NASCAR Has Turned To ‘Enhancements’ To Survive

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 24 2017

The mood was upbeat at Monday’s press conference in Charlotte at which major changes to the NASCAR environment were announced. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

NASCAR “stakeholders” took to the airwaves on Monday to present and laud what they touted as “enhancements” to their sport. A better term for the radical changes that will render the sport almost unrecognizable to the framers of the grand old series might be “Hail Mary”.

NASCAR is in trouble. The sport that was arguably the fastest-growing in North America 15 years ago has become arguably the most severely stunted.

Sold-out grandstands have become a blurry memory; even at tracks that have ripped seats out supplanted them with signage. TV ratings have shrunk. Gear sales, ditto. Not even the prospect of a new seven-time champion or the final races of one of the sport’s all-timers or the return of another all-timer to take the seat of NASCAR’s biggest star could get the excitement-o-meter-needle jumpin’ last year.

It was eerie for those who still enjoy the sights and sounds of powerful cars going fast.

The Big Shrink began shortly after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001 and has showed no signs of slowing, much less reversing itself.

NASCAR – with nervous television “partners”, corporate stockholders, team and manufacturers all looking over Brian France’s shoulder – has responded with constant changes to its product. The cars, the racing format, the points system, the start times, the traditions have all been attacked with heavy hammers.

If anything, the majority of changes seem to have been counter-productive in terms of increasing NASCAR’s relevance.

If those who run the series and compete in the races didn’t realize that a year ago, they must surely know that now; that is, in the wake of the financially painful quest to replace Sprint as the title sponsor of the Cup series.

Word in the media two years ago that NASCAR was hoping to replace Sprint when that telecommunication giant’s entitlement contract expired after the 2016 season with a company eager to pony up a billion dollars over a 10-year deal. Or, roughly, twice as much as Sprint was paying.

As the search for takers dragged on, it became apparent that NASCAR’s hopes for their deal would fall short terms of both money and duration. According to a report from Sports Business Daily, Monster Energy’s agreement to become entitlement sponsor of Cup is a two-year job with an option for two more years. The energy drink company is reportedly paying $20 million per season.

So, NASCAR is heading into the 2017 season with two to four years to show Monster and/or future entitlement sponsors that it has resumed its place as a commercially viable business. That isn’t a lot of time and these are not the most economically stable of times.

On Monday, during a televised press conference in Charlotte, N.C., NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France stood in front of cameras and notebooks and unveiled the enhancements – a term that is loaded when applied to business interests.

It was interesting viewing.

The complicated changes to the series’ top three divisions required a powerpoint presentation to explain. The changes included breaking races into three segments and a system of awarding championship points that defied even the powerpoint.

Suffice it to say, calling the changes enhancements is like calling the Tsunami that leveled Indian Ocean coastal areas in 2004 a wave.

NASCAR needs a cure. Right now.

Will the enhancements do the deed? Despite the gushing emanating from such stakeholders as former drivers/current television analysts Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton; team owners, track owners and current drivers like Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – all of whom sat on the dais in Charlotte – the answer has to be; lots of luck.

Virtually all spectator sports in North America are going through tough times. Yes, even almighty pro football. But chances for massive revivals of sports like Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA have to be viewed as more likely when compared to NASCAR.

NASCAR’s popularity during its golden era was tied to a phenomena that disappeared in the 1980s and is not coming back – American car culture.

Unless you are 50 or older, you probably never experienced that culture – a time and environment in which the automobile was so much more than just transportation. To Baby Boomers, cars represented a way of life. Car guys and gals in the 1950s and ’60s were fixated on cars. They worked their feet flat to buy a cool Detroit car and then modify it and then, yes, race it – sometimes on tracks but often on back roads.

In the Southeast, with booze onboard and with cops on their tails, the cars tore up country roads during the week and tracks in front of increasingly loyal fans on weekends. It was all very romantic, and so exciting, that people would pay to see Fords and Chevys and Pontiacs and, even, Rambers race each other on ovals both paved and dirt.

The passion for cars – especially American cars – faded in the 1980s. Instead of being culturally essential works of art, they became mundane tools.

As the sport entered the 2000s, Baby Boomers, who made up a large portion of racing’s fanbase, became concerned with other things. Like staying alive and healthy. The not insignificant cost of travel and tickets and consumables took its toll at the turnstiles. Watching from the easy chair became infuriating as television coverage showed little respect for fans and lots of time for commercials.

The race cars changed, the drivers changed, the formats changed, the whole mood changed as money elbowed tradition and respect to the margins.

To an important number of old-schools, passion for the sport and its changes has turned to hate. Check out commentary sections over the last couple years. Check them out today. Boomers be angry.

But that’s OK in a business sense. Boomers are not the demographic that companies are targeting as they push their products. Like all business concerns, NASCAR wants to turn young consumers into fans and fans into superfans.

Millennials are the target and the hope is that bringing Monster Energy on board as the entitlement sponsor, and by kicking tradition all the way to the curb by way of implementing enhancements, the cash spigot will once again be turned wide open.

The thing is, Millennials are a different sort of consumer. Some analysts tout their brand loyalty. Some say it does not exist. One thing on which there seems to be some agreement is that Millennials are constantly on the move and have a lot of things to move to and from.

Even if the enhancements move them to NASCAR, keeping Millennials engaged will likely be problematic.

NASCAR just may be chasing ghosts with all of the changes that is implementing. It is definitely angering what’s left of the once-loyal fanbase.

But, what the heck, let’s crank back and air it out and see what unfolds in the end zone. Enhanced NASCAR begins next month.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 24 2017
One Comment

One Comment »

  • mark toomey says:

    Excellent, Excellent article. My thoughts exactly. I am 49 and I fit neatly into that 80’s car culture that you speak of. I lost interest in the sport several years ago and really I only keep up with it to watch the train wreck. Its done. Young folks are not interested in roundy round car racing. I look for more convulsions to come in the years ahead. Drifting? Jumps? Figure 8? Everything will be on the table as the sport tries to survive economically.