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A For Sale Sign At NASCAR Is Sign Of Times

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 8 2018

Brian France has been in the driver’s seat during NASCAR’s painful slide toward irrelevance. But sometimes drivers simply become passengers when things go bad. (RacinToday/HHP file photo Andrew Coppley)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Word went out on Monday that NASCAR, very recently one of the hottest properties on the America professional sports scene, may soon find its property included on the Multiple Listing Service.

Yep, Reuters and other news sources report that controlling interest of the beleaguered stock car racing organization, may soon go up for sale. While sale of the series likely won’t mean the end of NASCAR and stock car racing, it just as likely that a sale won’t solve the mountainous problems leading to the sale.

One of the big questions for those fans and former fans of NASCAR pondering this week’s news has to be: What happened to our party?

The guess here is that one of the most proffered answers to that question will boil down to two words: Brian and France.

Yes, France, a steady stream of desperate changes, and NASCAR’s current state of affairs have all been very frequent subjects of cynicism and criticism in this space. But to put all blame for NASCAR’s dramatic fall from relevance on the shoulders of Brian France misses the mark and is not fair.

To find the blame for NASCAR’s downfall, we must proceed a lot further than just through the door of the organization’s chairman and CEO. We must look at history, societal change and economics.

Empty grandstands are sad symptom of NASCAR woes. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Jim Fluharty)

We need to look back 70 years. To a time of major American hope and progress. A time symbolized by Detroit-made automobiles. A time that gave birth to an entire culture that revolved around automobiles and the freedom with which they were associated.

That American car culture viewed the automobile as so much more than simply a mode of transportation among Baby Boomers in the years following the Second World War. (A car culture? You had to be there.)

It was the romance between that culture and all things automotive the led to the birth and popularization of stock car racing.

But gone that car culture is and Brian France played no part whatsoever in its disappearance.

Now we have now.

If you don’t love American cars, there is no way you are going to love NASCAR and it’s pretty obvious that not many Gen X or Gen Z or Millennials love cars the way Boomers did. To many young people today, NASCAR races are just corporate-logo bedecked machines driven by soulless millionaires going around (and around and around) in circles.

I remember a decade or so back insisting that the sports editor at my old newspaper in

Superstars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are gone. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Kansas City – a, younger, decidedly stick-and-ball type – come to a race at Kansas Speedway. Less than half way through, he looked over and said, “I don’t get it”. He got up and left.

That is where NASCAR’s current problems begin. Today’s desired demographic does not get the elbow to the ribs when it comes to racing cars.

From there, it proceeds to exactly how NASCAR officials have reacted to historical and social circumstances beyond their control that tell the story.

Brian baiters often mark the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow as the beginning of the end of their NASCAR. Indeed, it is completely understandable that the bizarre winged vehicles which began taking to the tracks early in the 21st Century were a kick to the groin of old-schoolers in the grandstands.

But what should be remembered is what was happening in the years leading up to the CoTs and that was massive piles of money and technology flowing into the sport.

Teams were using their newfound millions to do what race-team owners have always done – use hunks of their money (that money, at least, which they were not using to buy vineyards) to make their cars go faster.

In the late 20th Century, that meant turning to technology and engineering. Laptops and formally trained engineers began popping up in race shops and infield garages in increasing numbers.

One year on the annual media tour in North Carolina, reporters were bused to the race shop of then team-owner Ray Evernham, who was handed the responsibility of making Chrysler/Dodge’s return to NASCAR successful. With show-business flair and a large flush of pride, Evernham summoned a long line of white-shirt-clad youngish people out on to the stage to take a bow. There was not a dirty fingernail in the bunch. Those people, perhaps 20 or more, were engineers.

A significant number of those engineers were engaged in something in physics called flow dynamics. In track vernacular, aero. Suddenly, developing better aerodynamics became every bit as important as producing horsepower.

Other terms began working their way into racing conversations: Terms like wind tunnels, shaker rigs, shock dynos.

Cars got faster and easier to drive, alright. But there were two not so great results of high technology working its way into the sport: economic insanity and dull racing.

The cost of racing soared because the cost of new equipment was staggering, but also because those college guys in the white shirts at Evernham’s joint don’t work for minimum wage or anything close to it. Speed was costing money at an unprecedented rate.

The racing got dull because the flow dynamicists began designing very “slippery” cars – cars, that unlike the old, boxy stock cars old-schoolers grew up with, did not punch holes in the air, create slip streams and facilitate “slingshot” passing.

Terms like “aero push” suddenly supplanted terms like “exciting racing”.

France and the people around him – people like Gary Nelson, a one-time Cup series director, vice president of competition, and finally vice president of Research and Development. – knew that expenses and slippery cars were feeding increasingly larger problems.

