The view from my couch

Are We Fans or Just Lemmings?
by Cheryl Lauer
February 1, 2004

Needless to say, being a fan for longer than the last 3 years, I feel NASCAR's recently announced "play-off" system is ridiculous. My fellow writers, Sally Baker and Vivian Simons, have already said about everything there is to say about it, as well as every other newspaper and print journalist out there. Everyone knows that the majority of the journalists, fans, and the drivers are against the plan. What I want to explore in this article is how this plan, and NASCAR's arrogance about it, is perceived by an average fan.

In the last 12 months, fans of NASCAR have already endured more changes than in the entire 16 seasons I've been following the sport. First we had "Realignment 2004 and Beyond," which was really just a way to take races away from competitive tracks and give them to ISC-held properties in what is claimed to be "better TV markets." Next came the announcement that Winston would be leaving as the title sponsor of the sport, and just a few months later, we were told that an upstart cellular phone company had paid an ungodly amount of money to sponsor the Cup circuit over the next ten years. Then NASCAR announces that the Southern 500 will be moved from Darlington Raceway to California Speedway beginning with the 2004 Labor Day Weekend. Oh yeah, they reminded us, those fans of Darlington will still have the Southern 500, it will just be moved to November. I'm sure those who planned their Labor Day vacations around the race will be real happy with that change. NASCAR's highly paid spin doctors came up with the absurd term, "Modernizing Tradition" to describe this outrageous move. Then in September, came the announcement that "young" Brian France had been named CEO for NASCAR, taking over as the "king" of the empire created by his grandfather and improved upon by his father. Brian is actually in his 40s, but he seems just a bit naive when it comes to making decisions as the CEO of a business that was working pretty darn well just a year ago. The first decision announced by Young Brian was to outlaw racing back to the caution flag during a race. Okay, those familiar with my columns know that I didn't really like this rule, but for the sake of safety, I said I could live with it. Unfortunately, Brian decided to enter the realm of unreality when he chose to automatically give the first driver a lap down his lap back. Is this competition or a welfare system? Next came the supposed complaining by everyone about how boring the championship chase was and how the points system ought to be change to reward more points for winning races. It's funny, but in the years I've been following NASCAR, it seems like the points battle was settled before the last race in most cases. With just a handful of years where it actually went down the the final race to be decided. But for some reason, Matt Kenseth became the focal point for complaints by TV and the media over how the points system needed to be overhauled. If NASCAR felt they had to make some minor changes, I probably could've lived with that as well. I don't necessarily agree that the race winner should be given a ton more points than others, but I could probably have lived with a 5 or 10 point bonus for winning a race. I still feel strongly that consistency over the entire season is what makes a championship driver. But never in a million years did I or most fans think NASCAR would come up with a new system that was a complete departure from what they've used since 1975.

As the fans headed into the off-season, we heard an unlikely spokesman lift off NASCAR's trial balloon about this idiotic playoff system. Yep, old Jimmy Spencer was the first one to leak the news on Inside Winston Cup in November. Many of the fans just laughed this preposterous idea off, thinking "No way NASCAR would do something that stupid!" Of course when rumors started about moving the Southern 500 from Labor Day Weekend, I thought the same thing. Silly me. Jayski and a few newspapers ran short blurbs about Spencer's statement, but mostly it fell under the radar of everyone outside NASCAR's inner sanctum. Then all of a sudden during the awards banquet week in New York City, we hear someone in authority at NASCAR mention the play-off system again. This time, fans sat up and listened! Still, deep down, we were all telling ourselves "Why on earth would NASCAR mess with the sport when it's supposedly at the height of its popularity?" This time, the press became mobilized, with stories everywhere and fan polls sprouting up all over the internet. The majority of journalists were against the idea and an overwhelming majority of the fans voted adamantly against it. The drivers and car owners came out against the idea as well. Okay, everyone except Michael Waltrip, who seems to have granted himself the title of "Official Shill of NASCAR" in the last couple of years. NASCAR told us they were "studying the situation" and would get back to us sometime in mid-January. Obviously, NASCAR flunked out with all the "studying" they claim to do.

Despite the outpouring of opposition to the proposal, NASCAR didn't even wait until mid-January to make an announcement. As with most of their decisions, it appears the folks at NASCAR had already made up their minds long before they leaked the story back in November. As the first week of testing began for Cup cars at Daytona, NASCAR just could not hold their decision inside any longer. Jim Hunter made the announcement that NASCAR would institute a system of 26 regular-season races followed by a 10-race playoff in 2004. But he assured the fans that NASCAR was still working on the details, but when we heard it, we'd like it. Frankly, I was stunned by this announcement! I honestly never believed the powers that be at NASCAR would do something so radical. It's taken a few weeks for it to really sink in for me and I guess that's why I felt the need to speak out now.

