The view from my couch
State of the Sport - Part 5 of 5
What is the Future of NASCAR?
When I started thinking about the future of NASCAR, frankly, I wasn't sure what to say. Things are appearing on the horizon that many never expected to see. What will NASCAR look like in five years from now? I don't know – but you know I have an opinion! Maybe a few words from 'the good book” can give us a clue.
When I think of the trends I see in NASCAR today, the words homogenize and assimilate kept popping into my head. The above definition comes from Merriman-Webster dictionary. With a few modifications (I took out the milk parts), it seems to fit what I see NASCAR doing in the next few years. First they are taking the diversity and individuality away from the drivers. They seem to want less and less drivers to have southern roots or unique personalities. Next, they are doing their best to take away the diversity among race tracks. This fits homogenize (2b) above which states, "to reduce to small particles of uniform size and distribute evenly." We lost a unique and distinct track, North Wilkesboro, after the 1996 season. In exchange for it, we got a race at a 1 ˝ mile speedway in Texas, very similar to Charlotte and Atlanta. Another race was also added at the New Hampshire Speedway, a place built to be multi-purpose and service both open wheel cars and stock cars, yet open wheel series don't even race there anymore, and the track provides such bad racing that the Winston Cup drivers always complain about going there. In 1997, we got a new speedway built in California, which happens to be a clone of the Michigan Speedway. Then a race is added at Las Vegas Speedway, another 1 ˝ mile homogenous speedway that yields very little passing or close racing. In 2001, ISC added two more 1 ˝ cookie cutter speedways in Kansas City and Chicago, again providing very little racing excitement.
Now we hear that races most likely will be taken away from two culturally distinct speedways in the south, which provide some of the best racing on the NASCAR circuit, Darlington and Rockingham. Apparently, this is NASCAR's move to meet definition 2 above, "to reduce the particles so that they are uniformly small and evenly distributed; specifically: to break up the fat globules into very fine particles." NASCAR claims they want to more evenly distribute the races to other parts of the county and get the "fat" out of the southeast. But along with that theory, we lose the side-by-side racing that makes our sport different from Formula 1, CART, or IRL racing. In reality, NASCAR grows closer to these series every year.
In all of the moves by NASCAR in the last few years, they continue to cite the perceived need for growth. Nowhere do they ever mention the quality of the product. They claim that fans in other areas of the country deserve to have racing closer to their homes. Yes, this is true. But don't those fans deserve to have the high quality of racing which NASCAR has been known for over 50 years? Instead, what they are getting are tracks like California, Las Vegas, Kansas City and Chicago, a watered down version or homogenized version of racing. Yes, they get all the glamour and color of racing, the smells of racing, and the luxury of corporate suites, but almost no racing, like you would see at Atlanta or Bristol. Let the assimilating begin.
Over the last two weeks, NASCAR has finally come out and admitted that they are making many of the proposed changes to cater to their TV partners, or the latest buzzword, "stakeholders." Aren't the fans that pay upwards of $80 a seat to see their races also stakeholders? Apparently, NASCAR and ISC do not see them that way. They seem to see the TV networks and the ISC stockholders as the only stakeholders worth considering. In a recent article by Mark Ashenfelter in the Winston Cup Scene, Bill France, Jr. was quoted as saying that the changes proposed in the schedule for 2004 and beyond are being made to "bring more value to the sport's broadcaster networks and its sponsors." Again, Mr. France seems to forget that the fans are what have always made NASCAR so popular. He doesn't seem concerned about watering down the value to the fans and this is quite apparent. Available in your grocery store soon – NASCAR Lite with just 2% fat content.
In the last two years, the new TV partners have constantly pandered to the "new fan," assuming the long term fan will stay around because of blind loyalty. This may be true in some cases, but not in all. When I began this series of articles, I mentioned that you couldn't find a more diehard fan than I, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with NASCAR in the last few years. Even I have become inundated with too much information and too many shows on NASCAR each week. Mostly because TV seems to assume that fans are not tuning into to all their programs; therefore, they repeat many of the same stories, the same jokes, the same information throughout the week. (See assimilate – definition 1). I feel my mind being altered even as I type.
Yet NASCAR and the TV networks appear confident that for every long term fan that they alienate, another new fan will pop up to take their place (Perhaps they are just really hopeful that a new fan will take their place? One that will be easier to “make similar”). There has been some decline in attendance at many NASCAR tracks in the last few years. Between the escalating ticket prices, restrictions on what fans can bring into the track, and the lack of competition, fans are turning away from NASCAR in droves. It appears NASCAR would rather increase their TV audience. They seem to think the glitzy broadcasts on TV, full of video game-type graphics, comedy routines, and coverage of only certain teams are binding an equal amount of new fans to the sport. I don't agree. NASCAR and TV covet those in the 18-35 demographic, because they supposedly have the money to spend on TV and NASCAR sponsors' products. NASCAR and TV seem to forget that people in those groups are just beginning their careers and may have the money to spend occasionally. They choose to forget that the bulk of higher paid employees are those over 40. These are the people with the big bucks to spend on durable goods. Also, NASCAR appears to have ignored how fickle the members of Generation X can be. They may think NASCAR is the next big thing right now, but where will they be in a couple of years? These short-attention span crowds will most likely move on to some other sport, some other product.