Nelson, who currently manages the highly successful Action Express WeatherTech sports car series prototype team, went to Europe and observed the effects of technology on the costs and quality of racing there and reportedly came back freaked out.

Race teams in Formula 1 were spending up to a billion dollars a year and fielding cars which could literally drive themselves as a result of high technology.

France and Nelson knew there was no putting the pee back into the bladder back here in America. Technology had a huge shoe in the door, costs were rising and racing was sucking. They apparently hoped just to stem the flow.

A couple of  years into the 21st Century, France called a group of beat writers into the NASCAR hauler at Kansas Speedway and announced his plans for what became the Car of Tomorrow.

The Car of Tomorrow may have been a big symbol of NASCAR’s troubles. (File photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The primary purpose he told us in the mobile NASCAR office that day, was mainly about safety. Then competition and cost. The order of those reasons, we all knew, was not safety first. More exciting competition and controlling costs were goals 1A and 1B in launching the CoT program.

Boxier cars (rolling bricks, as driver/racing philosopher Tony Stewart would refer to them) with aero capabilities that could be adjustable, the CoTs’ goal was to reintroduce slingshotting and drafting.

It seemed, at that point, a radical but, perhaps, acceptable solution to races which featured lines of perfectly spaced Cup cars all incapable of going either door to door or nose to tail.

The COT was a dismal failure that not only did not save NASCAR, but hastened its rush to the the cliff’s edge. But France rightly knew something had to be done to prevent NASCAR teams from spending themselves, and non-competitive-racing themselves, into the abyss.

He and those in the offices down in Daytona Beach would not stop trying to slow if not stop NASCAR’s slide into irrelevancy. They started throwing things at the wall with both hands at the same time. There would be playoffs, wave arounds, overtime finishes, roof vanes, stage racing, and on and on and on…

Nothing has stuck to that wall. In fact, every attempt to keep fans interested seems to have pushed more of them away.

With the racing getting less exciting and the on track gimmickry failing, NASCAR and its partners apparently attempted to transform their product from sport to entertainment. They would call it, “enhancing the fan experience”. And they went full Barnum.

Big screen monitors were built at tracks, military extravaganzas were staged, pre-race

Enhancing the fan experience has become big with NASCAR promoters. (File photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

concerts were held, celebrities, women in sexy outfits, casinos, RV terraces built on the sites of demolished grandstands, ad campaigns, gloss, glitter, explosions, bearded ladies, dog-faced boys and on and on…

Other social and economic factors began pounding on the door. There was a major recession, social media made everybody with a hand-held a commentator and made races non-essential viewing.

Why spend big money and sit in long lines of traffic on Sunday afternoons when you could sit at home and watch for free from a very comfy piece of furniture. And why sit at home watching racing – for free, even – when you could go virtual racing yourself and after winning a trophy in a virtual victory lane, hit a button on the keyboard and start blowing the guts out of pixelated enemies of freedom.

Down on Speedway Boulevard in Daytona, Wharton types were replacing racing types in the hopes that the magic bullet would come from some kind of glorious new business model.

Broadcast partners – who began barking and making demands as their billion dollar investment in the sport was not producing happy numbers – got into the act by introducing gimmicks of their own. This cam, that cam, the other cam. Multiple platforms.

TV reporting, meanwhile, gave way to shilling.

The response to fan complaints about the number of commercial breaks and the timing of those breaks with respect to on-track action, was to double down.

As attempts at reviving NASCAR dragged on, popular driving stars began to retire, only to be replaced by low-cost youngsters who could not speak the language indigenous to NASCAR’s base fandom.

In the center of all this sat Brian Z. France.

He is an easy target. Always has been. Sporting a GQ wardrobe, an expensive hairdo, showing less and less enthusiasm as evidenced by fewer and fewer trips to race tracks, it is very apparent to veteran fans that this acorn fell a hell of a long long ways away – 1.5 miles, perhaps – from the tree. He went from board chairman to bored chairman in fans’ and media eyes.

Comment sections of NASCAR stories on the internet demonize France. How could he allow beloved NASCAR, the fastest-growing sport in America 20 years ago to turn into what we now see?

But the thing is, it’s not certain anybody could save NASCAR. Nobody could return it to its past. There is no such thing as a flux capacitor. Others might have tried different methods in their attempts to revive the sport, used different gimmicks, but the guess here is all would have eventually failed.

Just as platform shoes were doomed from the day that they came out, so too, given the way the world has evolved, was watching sedans go around in circles. Shift happen.

Criticizing Brian France for NASCAR’s current feebleness is like criticizing your doctor for allowing you to get old.

