NASCAR has problems. News flash? No. But finding solutions to these problems is the real issue. Other than more jobs, more discretionary income for America's hurting working class and a sudden spike in interest from television viewers, little has been proposed to pull the sport back into at least a level flight path after years of upward trajectory. Outside the confines of the inner sanctum of NASCAR power, and free from the burdens of actually having to enact painful changes, we present seven ideas that could drastically improve the sport.
It would stand to reason that if fans are not consuming what is available, they do not want or cannot afford it. Give them less. Make what is there more valuable. Certainly, this would be a seismic move for NASCAR, which has allowed its 36-race schedule to become predominantly promoted by two huge publicly traded companies -- International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. -- and whose job it is to provide value for shareholders. But with those companies also struggling in a slow-recovering economy, it is time to edit the race list. "I think (the schedule) is too long and it has been too long for quite some time," said Peter DeLorenzo, an auto industry analyst and editor of AutoExtremist.com "I think NASCAR's policy of going to tracks twice in a season -- which lended itself to the era when they were running 50 and 60 races and primarily in the Southeast -- has become obsolete. And I think with the downturn of the ratings and the attendance, NASCAR would do wonders for itself if it took a real hard look at the schedule and cut it back to 25 races, total."
Detractors point to the 50-to-60-race schedule NASCAR fielded decades ago, but the sport was different then. The proliferation of mass media, social and journalistic, has actually made the job of promoters more difficult because every tidbit of information from any race is instantly broadcast to niche audiences. Years ago, a fan might not know the results of a race that occurred just a few hours away until their weekly newspaper arrived, unless they had attended in person or caught it on the radio. The series rolling into town was a lot more of a novelty. Not anymore.
This may be viewed as the equivalent of moving back in with the parents when times are tough ... but they are. Starting the Chase for the Championship in a market (hello Chicago!) that was capricious when the sport was at its height is not the answer. NASCAR was born and bred in the south, expanded to cover the entire nation, and has had time to learn which areas are fertile, and which areas are fickle.
The NFL -- the one sports league NASCAR admits it wishes to emulate -- has continued to bloom for years without a team in Los Angeles. Stock car racing may not work there either, and that's all right. NASCAR touts its commitment to grassroots racing through its "Home Tracks" program, and could go far in fortifying its foundation by focusing even more time and energy there. Apart from an official NASCAR effort, a reduced schedule would allow a lot of drivers not used to free time the chance to seed themselves across the country, into those fertile fields on short tracks around the country. Imagine the buzz through the grandstands if two or three NASCAR drivers showed up with Featherlite trailers in tow at a local short track on a summer Saturday night.
Fox Sports chairman David Hill admitted it. International Speedway Corp. president John Saunders admitted it. Dover Motorsports president Denis McGlynn admitted it. The sport is losing fans in the lucrative 18-to-34-year old age bracket.
"There is an issue that NASCAR and other industries will have to grapple with, and soon: we have an aging demographic with the baby boomers," McGlynn said. "Anyone who is in their 60s now probably has partied themselves to death, not literally, but they've partied themselves sufficiently where they don't feel they need to go to the racetrack and the camping lot anymore....The problem with that is, that group represents our most loyal fan that now is no longer coming. Bigger problem: that older fan isn't bringing his son or his grandson because he's not going, and that's where the real danger lies on the horizon. It's creating a huge gap in the future audience."
Saunders expressed hope that ESPN's assumption of the final 17 Sprint Cup points races would help, considering its strength with younger demographics. McGlynn has ideas of his own. "We really could use Sprint or some like industry member to develop a device that would really enhance the onsite customer experience," he said. "...because kids, with the multi-tasking they do and all the inputs they're used to absorbing per hour, I don't think sitting down in front of a TV and watching a NASCAR race is going to capture their interest. They need to be here and see the magnitude of it and understand what they're seeing, and no one can do that for a kid than another kid." An extension of this much-needed new directive should be ...
Pacing the Sprint Cup driver roster through an X Games Rally Cross competition is a bit radical, but there are lessons to be learned from a franchise that has captured the imagination of that crucial young sector. Surprise them. Intrigue them. Give them a living video game. Gumball rally from Texas Motor Speedway to Phoenix International Raceway? A race on a movie set, complete with explosions and tipping fruit carts? Long Beach street course?
And, honestly, a rally race would be pretty interesting, and a venue for Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford (which already is heavily invested in rally) and Toyota (which might rejoin the World Rally Championship next year) to promote their sporty tuner cars. Certainly, the sport will be ridiculed for blurring the line between sport and show, but that line has always been fuzzy. Racing has never been like traditional sports, with a home team defending its turf against interlopers. It's about the show coming to town. And this isn't to suggest a Chase for the Championship race on the set of Death Race. Replace the All-Star race with it. Make it an exhibition worthwhile to the drivers because of points or cash. Just do something.
Every sports league makes adjustments. MLB introduced a designated hitter, a wild card. The NFL instituted a two-point conversion. The NBA doesn't call fouls on stars and the NHL created a shootout to eliminate so many tie games. Granted, many of NASCAR's rule changes are a result of the complicated mechanical aspects of the sport, but fans and competitors have been buffeted by changes the last six years: a playoff system, a new car, adjustments to the playoff system with more expected. It's difficult for fans to even have an argument over drivers and seasons because they all seem to be contested under different rules. Leave it alone for awhile.
Virtually every major NASCAR executive has said to the media at some point that "you have to have thick skin in this business," yet that doesn't seem to be the case recently. The revelation of secret fines levied against Sprint Cup drivers Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman for making seditious comments -- in Hamlin's case, on Twitter -- that NASCAR claimed damaged the "brand," seemed to go against that "tough skin" mantra. With news of the sport's failings in attendance and television ratings, NASCAR looked panicked and hypersensitive as Twitter-gate unfolded. Subsequently, tweeting has largely ceased and fans have lost an appreciated, unfettered portal to their heroes, undoing part of the reconnection process NASCAR sought.
Indy Racing League chairman Tony George told me four years ago that he would be interested in double bill weekends with the IndyCar and Sprint Cup series. Successor Randy Bernard has expressed the same hopes. NASCAR chairman Brian France said then, and reiterated now, that he's not interested. And there is some wisdom in the dominant form of racing in North America not wishing to expose its fan base to a competitor. Bernard's reasons make sense, too. The two series should find a middle ground for the self-serving interests.