The view from my couch
NASCAR: The Post-Modern Era
by Cheryl Lauer
November 26, 2003
The last 33 years of NASCAR racing has long been referred to as "the Modern Era." This segment of the sport was characterized by two major occurrences that changed the face of racing significantly in 1971: (1) the title sponsorship of the sport by a major company, R. J. Reynolds (RJR), and (2) the reduction of the schedule from 48 to 31 races a year. As everyone knows, the Modern Era was a time of tremendous growth and refinement of NASCAR. As we look ahead to the 2004 NASCAR season, I feel that we will begin "The Post-Modern Era." This term popped into my head back in June when NASCAR announced that RJR and Winston would be replaced by the Nextel cellular phone company. I really didn't know what the term Post-Modern Era meant. I honestly thought it had something to do with art and thought the various stages in the evolution of art would provide a good analogy for the evolution that I saw happening in NASCAR.
I decided to do some research on the term, Post-Modern, and found that it actually had more to do with philosophy than art. I thought this might be a little high-toned for most of us race fans, but I feel the term still provides an excellent basis for comparison with the changes I see occurring in NASCAR. Because, when you get right down to it, the "philosophy" of NASCAR really is changing these days. I see competition being pushed out of the center of NASCAR and being replaced by entertainment and sheer greed. In fact, two points I found in my research about the Post-Modern Era actually are "...on the way to Utopia, the ugly side of man's nature was revealed in the twentieth century" and "...a crisis of meaning and identity..." To me, these are great analogies for what I see happening to a sport I love. When I discovered NASCAR in the late 1980s, I thought it was Utopia, the perfect sport. It was exciting, competitive, as well as entertaining. After I really got into what could only be called a niche sport at the time, I found that it actually had it's own little culture, supported by a lot of devoted fans. Now that we've entered the 21st century, the sport that this group loved so much seems to be suffering from a crisis of meaning and identity. Over the last few years, our sport has shifted from a sport to a money-making operation shared between stockholders and the TV networks. It is headed away from that exciting sport towards "entertainment," not real racing. Even a few drivers during the 2003 season have been bold enough to state that racing is falling to the wayside in lieu of entertainment. How many races did we see in 2003 not won by passing on the track, but pit strategy or fuel mileage? How many passes for the lead were actually made on the track? Often now, we get music videos, computer graphics, comedy routines, and jokes made my TV commentators in an attempt to make up for the lack of real racing.
In 2003, there were changes made within NASCAR, with many more on the horizon for 2004. As much more esteemed writers than I have already said, maybe too many changes all at once. In the November 6, 2003 issue of the Winston Cup Scene, Deb Williams stated that NASCAR has lost it's sense of stability and is now targeted towards the instant-gratification generation. Truer words were never spoken! Not only will NASCAR be moving from title sponsor, Winston, to Nextel in 2004, but they will throw out tradition by moving the Southern 500 from Labor Day weekend at Darlington, South Carolina after 53 years. In September, NASCAR announced that Brian France, grandson of it's founder, Bill France, Sr., would become it's Chief Executive Officer. If his father, Bill France, Jr., taking over for his father in 1972 helped mark the start of the Modern Era of NASCAR, Brian taking the reins surely marks the beginning of the Post-Modern Era.
Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful things that have occurred in the last year in NASCAR. Safety innovations, the likes of which we never dreamed of just a few years ago. Every driver now is required to use some sort of head and neck restraint device. SAFER barriers were installed at three of the tracks on the circuit in 2003. Numerous rule changes were adopted to protect the crew members working on pit road. One of Brian France's first major decisions after taking over in September was to "freeze the field" as soon as the caution flag came out to ensure the safety of competitors involved in accidents. Ah, but here, Brian went just a bit too far in trying to provide us with "entertainment" instead of racing. He chose to add the twist of giving a lap back to the first car a lap down. This part of the rule has become a controversial issue among both drivers and fans of the sport, and hopefully in 2004 this rule will go the way of the odd and even numbered pitting on pit road that we saw in early 1991. Another positive move that NASCAR has made is extensive testing to try and take away the aero-dependence of the cars and place the race back into the drivers' hands. Changes to the size of the spoilers and the hardness of tires are scheduled to take place in 2004. Hopefully, these changes will put more "racing" back into the sport.
