France Pleased With Fast Start To 2011 NASCAR Season
It was an upbeat NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France who spoke during a teleconference with the media on Wednesday. The reason for the good mood, he indicated, was the good start to which the Sprint Cup season has jumped out.
“It’s nice to see the interest level on the way back up.” France said.
He cited the “very dynamic” Daytona 5oo, the rise of young Trevor Bayne to stardom, the return to Victory Lane of Jeff Gordon, increased competition on Sundays and several other early season events to the good start.
“It’s all those things,” France said.
France said that boosting the interest level considerably has been action on the track – action that some drivers have complained about as being too rough.
“No, I don’t share that concern at all,” France said. “They’re the best guys in the world. We’ve said, You have to mix it up, this is a contact sport. We feel really good about that.
“It’s made the racing better. They’ve got to figure that out. They’re doing that largely. I would say, too, with the wild card situation, where the last two spots are going to be decided by wins, if you don’t happen to have the perfect top-10 performance in the first 26 events, I think you saw the disappointment with Tony not winning when he thought he should have won last weekend, he now counts that because he doesn’t start fast. He may need that.
“I think you’re going to see an escalation of that. That’s what great competition is. I’m actually happy to hear people complaining about that. It means it’s working.”
France said the positive start to the season can be traced back to last season.
“We went out in a strong way in 2010, down to the last laps (at Homestead) and we haven’t had that
in a few years,” France said when asked if he thought there was a specific thing that jump started NASCAR this February and early March. “You want to go out strong and it’s important to have a good playoff, a good finale. I think you can see where that has helped the Super Bowls of late, they’ve been very competitive. When you go out on a real high, it helps you launch. And we have a very short window to launch.”
He said a prime indicator of the quality start to the season has been increased television ratings. They have been up over last year for each of the three races in 2011.
“I look at the interest level of this sport and that’s growing,” France said.
While television ratings are up, France said, “Nobody around here is celebrating.”
“We’re obviously pleased our ratings are up dramatically, but that’s an ebb-and-flow thing,” France said.
He said the sport still faces and number of challenges in winning fans – old ones and new ones. France said the national economy is still in the doldrums and that high fuel prices are taking a toll in ticket sales.
France credited the addition of new, young fans with some of the early season bump.
“I think Jeff Gordon revs up our young fan base and then Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) is running
and he is arguably competitive, more than he was a year ago. Probably a lot of reasons. The kind of racing we had. But the young demo is something we are going to keep working at. It goes to reaching the young fans. It’s not a one-dimensional effort here, it’s to get people to tune in their televisions, to get the young fans interested for the long run in every aspect of enjoying NASCAR the way we want them to enjoy NASCAR.”
Last weekend, Danica Patrick had a top-five finish in the Nationwide race in Las Vegas. France was asked what he thought that meant for the series.
“I think that elevated her,” he said. “There was some discussion, did she have the right stuff to compete in the Nationwide Series. You know, I think she dispelled a lot of that. There’s always circumstances in the start of a new career. But sometimes things are out of your control, people can crash in front of you, a hundred other things.
“I think she elevated herself quite nicely. That’s nice to see. She’s a very competitive person. She’s always said she’s here to compete, not just happy to be here. That fits my criteria.”
France was asked if there was anything he could do about the lack of post-race coverage which NASCAR gets from its TV partners.
France said that there is a “fair amount” of post-race television coverage on SPEED, and that other sports suffer similar fates. “But,” he said, “generally, we agree. It would be nicer to see longer post-race” coverage.
The Sprint Cup series is taking the upcoming weekend off. France was asked if he thought that would blunt the momentum the sport has seen this spring.
“Well, it’s historically how many events in the calendar we want to run, regardless when they ran. Historically it has been around this time where we do have an off weekend,” France said.
“Arguably you would like to have that come down eight or 10 races later. But that’s just how the schedule and the climate issues that we face with certain markets and everything else has played out.
“The reason for changing it is mostly driven that the other sports calendars are going to change on us – not just the NFL, but maybe some other things. So we’re trying to get into the right date.
“It also does accomplish, when we change next year, moving back the 500 a week, we’ll eliminate the early schedule gap here. That will probably be a good thing.”
Asked if he foresees any major changes to the 2012 schedule, France said, ”We don’t release that for another month or so. We did have a fair amount of changes last year and even some in the last couple years.
“So by definition I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of changes. We’ll see how some of the new dates, their new time on the calendar works out. But I don’t think there will be as much as there was, say, in 2010. We don’t want there to be. We prefer to have a good continuity. That’s our preference.”
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