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Will New Leadership Be Able To Save NASCAR?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 5 2018

NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France is taking a leave of absence. Could a change in leadership save the sport? (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Those who are hoping that a change in leadership at NASCAR will bring that sport back to life are going to be disappointed. At the risk of sounding depressingly pessimistic, the thought here is that no cure exists for what ails NASCAR.

Yet more evidence of that surfaced Tuesday when it was announced that Furniture Row Racing, with its Cup championship-defending machinery, crew, driver and winning ways, could no longer afford to put cars on tracks.

NASCAR was born as a product of its time and that time was the middle of the 20th Century. It was a time when mass transportation gave way to individual transportation in the form of the family car.

Automobiles became accessible, then prevalent, then essential and then romantic.

An entire culture sprang up around automobiles way back then. Cars became symbols of uniquely American freedom. The road trip was born as parents would load up the Ford or GM station wagon and head on down the road.

Younger people of the time began to do what young people do – make their cars different in efforts to stand out from the crowd. And what stood out the most was noise, flash, and, especially, speed.

Magazines catering to the car culture sprang up and sped up interest in the

David Pearson and the Wood Brothers in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 during the good old days. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

phenomenon. Popular music glorified it. Movies and TV sensationalized it.

Detroit jumped into American car culture in a big way in the 1950s and ’60s. Midwestern factories began disingorging  cars with hormone-stimulating names decaled to bulbous fenders and hooked into the huge iron V-8s under the hoods.

The cars were big enough to cruise downtown boulevards and farm-burg lanes with six-buddies deep on the inside. They were plenty gaudy enough and loud enough to turn opposite-sex heads. (Brakes? Who needed ’em?)

And inevitably, competition mightily help define the culture.

It’s correctly assumed that bootlegging and moonshining in the American Southeast gave rise to stock-car racing, but it was American car culture’s quest for

The champagne will stop flowing for Furniture Row Racing after the 2018 season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

excitement and speed that made bootlegging and moonshining romantic and outlaw.

Racing American iron and watching those races, became a passion for Baby Boomers down in red-clay country. It remained a passion even after succeeding generations became more interested in being there than getting there.

Cruising succumbed to hanging and chilling for young people as the decades rolled on past. Oh, the sight and sound of 800-horsepower sedans may have offered a one-off thrill or two, but keeping Americans  fixated long-term became largely futile.

By the early years of the 21st Century, the car culture generation population was thinning faster than the hairlines of its members.

Those who did remain were hooked into racing more for nostalgic purposes than something for which they would pay money (lots of it) for and put up with mammoth inconveniences to see.

The NASCAR vehicles, fans knew, were not cars at all. The teams were owned by former gear heads who had become more concerned about the merlots and pinot grigiots flowing from their vineyards than their racing.

The drivers spent more time pushing sponsor products than hanging with fans

Jeff Gordon appeared to be NASCAR’s future. But did he may have turned out to be the beginning of the end. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

and talking about racing. Engineering had made the racing dull. TV had turned into three-hour commercials with tiny morsels of racing grudgingly mixed in. Promoters and vendors were increasingly viewed as pickpockets.

Enter Brian Z. France.

When he took over the reigns at NASCAR from his father, Bill France Jr. in 2003, the popularity of big-time stock-car racing in America had passed apogee. The cars were no longer stars and the stars were no longer genuine

Brian knew that. He knew something had to be done. He had two options: cater to the nostalgic impulses of the aging Boomers or attempt to lure new generations into the sport.

With a CEO’s mindset, with stock prices threatened and with shareholders bleating, he had no choice but to go with the latter strategy. A strategy doomed to whiff.

The question became how to hook millennials, who had a thousand other places to satisfy their entertainment jones, into watching family sedans go around in circles.

Marketing was kicked up as racing people at NASCAR began being replaced by people in very expensive suits. But clearly, marketing alone was not going to get this done.

So then came a tidal wave of changes – everything from Cars of Tomorrow to stage racing – were rolled out of Daytona Beach offices at machine-gun rapid fire pace.

And…nothing.

Noting has worked, nothing is working. TV and turnstile numbers are anemic. Sponsors are in revolt over diminishing returns, NBC and Fox are reportedly livid about their “partnership” with NASCAR.

