January 22, 2008

NASCAR, now entering its 60th season, has undergone dramatic change in recent years. From switching television networks, series sponsors, implementation of a contrived points race known as "The Chase" and a next-generation race car, it is a league that's appeared to have abandoned its roots.

That is why Monday's announcement by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France that there would be no changes for the 2008 season represents the most dramatic change of all.

France wants to return to the sport's roots and focus on its core base of fans.

"We want our fans to feel like this is the NASCAR we all fell in love with," France said.

In other words, the NASCAR of recent seasons has turned many of its most loyal supporters away.

The diehards that filled the grandstands during the sport's growing years were often shoved aside by the newcomers, who usually begin to follow a sport when they hear it's "cool" -- but fail to stick around when the novelty fades.

So for the 2008 season, France believes it's best to let all the rapid adjustments made in recent years sink in and return the focus to the basics.

"Right from the start, my grandfather, Big Bill, and father, Bill, had a vision for this sport," France said. "One of the principles was to improve the sport and build a fan base across America. We're proud we have been able to attract new fans virtually every year of existence.

"Change has been a hot button with the media and ourselves. There has been a lot of change -- most of it for the good -- but a lot of the changes had to be made like the Car of Tomorrow, which was an eight- or nine-year program.

"We're getting back to the basics and minimize change, which is to focus on the best racing product in the world."

Of course, each new season brings subtle technical advancements and this year is no different, such as several new pit stop procedures and testing rules that really interest the gear-head. And one competition rule which has the "Go or Go Home" groups of drivers -- those outside of the top 35 in points that have to make the field based on qualification speeds -- qualifying at the end of the session when weather conditions are the same.

NASCAR will also donate all fines collected from penalties throughout the season to the "NASCAR Foundation" so it can donate those funds to various charities. According to NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, nearly $1 million in fines were collected last season in all three of NASCAR's national touring divisions.

Over the past 10 years, there has been an average of $200,000 worth of fines assessed to drivers and teams for various infractions with last year representing an all-time high for penalties.

France and NASCAR want this season to be an opportunity to get back to the principles which made it a unique sport in the first place. And one step toward that objective is NASCAR's decision to "lighten up" on its drivers in terms of expressing themselves.

The personalities of many top drivers have gone from colorful to a whiter shade of pale out of fear of being penalized or scrutinized for voicing their opinion on a controversial subject such as a call in a race.

"We are re-looking to make sure our policies of enforcement don't make it to where our drivers can't express themselves," France said. "There are a lot of personalities and characters in our sport. The escalation is what we are concerned about. We don't want to restrict the drivers expressing themselves."

NASCAR president Mike Helton, who is in charge of punishing drivers for infractions and occasional misstatements, agrees that the character of each driver needs to be showcased rather than stunted.

"We want the drivers to be themselves," Helton said. "Our sport has done very well on the character of the sport and that is built on the drivers that have participated in the sport."

France admitted another factor could help NASCAR regain some of its lost popularity: the prospective return to prominence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. with his new team at Hendrick Motorsports.

"He is the marquee driver that we have, no different from the marquee franchises in other sports. We're not different from that. If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. He has the biggest fan base and he will energize his fan base. If he has success, it will benefit us.

"Of course it would help if Dale Jr. wins but he has to earn that. Either he will or he won't."

France said all of the decisions he has made since taking over the leadership role at NASCAR four years ago have been good -- but fans in the grandstands may differ from that viewpoint.

"The Chase" format is considered contrived and has led to debate whether it reflects the true champion of the entire season or simply the hottest driver in the last 10 races of the year. Under the old points system last used in 2003, Jeff Gordon would have won last year's title instead of Jimmie Johnson. But in light of Johnson's 10 victories, it would be hard to make a definitive argument that the best driver wasn't rewarded after all.

The "Car of Tomorrow" -- a catchphrase for the car that will be used in every race this season -- is bigger, boxier and uglier than the previous-generation race car. But it was intended to improve safety, lower costs and be more versatile than the previous model -- not win an automotive beauty contest.

By selling its soul to television, ratings have experienced a decline because later starting times have confused viewers.

France and Helton both said they are looking at more consistent starting times for their races, which could move the green flag back to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. which is far more popular with the fans than the 2:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. starts of recent seasons.

Empty seats are a growing concern at many tracks including such iconic venues as Talladega Superspeedway, where attendance for last fall's 500-mile race dipped from the year before.

That could be a direct effect of an American economy which many fear is on the downturn and could turn into a recession.

"We're not immune to any downturn in the economy. In fact, we are higher at risk because it is costly for our fans to get to the speedways," France said. "I know our tracks are trying to offer the right amount of value and be as aggressive as they can to help our spectators.

"We're worried about how good the racing is on the track. We're talking about going back to the basics. Is the Car of Tomorrow producing the best racing in the world? That's what you are going to hear from us. We want to get back to the basics."

And the basics include a return to exciting competition and colorful drivers, not tinkering with how a championship is decided, switching television partners or any of a list of changes that have taken place in recent seasons.

"We're doing more, not less, in the fan areas," France said. "We always need to reach out and be aggressive as we can. What I'm saying is this change issue, from the name of series to the format of the new car, all of those things to our core fan, that's a lot to digest in a short period of time. We know that.

"A lot of those things were on a track from many years ago. Some of those things were out of our control. Change is good to a certain point. We've had all the change that this sport needs for a while."

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