I understand the premise that NASCAR must cultivate a new generation of fans, as those of us in the over-40 group won't be around forever. But shouldn't NASCAR be more concerned with providing a high quality product to the next generation? They appear to think that this group will be satisfied with a homogenized NASCAR - one with little diversity among drivers or tracks, one with little true competition. Again, this may be true. Perhaps this group views a race on TV as nothing but a giant video game. Is this what the sport will be reduced to in a few years? The world's largest video game? Based on what I hear from Fox, they seem to think so, since they are adding more graphics and more information to their qualifying shows this season. They seem to think that viewers won't stick around to find out who wins the pole, without constantly bombarding them with cute little sounds or a wealth of graphics, all accompanied by folksy anecdotes provided by Darrell Waltrip or Larry McReynolds. Again, I feel this view is short-sighted on the part of both NASCAR and the TV networks. How many more dedicated and loyal fans could they cultivate if they continued providing the excellent racing we saw at tracks like North Wilkesboro, Darlington, or Rockingham? NASCAR needs to realize this fact before it is too late. Rather than providing an entertaining "show" which fits nicely into a TV time slot, they need to provide the thrills and excitement that stock car racing has a history of providing.
One last thing I want to touch on is the feeder systems for the top NASCAR series. Traditionally, many young drivers have come from the Winston (or Weekly) Racing Series at hundreds of short tracks across the country. With the changes proposed by NASCAR to placate their TV partners, we will surely see more Saturday night races. If this is so, what will this do to the attendance at Saturday night short tracks? The closest track to my home is Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia. When the Winston Cup Series visits nearby Richmond International Raceway for their two night races each year, Old Dominion does not hold their weekly races. I've been told by race teams that it is not worth it for the track to run a race because so many people would rather stay home and watch the Winston Cup race on TV than come out to watch the racing at Old Dominion. If TV gets their way and more races on TV are moved to Saturday nights, what will this do to the teams and tracks around the country? This could have a significant impact on one of the main feeder systems for NASCAR. If attendance drops off, how long before sponsor dollars disappear and fledgling drivers can no longer afford to compete? Where will the stars of the future come from then? This past week, the historic Nashville Speedway (now called Fairgrounds Speedway) announced that it is not longer a NASCAR sanctioned track. They cited the costs they had to pay for the “privilege” and they also talked about how the movement towards more Saturday night races by NASCAR is going to hurt their track (and others like them). Is anybody in Daytona listening? In another article in the Winston Cup Scene, Mark Ashenfelter talked about this topic. He made an excellent point when saying that "the NASCAR of today is a testament to the vision" of the founders of the sport over the years. He goes on to say that the long-term vision of the sport seems to be lost on NASCAR's marketing gurus. I could not agree more! The descendants of founder, Bill France, Sr. seem to want go for the quick buck as evidenced by all of the changes that they have been making lately. They don't seem to have the same vision Big Bill had about providing a quality product for the fans. I constantly envision Mr. France as spinning in his grave if he could see the NASCAR of today.
And let's not even get started on the homogenizing and assimilating of something that got most fans started watching racing and is one of the most important and unique features about NASCAR – the cars themselves! Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick – real cars that looked like the ones on the street. Forget Roe vs. Wade – get in the middle of a Chevy vs. Ford discussion and you'll have some real excitement. I understand there are fans that root for the drivers and not the manufacturer, but there are a whole lot of fans who love nothing better than to root for a Chevrolet – no matter who is driving it! The current trends towards common template cars will be as exciting as watching an IROC race at Talladega. Heck, the new fans don't even have a clue that Olds and Buick were even in NASCAR. Anybody who can spot the differences between models will only be able to do so because the $15.00 program they bought told them that Joe Smoe was the driver of the Pampers Dodge – not because they could tell the difference as the car drove past them on the track. Plus it's hard to tell that kind of detail from the luxury suites. The current trend will evolve until the only thing unique about a “Ford” will be the blue oval sticker on the front of the hood. I can see manufacturers eventually dropping out of the sport because of lack of brand identity.
Do I have a crystal ball? Can I see as the future of NASCAR? How about you? Can you see the future unfolding before your eyes? I don't know. I think NASCAR needs to look long and hard at the direction the sport appears to be headed. They need to rethink the proposed changes in tracks and race days and start times for races. They need to remember that the ISC stockholders, the France family, the sponsors, and the TV networks are not the only stakeholders in their sport. The fans carry a lot more clout than the people in charge of NASCAR today seem to realize. The fans vote with their dollars. They vote when they choose to attend races at fan-friendly tracks owned by companies other than ISC. They vote with their dollars when no longer feel comfortable paying $80-100 for a ticket to watch a homogenized, watered-down version of a stock car race. They vote when they fail to tune into a TV broadcast because the racing is just too boring or they never once hear their favorite driver mentioned on the broadcast.
I can only restate what I said at the beginning of these articles: I still love NASCAR. I still think it beats open wheel racing, football, baseball or any other sport. But the powers that be at NASCAR need to slow down whoever is driving the train right now or they may find themselves with no loyal fans in another few years, no multi-million dollar sponsors or TV contract. This is Just My Opinion, but one that is shared by many NASCAR fans.
And to end of a positive note, it's now less than two weeks from the Great American Race, the Daytona 500! Even though I may complain about the NASCAR of 2003, I still can't wait to see the start of another racing season. Let's hope I still feel the same way in November.
Got Milk? I hope not….
Coming Next, the season begins! Look for my review of the Bud Shootout next week,
Read Part 1 - The Bad Things About Technological Advances
Read Part 2 - The Problem with Expansion
Read Part 3 - Just Plain Greed
Read Part 4 - Is TV Materially Affecting the Sport?
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