The response of sponsors has been to turn off the cash tap, the response of teams has been to reduce wages and workforce – and in the case of Furniture Row, go black – and the response by television has been to exacerbate the problem by way of constant shilling  of a dull sport and the inserting more commercials into broadcasts.

The Car of Tomorrow was a response to NASCAR’s troubles, not the cause of those troubles. (File photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Earlier this year, word got out that NASCAR might be put up for sale. Then, a month ago, word got out that Brian France had been arrested for driving while intoxicated and opioid possession and as a result was taking a leave of absence.

Both events have spurred observers to begin thinking about a change of leadership and, possibly, a new start for the old sport. Maybe, many have expressed, this is exactly the thing that could spark a NASCAR renaissance.

The hope here is that they are right.

But, again, the thought here is also that there is no solution to NASCAR’s problems. Not now and not in the near future. It’s a sport that was a product of its time and that time has, like Brigadoon, disappeared into the mist.

It would take a whole new cultural inversion to bring back a passion for cars in America. It would take a whole new approach to car making in America. A European approach.

DTM puts on a terrific show Germany, but watching teched-up BMW M6s race on road courses represents much more of a nod to 21st Century realities than watching re-issued Camaros and Mustangs go around in circles.

FormulaE is doing well as European car makers and millennials have grasped the future of green and are enjoying a format which mixes racing and urban festivals.

NASCAR? It would need dynamite and a crane, to blow it up and start all over again, before it would find the mass audiences it attracted 20 and 30 years ago.

As for Brian France, good luck with getting your life together. Though never a big fan – I of him and, I suspect, him of me – I wish him the best of luck.

And I also say this: His failure to reverse NASCAR’s fortunes were not for a lack of trying. He tried everything and then a thing or two more.

France could not get the job done, but then again, the opinion here is that barring a reversal of earth’s orbit, nobody can.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 5 2018
5 Comments

5 Comments »

  • Linda says:

    If they would keep the safety equipment but go back to what racing was years ago would help the sport fans miss the excitement of the unrestricted type of racing that originated in NASCAR. They have too many rules and restrictions that hurt the actual racing . The segment racing has made it more competitive than before and the package they did at Charlotte earlier was a little more like it was in the earlier years . They need to offer season tickets for diehard race fans for all the tracks at one price with a incentive package of some sorts maybe passes to meet 1 driver for 3 tracks and it be an exclusive access time . Fans are always looking for freebies

  • TheNASCARJeff says:

    Whoever takes over as NASCAR’s CEO I hope the first this they do is tell David Hoots, Steve O’Donnell and Mike Helton that there services are no longer required.

  • Al Torney says:

    Before they can bring the spirt back they have to stop the decline. Every year for the last several I thought the depths in attendence and tv ratings had been reached. But I was wrong. The tv ratings are still declining. I have been impressed with NBC and their attempts to bring the viewers back with many shows about NASCAR racing and bringing Junior in board. In addition they are trying different ways to broadcast the races. Unfortunately they don’t appear to be working. Hopefully in time they will.
    If ratings continue their downward spiral the next tv contract is going to for a lot less money. If this occurs NASCAR will then have returned its roots. Many teams will cease to exist.

  • TheNASCARJeff says:

    As someone who grew up watching my father in SCCA and migrating to a NASCAR fan in 1979 I can say that to me all the gimmicks from the chase/playoffs, fake cautions and the caution clock in the truck series and this heat/segment racing has started to turn me off so I watch more F1 and IMSA.

    I also think the financial issues of the sport as to what it costs to be a team owner comes down to two people in the NASCAR garage, Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick who in the 1990’s built mega-teams which drove the cost up for everyone else who wanted to compete with them. Also NASCAR, when the aforementioned team owners got to five cars the sanctioning body said four was the limit. Meaning to keep up you had to have four teams or an alliance with one of them to stay competitive. If NASCAR would have put the limit of teams to three then two and single car teams would have a better chance and it might not cost as much to play.

    Brian France and the rest of the suits at NASCAR really f*@ked this up and it will take a huge undertaking to fix it, if the team and “official” sponsors haven’t already bailed out by then.

    Of course, that is just some of my opinions on the subject

  • bill cummerow says:

    really good analysis. i don’t think there is one single reason for the attendance/viewer malaise that seems to have affected all forms of auto racing, but you have touched on one of the most important ones and one that is often overlooked. that being demographics and the fact that the baby boom is leaving the room. thanks.

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