2003 saw many other controversial calls on the part of the sanctioning body, beginning with the very first race of the year at Daytona. NASCAR chose to stop it's most important race of the year just past halfway because of rain. Yes, it rained all night at Daytona that Sunday, but what about the thousands of fans who traveled to Florida and paid on an average of $100 to see that race? Not to mention the millions of others watching it at home. What would it have hurt to reschedule the race for completion the next day? Ah, but NASCAR already had the fans' money at the track and the TV networks already had the money from their advertisers, so they figured why bother? Then we move to the next big race of the 2003 season, the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. Again, NASCAR chose to call the race early because of rain. But this time, they did not have the excuse that it rained all night. I know, as I was at Charlotte that weekend and it never rained again after NASCAR called the race that night. Again, they had our money, the TV networks had other programming to show, so why bother? It's just entertainment, right? And the short-attention span generation probably didn't even notice the difference anyway.
Next, we have two controversial decisions made that directly impacted the outcome of a race on the track. The first happened during a Busch Series race at Texas in early April. NASCAR came up with what will always remain "the Brian Vickers Rule" because that young driver was denied his first NASCAR victory. Vickers was deemed to be "in the act of passing" when he dove below a car that slowed abruptly on the restart. In the past, as long as you didn't actually pass on the inside before the start/finish line, it was okay to make this type of move. Vickers car never actually passed the other car in this instance, yet NASCAR decided that it would penalize him even though he had led most of the race, thereby, denying him his first win. Vickers came back and won three races in 2003 and, ultimately, the Busch Championship, so I guess NASCAR will say it really had no material affect on anything anyway. Next, we have another controversial call that happened later in April at Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR has the supposed "yellow line" rule that they instituted at the Daytona and Talladega a few years ago in "the name of safety" Personally, I never agreed with the rule; however, if it was in the interest of safety, I could live with it. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went below the yellow line at Talladega in April, he improved his position by passing the race leader who was at the time on the outside, not the car directly next to him in the middle. NASCAR did not penalize Earnhardt and he went on to win the race. NASCAR decided that it would be an unpopular move to penalize a popular driver, so they chose to make a "non-call" on this pass. Half the fan base will say it was the right call and half will say it was a tainted victory because of inconsistency by the sanctioning body. Many other drivers had done the same thing in the last 2-3 years and were penalized, thereby affecting the outcome of the race. It seems NASCAR felt that for the sake of entertainment, it would not penalize Earnhardt. Yet, to me, on that day NASCAR's credibility dropped dramatically because of the perceived double standard among drivers.
As I mentioned earlier, NASCAR has chosen to move the Southern 500 from it's traditional Labor Day location to California Speedway. At the request of the TV networks, and in the perceived need to move the sport from the southeast, NASCAR is throwing out a 53-year tradition. In addition, it is taking away a race from Rockingham, North Carolina in the process and giving that race to the California Speedway. When this decision was rumored early this year, I felt certain something like this could never happen. After NASCAR (already spearheaded by Brian France behind the scenes), made this decision, I realized that absolutely nothing in NASCAR is sacred! NASCAR countered the cries against breaking tradition with this move as "modernizing tradition." Has a more absurd term ever been thought up by high-paid spin doctors? What NASCAR is doing is denying the fans competitive and exciting racing at Rockingham and Darlington in exchange for better ratings for TV and more tickets sold by the International Speedway Corporation (aka NASCAR). The TV networks can sell more commercials for a race held on a holiday near Los Angeles, so those loyal fans who are used to spending their Labor Day in Darlington are just out of luck. They now get to go there in November, when the weather is a lot more questionable. After this move, nothing should surprise me, but then I'm still pretty idealistic about things like tradition and competition. I even read that Brian France is now exploring moving NASCAR into the international marketplace with a possible race in Mexico City and overseas.