This is where I come to the real point of my story, in my own convoluted way. To me, it seems that in the attempt to milk even more money from the cash cow, Brian France has decided that the opinions of the fans, the drivers, the car owners, nor the media matter one bit. It's quite obvious, he's going do what he wants to do come hell or high water. I've read that Brian was the driving force behind the negotiation of the new TV contract that began in 2001 (and look how that turned out). Now, I hear he's trying to position himself to begin renegotiations with NBC and Fox in 2005. At the rate he's going, Young Brian won't have a sport left for which to negotiate TV rights by the end of 2004! On January 20th, NASCAR made the "official" announcement of what their spin doctors are calling "the Chase for the Championship." Oh boy, another catchy name to appeal to the reality TV crowd. In the press conference, Brian was joined by his father, Bill, Jr., and Mike Helton, President of NASCAR. I didn't see the press conference, but have heard from others who did or saw quotes from it in newspapers. I think Mike Mulhern of the Winston-Salem Journal summed it up best when he said, "...NASCAR's handling of the issue so far smacks of amazing arrogance." I couldn't agree more.

Now, I'm not naive. For many years, I was one to laugh and claim that NASCAR was not a democracy. I always maintained that the France Family ran the sport with an iron glove when it came to "parity" issues, judgment calls, "managing competition," etc. But I'm definitely not laughing anymore. Despite all the questionable calls I've seen over the last 16 seasons, at least NASCAR seemed to care about what their fans thought. Under the so-called leadership of the next generation of the France family, it's become blatantly obvious that NASCAR thinks the fans are bunch of sheep to be led wherever they tell us is good for us. Or better yet, a bunch of lemmings who will blindly follow them anywhere, even if it means drowning along with them. The comments that I've heard from NASCAR in the last few weeks are things like "it is what it is," or "The fans will like it when they understand it..." Well, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what's at play here and I can tell you that this fan doesn't like it one bit. Neither did the many fans who wrote to the Winston Cup Scene over the last few weeks. That publication has been flooded with letters from fans who feel betrayed by the sanctioning body and the lack of respect being shown to the fans' intelligence. NASCAR claims they want to "grow" their sport and bring it to new markets. I can only assume that they feel the core base of fans that they have now is still a bunch of toothless goobers who don't know what's good for them. Or lemmings, to be blindly led by the so-called benevolent dictatorship based in Daytona. Is this the same company that just a couple of years ago was flooding TV with ads saying, "NASCAR fans - you're the best?" I didn't believe those ads even then, but now it's clear to anyone that these ads were just part of NASCAR's propaganda to keep the lemmings lulled into complacency, before they led us to the slaughter.

NASCAR and the TV networks seem to feel they can milk more money from advertisers by emulating the stick and ball sports. The sheer difference of the competition and points system in NASCAR is what drew many fans to the sport. I know that's what has kept me glued to my TV set every Sunday for so many years. NASCAR was so unique that I eventually gave up baseball entirely and I used to be an avid fan of that sport. But I guess my opinion and the rest of the opinions of the "veteran" fans' no longer matter to Brian France. He's said he's out to capture the fans and the ratings from the football crowd in the fall. As my fellow writer, Sally Baker, said, Brian is really living in a dream world if he thinks this absurd playoff system will draw anyone away from football in the fall. Football fans are a diehard bunch and nothing is going to pull them away from the opening weeks of a new season. I predict that NBC is going to be very surprised to find that their ratings this fall will probably drop over what they have been the past three seasons. Now, I'm not in a position to stop watching the races on TV and listen to them on the radio. We don't have a MRN or PRN station that I can receive where I live. Of course, there is always the option of buying an XM Radio (something I'm likely to do after one or two weeks of DW when Fox returns in February). I also guess I'm still a blind optimist in that I think that there's always that slight chance that I'll see a glimmer of the competition I saw back in the early 90s. So, I guess I fall into one of the categories recently described by Matt McLaughlin of the Racing One website. He said "... I feel Brian France needs to rethink his concept that once they understand it, fans will "love" the new way of determining the champion. In place of "love" I'd suggest, "accept", "tolerate" or "become resigned to."

Unfortuntely, I guess I've become resigned to it. And, frankly, I hate the fact that I'm even writing those words today. My friends say to me "We have to do something about this!" I keep asking them, " What can we really do about it?" Despite the fact all fan polls showed the fans were adamantly against the idea and there were countless articles from the media against it, NASCAR went right ahead with their plans. Despite the fact, 4-time champion, Jeff Gordon, went on record saying that the sport has crossed over a line from sport to "entertainment," NASCAR made the change. Past champion, Dale Jarrett, also spoke very strongly against the system and it's impact on sponsors. Even though popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., said he worried that this type of system would devalue any championship he might win in the future, Brian France ignored him as well. We also heard from car owner, Ray Everham, the man who led Jeff Gordon to three of his championships. Everham said he feels NASCAR would no longer be crowning a "season-long champion," but a 10-race champion. Even Dave Rodman, a writer for NASCAR's own website, NOL, said, "...they are artificially altering the nature of racing in the interest of pure entertainment." Granted each of those who initially spoke out so vehemently have slowly stopped their protests, because they realize it is NASCAR's game and if they want to play in it, they can't buck the sanctioning body. I can't blame them for that. It goes back to the fact it is not a democracy and never has been as far as they are concerned. And lastly, despite the fact many top team owners, such as Jack Roush, are struggling to find sponsors for some of their cars, NASCAR simply just doesn't care. When asked this week if he didn't think this would make sponsors feel like they were throwing their sponsorship dollars away if their car didn't make the playoffs, Brian France assured us that this would bring even more value and exposure to all the teams. Is this guy on drugs or what? Does he even believe the stuff that comes out of his mouth? Many fans and car owners are seriously worried that sponsors won't pay for the entire season on a car if that team doesn't make it to the top ten for the playoffs. Or it will just increase the disparity between the s "haves" and "have-nots" in racing. Talk about materially affecting the sport!

