about racing. So you have to pick your moments.
  "But I think Chicago, and this area, relates more with racing, than Fontana does with downtown LA.
   "There are a lot of people in the Chicagoland area who work in downtown Chicago. So there is an association…
   "We did a mini-media tour in downtown Chicago, and it wasn't hard to get there.
   "But like when you say Los Angeles – LA is so broad, you're really talking about San Diego and everything else.
   "Where here, you know where Chicago is and you can draw the circles."
   Perhaps Chicago and this part of the country would be ripe for a grassroots effort to tie Chicagoland Speedway directly in with the many short tracks within a 200-mile-radius, for example.
   Part of NASCAR's problems lately has come at the grassroots level, tying everything together, to eventually promote Sunday's big show, where it might be.
   Rust did just such an effort when running the Glen, which is so far away from the rest of the NASCAR world.
   "I will be looking into that here….we did that at Watkins Glen, working the grassroots, and the grassroots promotion is so important," Rust says.
   "We will also be looking at how we market this track, in these hard economic times. So we'll be looking at the Track Packs."
   That Track Pack concept has been a flash point for fans – because some NASCAR tracks, like this one, require them to buy a full season package of tickets for all the races, even though some fans might only want to attend the NASCAR Cup event.
   "It's always been a season-long ticket, so it may be time to look at that, so the NASCAR fan who only wants to attend the NASCAR race can do that, and the Indy-car fan who only wants to attend the IRL race can do that," Rust says.

Craig Rust (L) and Kyle Busch....celebrating Busch's 2008 Chicago win -- before Saturday night's disaster (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Unless they get the bulldozer

Unless they get the bulldozer out and re-shape the track, it won't matter. Any stock car racing on that track will be a snoozer unless NASCAR throws cautions every 20 laps when the Frenchman appears. ISC is about as innovative in this day and age as the horse and buggy.

What's there to reconfigure?

What's there to reconfigure? Yes the speedway is a mile too small, but that's true of most tracks in racing. The speedway as-is has enough width and room to race. Ultimately the speedway's problem is it's in a poor racing demographic regardless of how close to Charlotte it is.

Maybe it's as simple as

Maybe it's as simple as reconfiguring the track so the product on the track is worth watching as something other than curing a sleep disorder.

Reconfigure to what? Don't

Reconfigure to what? Don't say "short track" because the short tracks are terrible racetracks. The speedway as it is now is good and big and raceable.

Maybe they can replace the

Maybe they can replace the commercialism that has taken over NASCAR and replace what used to be the main focus: the race itself! We can't turn on the TV to see a race unless we see Carl Edwards interviewed three times before the race ever begins while taking a drink from a full bottle of Coke each time the interview starts. Of course, he always finds a way to mention Aflac, Subway and Scotts in most of the interviews. I'm not picking on Carl, and I think he's one of the best out there today. But he is the poster boy for the commercialism that seems to be driving our sport today, and he certainly isn't alone (Mickey, Mark, Jeff G, Jimmy, Jeff B, and Kurt are all part of the same club). I long for the day when the drivers ran for the purse and not the nearest television camera...


ROCKINGHAM! NORTH WILKSBORO! Bring the sport back to it's roots and you might bring back the true, loyal fans.

Dead speedways in dead

Dead speedways in dead demographics. Rockingham had decent racing in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it had a few good events in the 1990s, but overall it was outdated, too small, and in a demographic that dried up. North Wilkesboro was an awful track even when it had some wild finishes; the way it got taken from the sport is worth being upset over, but the reality was the Winston Cup level no longer belonged there.

"Bring the sport back to its roots." At the Winston Cup level superspeedways are the roots.

What Chicagoland needs - 1 -

What Chicagoland needs -

1 - No more Saturday night; Sunday afternoon start time for convenience, not for mythical late-afternoon ratings. It's a dismal time for big-league racing and belongs ONLY to local tracks and their weekly shows. And the start time needs to be pushed for the convenience of the fanbase, not for mythical late-afternoon ratings spikes - the race should start at 12:30 PM local time.

2 - More years of double-file restarts. The late restart saw three-abreast fighting for the lead like we haven't seen there outside of its IRL races.

3 - Decentralization of the sport's competitive depth. Mark Martin's win was just another Hendrick Motorsports win. The speedway and the sport need more and more teams to win races - it needs Petty, Yates, Ganassi, RCR, Mateschitz, Robby Gordon, Nemechek, Baldwin, etc. winning races.

4 - Reduced TV coverage. Anonymous hits on part of the problem in noting the excessive sponsor-plugging by Carl Edwards et al. The reality is the sport has far too much peripheral coverage; coverage needs to focus on the race and thus focus attention away from distracting peripheral stuff.

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