Speaking of international markets, 2004 will see the entry of a foreign-owned auto maker into NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series. This is another tradition in NASCAR that I thought I would never change. What I loved about NASCAR was that this was one place that we were not inundated with foreign cars as we are on the highways. That won't be true come 2004. Yes, I'm one of "those" fans. I don't care where the vehicles are manufactured, because the profits still go to a foreign-based corporation. It doesn't matter how much positive spin NASCAR puts on that, those facts don't change. Aren't we suppose to be supporting American-owned corporations these days? NASCAR was built on competition among cars built by American-owned companies. But, hey, what's another tradition going down the drain? As long as NASCAR can "grow" their sport and attract a younger audience, who most likely own one of those Toyotas or Hondas, rather than a Ford or a Chevy, what do they care? I credit the introduction of Toyotas into Cup racing in a few years as part of the reason why General Motors withdrew the Pontiac from competition after this season. I'm sure GM feels they must concentrate all their efforts on the Chevy in order to compete against another major car brand in the future - one with a track record of throwing unlimited amounts of money into racing in an effort to win at any cost.
The most significant change that we will see in NASCAR in 2004 is the change of title sponsor from Winston to Nextel. I understand that the R.J. Reynolds company could no longer afford to spend the money they have spent on NASCAR during the past 33 years. With the tobacco settlement and the decrease in smokers in the population, their profits are down significantly. I understand why they asked to be released from the remainder of their contract with NASCAR. What I don't understand is how NASCAR practically jumped at the chance to relieve themselves of the "stigma" of being associated with a company that almost single-handedly re-invented the sport after 1971.
I recently read that driver Jimmy Johnson said he didn't even know what a Winston was when he aspired to join NASCAR's top ranks as a child. I've never been a smoker, but I never really thought about Winston as being an evil. I tried to focus on the good things they did to promote the sport I loved. Over the last couple of weeks, there have been many articles citing all that RJR did for the sport of NASCAR. Yes, they jumped into it at a time when few other marketing opportunities were left for a tobacco company, but over the years Winston helped build the sport into what it is today. They became true partners in improving race tracks, facilities for fans, promoting races, and bringing other sponsors into the sport. What started out as a unique marketing opportunity for them quickly turned into a true partnership because RJR learned to love the sport.
My question is will their successor, Nextel, do the same things? Or will they see NASCAR as the next big thing and only a means to capitalize on the known brand loyalty of NASCAR fans? And if they don't make tons of money immediately or NASCAR begins to drop in popularity, will Nextel be around in a few years? We already hear horror stories of Nextel making race fans scanners at the track obsolete in an effort to promote their phones or walkie-talkies. I, for one, believe this is rumor to be entirely false. No company would risk alienating so many of the sports' fans. But then, I believed the Southern 500 was sacred to NASCAR as well. Nextel has already flexed it's muscles with it's exclusivity agreements, barring other cellular phone companies from sponsoring race cars, unless they were already in place before 2004. Yes, I'm sure Winston and RJR had some sort of exclusivity agreement. We never saw cars sponsored by Marlboro or other cigarette brands, although U.S. Tobacco did sponsor cars using their Skoal smokeless chew products as well as the company that made Kodiak chew. Yet, cellular phones and other personal electronic convenience items cover a much broader spectrum of products than tobacco. Nextel will reportedly pay $700,000,000 to be the title sponsor of NASCAR's top series over the next 10 year-period. After seeing the way the TV contract has materially affected the sport over the last three years, I don't want to begin to imagine what Nextel and their sponsorship dollars could do to it.