Critics said, and still say, that the cure for NASCAR is to return to racing showroom cars: Buy a new car, install a roll bar, open exhaust headers and let them roar. Build that, and they will come.

Those people are dreaming. There are no – OK, virtually no – American sedans on the streets anymore. Look around. Americans are driving SUVs and pickup trucks.

Ford has become hip to that fact as evidenced by last month’s announcement that the struggling Detroit giant would begin phasing out production of its sedan line. Word is, GM will be doing the same thing. It’s far from certain that people are going to pay good money to see showroom Ford F150s battle showroom GM Silverados. Or Escapes vs. RAV4s. Miniscule interest in the Camping World Series testifies to that.

Sorry, but the people NASCAR needs to attract to its party just do not view modern Mustangs and Camaros as sexy transportation.

Those sedans you still see on the streets tend to be European and Japanese. And some are wonderful pieces of performance kit. But their owners tend to be more into posing than racing.

There are places and series where semi-stock automobiles still race. Like in sports car racing, both in America and abroad, where many series have showroom-stock categories. GT classes. And the racing, like that in the GT Daytona class in the WeatherTech series, can be quite entertaining.

But, it’s the more exotic, faster, more powerful, high-tech, vastly more expensive cars and marques that attract the crowds on Formula 1, World Endurance Championship, DTM and WeatherTech weekends.

It is also important to keep in mind as we rush out to pillory France and his coterie that fading fan interest is not the special province of NASCAR. All other major American professional sports are suffering from increasing fan indifference. Yes, even the big kahuna; the NFL.

A couple weeks ago, on a late afternoon, I happened upon a baseball game on the MLB Channel. It was a Yankees game. Beautiful spring day, marquee team, big name stars and … half empty stadium. A city of 10 million people and only 20,000 people in baseball’s top tabernacle. Yet there was nary a “crucify Rob Manfred” sign to be seen.

With nostalgia baked into the human condition, the guess here is that Americans again someday will become fanatical about their sports. But when, and how much they resemble and excite their followers is impossible to determine.

Parties start and parties end. No matter the quality of the food or the plentifulness of the drink. And especially, no matter the skill or oafishness of the party thrower.

At the NASCAR party, the keg has began to float and bob around in the tub of melted ice. It ain’t pretty but it’s impossible to lay that on one man.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 8 2018
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Christian says:

    Interesting take… but I think you absolve BZF from a lot of responsibility for NASCAR’s decline.

    No doubt that people’s interests in things ebb and flow over time. Cars, in particular, have been made much more difficult to be involved in than even just 20 years ago. Car prices (particularly fast, sporty ones) are out of reach for a 16 year old kid. Even if he (or she) does get their hands on an older Mustang or Camaro, they will spend every dime they make from their after school job to insure, fuel, and maintain that vehicle.

    In this day and age of expensive college educations that net many insurmountable debts but only modest incomes, the money just isn’t there to enjoy a car. The car has become an expensive but necessary burden, not a source of enjoyment.

    Add in the fact that a person who hasn’t experienced a car sliding around a corner can’t begin to fathom the nuances of auto racing, or see how hard these drivers are working in their cars.

    So, certainly things have changed with regard to racing and how it is perceived by the younger crowd, but let’s be honest – you don’t lose 50% of your fan base overnight based on that alone.

    The amount of missteps and mismanagement by the NASCAR brass has been comical, and they have done themselves no favors in public opinion. They have consistently betrayed their fan base in constant chase of that coveted demographic, and it has accelerated the decline.

    Be who you are is something we are told to learn as children, but NASCAR has always strayed from that. They have sold themselves out just as a politician would in desperate pleas for votes.

    Brian France may be a nice person, but his leadership cannot be overlooked when discussing the decline of NASCAR.

  • Bob Wente says:

    Jim, kudus for a very well written article from someone that has experienced the life cycle of racing in America as we grew up and “loved” through it. You always did what you could to help me when you were at the Kansas City Star when I owned the Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, (1989-2004). We always had good conversation when we would meet at Gateway and talk short track.

    Have you ever seen a major company or sport push the most loyal fan base aside and reach out to people for support that have no crossover interest. The fans that helped fill their grandstands were the Indy Car fans looking for a race to go and spend their money. It wasn’t the millennials they were targeting because they had student loans, car payments, house payments and kids. How could they afford to buy race tickets, hotels for 3 days.

    Whoever wants to buy NASCAR needs to go spend their weekend at Talladega and sit in the Tri-Oval Grandstands in the 57th row.

    Thank you for sharing your insight and passion.

    Bob Wente, St.Louis,, MO

  • Dan says:

    Yes. Truth well told.