DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR unveiled to drivers and team owners this week the results of a lengthy study designed to provide a blueprint for increasing the size and composition of its fan base for the next 15 years.
Among them is lowering barriers "real or perceived," to fan's enjoyment. Not among them, for now, is giving fans a greater voice in competition decisions, but rather more influence on how the sport is marketed, spun and delivered, and to whom.
And that, saidDale Earnhardt Jr., is a wise move.
"I think it's important that we make ourselves available to the fans, for sure," he said on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, "but we have to make sure the product we're providing, the competition side, is what the fans want as well. I think that we have to focus more on the product we're selling, the racing, than anything else."
NASCAR commissioned a marketing firm to conduct its research, which included polling focus groups, sponsoring at-track junkets for non-fans and monitoring social media for the way information about the sport is conveyed.
Among the key findings of the five-part study, said NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps, is a "loss of car culture," and reduction in the number of male heads of families is hurting the indoctrination of children, and the sport needs to individualize the "entertainment experience" through on-line gaming, television and social media.
Hispanic fans, the study found, enjoy car culture and the family-friendly aspects of the sport, but do not feel "invited."
NASCAR sees the use of social media and online gaming as keys to reaching the much-sought-after youth market which has become an increasing focus. Among the possible ways to attract that demographic, according to the report, are dedicated youth websites, kids-only events and expanded use of NASCAR in educational settings.
All the while, Phelps said, NASCAR must not alienate its existing hardcore fans.
"We won't do any efforts that pull against that core fan," Phelps said.
And in NASCAR, the core fan often appears -- especially with the sanctioning body attuned to the way it is portrayed and perceived on social media -- to have more pull than fans of other sports. Earnhardt Jr., a perennial fan favorite who navigates the adulation, pressure and expectation of the crowd more than most, has noticed an increase in fan and media influence on the sport's decision-making in recent years.
"It wasn't like that years ago," he said. "I was young, but it just seemed to me like when I first started tuning in and watching what was going on, nobody ever complained about [the quality of racing]. There were boring races. There were great races, but you just went to the next frickin' race. If the race is boring, it was f------ boring. That's what you got delivered that day. If you got a s--- sandwich, you got a s--- sandwich. If you got f------ turkey, you eat turkey.
"We didn't make a hoot, a fuss about it."
Earnhardt Jr. said he thinks "the racing is pretty good," currently, prompting a hope that NASCAR makes any further competitive changes judiciously. It remains to be seen, he said, how much sway the sport's fan base will ultimately assume as NASCAR attempts to recover from the lasting impact of an economic downturn that impacted the sport on multiple levels, including sponsorship, and attendance and television ratings issues.
"That answer isn't really set. That changes on where they should have influence and how much influence they should have," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You can't go changing the Chase every year. I don't know. Maybe you can if you want to.
"For legitimacy and credibility, some things need to have a tradition. Some things need to have a benchmark and a standard, set of precedents. You can't go changing things every year, every two years just because you hear two or three fans or a smaller percentage liking this or a bigger percentage liking this. If you're in your office and you're working around your co-workers, if you took a poll from them in the suggestion box and literally tried to do everything they wanted done, it doesn't all get done and then trickle to a stop. The suggestions and the ideas and the 'this is what I would do nexts' just keep on coming. You can change the Chase [for the Championship]. You can change the way people get in and all that stuff and everything about the sport, and when you change it and get it going in this new direction, then you're going to hear from everybody how you can improve on that. I think it would be nice to get to a place where we feel confident where we're at, where we can kind of stick around and stay the same for awhile."
Danica Patrick, who continues to weigh her options for 2012 as she races both in the Izod IndyCar and NASCAR Nationwide series, said she currently has no plans to race a Sprint Cup car this season.
Patrick, who will make her sixth Nationwide start of the season -- and 19th career -- on Friday for JR Motorsports, said she still has no timetable to make a decision although such deals are traditionally completed by summer to facilitate sponsor and marketing demands.
The only clue Patrick offered was asserting that "my gut and my desire and where I feel I will be the happiest," then making it clear how much she enjoyed NASCAR.
Patrick said a sale of sponsor GoDaddy to three investors -- for up to $2.5 -- according to the Wall Street Journal "might change everything or it might change nothing."
Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns JRM with sister, Kelley, said he has not spoken with Patrick about re-signing at the end of this two-year exploration of NASCAR.
"I guess her people and Kelley are [speaking]," he said. "I don't know whether they're biding time or what or what they deal is. She has to decide here sooner or later. Time is running out."
There happens to be a two-car Sprint Cup team owned and sponsored by a certain energy drink (Red Bull) looking for investors or a graceful exit from NASCAR next season. There's a Nationwide series driver (Ricky Carmichael) sponsored by rival Monster still making his way in NASCAR after one of the most successful motocross careers in the sport's history.
Carmichael doesn't think Monster will swoop in to replace its nemesis, but he candidly admitted Red Bull's possible exit is good for him and his sponsor.
"[Monster is] a great brand, No. 1 in the energy drink business domestically, probably going to be No. 1 worldwide," he said. "As far as supporting me, they like where I'm at and have been willing to follow me wherever I go. As far as the other energy drink pulling out, I don't think they really care."