Speaking of sponsors, a big story over the last few seasons has been the declining availability of sponsorship dollars for teams. NASCAR will say it is the lagging economy or the high cost of racing. What they fail to mention is that NASCAR itself grabs many sponsors to be the "official" whatever of NASCAR. Funding which easily could have financed a race team instead. How many Winston Cup teams have we seen be forced to close their doors because of lack of sponsorship in the last few years? And even more Busch teams do the same thing? When reviewing the final points rundown in the Busch series, I noticed that there were only 13 full-time Busch teams that competed in every race this year. That was downright frightening! First you have the invasion of the Winston Cup whackers to the Busch series at the majority of their events - teams taking sponsorship dollars that could have easily gone to struggling Busch regular teams. For instance, what could the Herzog-Jackson Racing Team (#92) have done with the sponsorship from Payday that Richard Childress ran in every race, most times with a Winston Cup driver in the car? Early this season the 92 team was leading the Busch championship points, but because of no sponsor, was forced to withdraw from competition by mid-season. How sad. Yet everyone applauds Richard Childress Racing for winning the owners championship with two different drivers this year. Quite an easy feat when you have more than half of your races driven by a Winston Cup driver and the other by a talented Busch regular. Throw in a high-paying sponsor and how could the team lose? Yet, the real losers are talented drivers and struggling teams who don't get the opportunity to compete because of the lack of sponsorship.
My second issue with sponsorship money is that since 2001 and the "new" TV partners, sponsors are having to put up more and more money to even get mentioned on television anymore. Fox and NBC made it clear from the beginning that they would not mention a team's sponsor unless that sponsor also bought commercial time during the TV broadcast. It was speculated in an article last week that this drives the cost of sponsorship for those teams upwards to 40 million a year. How can teams like Morgan-McClure and Kodak afford to stay in the sport when they are up against this kind of money? During the time in which Winston helped to sport expand during the last 33 years, sponsorship of the cars has become paramount in a team's success. Yet now, many of the 43 teams never get mentioned or even shown on TV during a race. What incentive does a sponsor have to support a team that is never shown on TV? And conversely if a team can't attract a multi-million dollar sponsor, how will they ever run well enough to be shown on TV (since TV primarily focused on the teams running in the top 10 only) if their sponsor can't afford to pay for commercial time on TV as well. It really is a catch-22 situation which seems to me to be eroding the heart of the sport.
Now let's talk just a bit about the nature of the TV broadcasts. Everyone who reads my columns regularly knows that this is a real interest of mine. Since the change from ESPN and TNN, we find that Fox and NBC like to show the leaders of the race or popular drivers most of the time. Fox, particularly, seems to want to focus on entertainment by the broadcast team, rather than the racing which most of us tuned in to see in the first place. I recently read in Stock Car Racing magazine that even Richard Petty was critical of this type of broadcast. When the King, who is known to be one of the most generous individuals in NASCAR, complains, maybe that says there really is a problem. TV seems to feel that the casual fans that they so desperately hope to draw will flip the channel if the race is boring. They seem to think the casual fan will only remember winners or "stars" and has no interest in "those old guys" over 30 or 40, even if they are former champions and damn fine drivers. They just can't relate to them. NASCAR seems perfectly fine with the approach that the networks take to showing the races or else they signed away their lives in getting the big check from the networks, so they simply have no say in what gets on TV these days. All I know is the broadcasts seem more and more geared to the short-attention span crowd.
We also have the networks asking for more races to be moved from their traditional Sunday afternoon times to Saturday night prime time schedules. Unfortunately, the network executives at NBC showed that they didn't allow enough time for the fall race at Charlotte this year. What really worries me is what comes next? Will TV demand the shortening of races next? What better time for this kind of dramatic change than at the beginning of the Post-Modern Era. I mean, NASCAR is increasingly becoming a made-for-TV show. When Winston came on board in 1972 they required all races 250 miles or less to be dropped from the schedule. Will Nextel and the TV networks now demand just the opposite? That thought is truly frightening to me because I love the "whole story" of a long race, where various strategies and not wearing out your equipment comes into play. How long before we have 200 or 250 mile races just as we do in the Busch Series. With all the Winston Cup drivers in the Busch races, pretty soon we won't be able to tell the difference between the two series at all. What comes next, the dreaded "split series" which as been the fear of long-time fans for the past 10 years? But wouldn't that make for nice entertainment for the TV networks?