Brian France and NASCAR seem to have such an inflated opinion of the value of their sport right now that they are willing to risk alienating all of their core fans and sponsors on the chance of attracting new fans and possibly higher TV ratings to the sport. Well, I wish them luck. Okay, no, I don't really. What I wish is that the Chase for the Championship (which really should be titled the Chase for the Almighty Dollar), falls flat on it's face. I hope that other loyal fans will feel as betrayed as I do and take the sport less seriously than ever before. I know that my interest keeps waning a little bit more every year with every new device that the Frances and ISC shove down the fans' throats in the effort to make more money from the suckers (as they obviously perceive us to be). In 2001, my husband and I attended approximately 12 NASCAR races. Because of the lack of competition at Talladega and the cooler restrictions, we gave up our tickets to that track in 2002. As much as we loved the competition at Rockingham, we decided to not be inconvenienced by the cooler restrictions and gave up our tickets to both races at that track as well. We refused to be soaked for more money by ISC for food and beverages in addition to inflated ticket prices. This year, we will probably only be attending four Cup races. Because most tracks require you to renew your tickets a year in advance, fans like us had already paid for our 2004 tickets before these ridiculous rule changes were announced. NASCAR believes that they have a fan base that is so "hooked" on the sport that they can do anything to us and we'll just blindly accept it. I think this is the season where they will be proved wrong. At least that's what I hope. I sincerely hope that fans are not so blind that they will continue to spend the money for tickets, motels, and camping just because they want to "socialize" with their friends at the track. They could do that in their own backyards and save a whole lot of money. I think anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I have been one of the most devoted fans in the past. Anyone who uses ALL their vacation time to attend races surely meets that definition. But if NASCAR can and has alienated me so much that I am willing to give up tickets to the Coca-Cola 600, (which I have attended every year since 1989), something is definitely wrong. I think NASCAR in is in for a rude awakening in 2004. I predict TV ratings will be down instead of up as in past seasons and I predict attendance at races will drop dramatically as well. Of course the fans at home will probably never know since TV doesn't like to show empty seats on their broadcasts.

So what does the beginning of the 2004 NASCAR season bring? Frankly, I don't know. I can't help but feel that a lot of misguided people are on the brink of ruining a good thing because of greed or misguided intentions. I've never watched WWF or WWE, or whatever it's called. But I have heard jokes about how fake and contrived it is, all for the supposed sake of entertainment. I don't watch Survivor, American Idol, or other popular "reality" shows. But, to me, it looks like the folks at NASCAR do and they think that the American public will accept NASCAR Reality TV. This is really what I see NASCAR turning into with all these radical changes. I'm sure some fans will accept whatever NASCAR gives them, and some like me will probably become resigned to the fact that Brian France has ruined what was once a great sport. I don't know, but I think that NASCAR is deluding itself if it really thinks it can compete with football in the fall. In thinking this, they will be cheating the fans out of what was for the most part a competitive sport. But worst of all, they may very well be denying some fantastic drivers a real championship in 2004. Instead they'll get a made-for-TV mini-series where the guy who was the most consistent over the first 26 races will have his lead reduced to a mere 5 points over the second-place driver. They'll throw in a dangerous track, like Talladega, into the mix and let them "go at it" for this silly Chase for the Championship. They'll let TV promote the hell out of that, using promos of frightening wrecks to draw in the Generation-X types. That makes no sense to me. Put 10 guys going all out to win the big prize against 33 guys who have absolutely nothing to lose. Include a track where the restrictor plates have everyone so bunched up that it's a recipe for disaster under the best of circumstances. I guess I better stop writing now, because the thought of that not only angers me, but frightens me as well. Hasn't NASCAR seen enough tragedy in the last four years? Are they really willing to risk more to attract new fans and in hopes of better TV ratings?

I can only hope that Brian France's 2004 "experiment" is a dismal failure on all fronts and NASCAR actually is big enough to admit when they made a mistake and return to the normal championship system in 2005. I may be an eternal optimist, but I really hope they wake up and realize that their loyal fans are something to be valued and not so easily discarded. I hope they know we are fans, not lemmings...

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