With Brian France ascending to the CEO position at NASCAR, another significant change has been rumored to be under consideration from NASCAR for the 2004 season. This is a major change in points system used to determine the series champion. The fans aren't sure if there is any validity to this rumor or not. Unfortunately, I can see NASCAR thinking what better time to make a major overhaul to the points system than with the takeover of a new series sponsor. Personally, I found the rumors of a new system just weeks after the death of Bob Latford, the man who devised the current system to be in really poor taste. Many people will say that racing should be about winning and not just consistency. They will say that drivers who win a lot should be rewarded more. But I guess I'm of the school that thinks there are plenty of drivers who are all or nothing. They may win 5 or 10 races, but wreck themselves out or blow engines in a lot of races as well. Should this erratic driving style be rewarded with the championship? Granted many winning drivers suffer the bad luck of cutting a tire down or getting involved in someone else's wreck, such as Ryan Newman did this year. But that's one of the things that I have always loved about NASCAR – it's part skill, part preparation, with a large dose of luck thrown in as well. I don't want to see any of those factors taken out of the equation. But what do I know? I'm just a long-term fan and NASCAR doesn't appear to care about my opinion anymore. I'm sure they think the immediate-gratification crowd will love the "entertainment" value of changing the points system just as much as they think they love the free pass back to the lead lap. It's so much more kinder and gentler and why should anyone have to work (race) to get a lap back or achieve a steady consistency to win a championship? This type of thing would definitely appeal to the Generation X crowd, I'm sure. Perhaps the flashy person who wins a lot of races, but goes up in flames the rest of the time will appeal to the new sort of fan NASCAR is hoping to attract to the "new" NASCAR. Hey, the TV networks really think people like shows like Survivor and Fear Factor. The latest rumor is that NASCAR might have a 10-race "playoff" scenario at the end of the season to help with late season TV rating drops during football season. If they do this, why not go ahead an split the series into an east and west division?
Many of the changes we've seen in 2003 and the ones we will see implemented in 2004 show that the basic philosophy of NASCAR is changing. They appear to be allowing greed and entertainment take the place of the competition aspects of the sport. This returns me to the reasons why I will consider 2004 as the beginning of NASCAR's Post-Modern Era. The continued emphasis by NASCAR on making money at any cost "reveals the ugly side of man's nature." I hope it is not too late for the sanctioning body to turn things around and return to the "Utopia" that I found when I discovered the sport in 1988. I truly hope that Brian France and the powers that be at NASCAR approach what I see as the sport's "crisis of meaning and identity" in a positive way. I hope they can find a way to blend the perceived need for expansion and their desire to attract a younger fan-base with the values and traditions that earned them so many loyal fans over the years. They need to not lose sight of the competition that made this a great sport in the quest to make more money and to attract a new generation of fans. NASCAR needs to remember that if they provide a quality product, the fans will be even more attracted to the sport and less likely to move onto the next big thing.
I really wonder what will be remembered about NASCAR's Post-Modern Era in another 30 years. Will there be continued growth and real improvement of the sport as we've seen the last 33 years, or will it begin a decline of what was once a great sport? Will NASCAR sacrifice what make it great in a quest to become mainstream? I hope NASCAR can find a way to balance the needs of everyone involved in the sport over the next 30 years: The stockholders, the race teams, the TV networks, the auto manufacturers, the sponsors, and most importantly, the fans. I think 2004 will prove a defining year for the future of NASCAR.
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