New playoff system. New qualifying procedure. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2014, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation currently preoccupied with other sports, along with the Olympics in Sochi.
Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both NASCAR’s Sprint Unlimited and the 56th Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the next NASCAR television contract. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start 2014 analysis, bringing Frontstretch back to your list of daily internet favorites. This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing; as we try and find the answers, staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and a little sense of humor.
Today’s Season Preview Topic: The NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series have both seen lower than desired attendance and television ratings in recent years. Are there changes NASCAR could make to bring those series back to relevance with fans or are they simply seeing the same interest that other minor-league sports have in relation to the top league?
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: Who watches AA ball? What do local promoters offer in order to get the stands full at your local minor league ballpark? Bobblehead dolls, two-for-one deals and hokey-pokey halftime shows. The games are broadcast on regional sports networks and a handful of fantasy league/baseball fans tune in religiously. Why should NASCAR be any different? The same fans that pack the stands at the Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway are the ones that buy tickets for the Camping World Truck race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Expecting the NNS and Truck series to draw the same crowd as Sprint Cup is unrealistic. However, when was the last time you saw 20 thousand fans at a minor league ballgame? Attendance may not be what NASCAR would want at these smaller races, but in all reality, it’s not that bad.
Summer Bedgood, Senior Editor: Considering that the Nationwide Series still runs ratings numbers higher than or equal to many of the IndyCar Series races, I would say that their following is actually more impressive than other similarly lower-tier leagues or series in other sports. The Truck Series could probably do better in the ratings area, but there are still many diehard fans who claim it as their favorite series.
The Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series have faced up-and-down ratings and low attendance, but are things really as bad as they seem?.
In terms of what NASCAR can do, it is always possible that they could implement many of the same changes they have made in the Sprint Cup Series. Either that, or they could embrace the same gimmicks and rules that short tracks use in order to play to a more “grassroots” audience. Honestly, though, I’m not sure they should do a whole lot. You are not going to get casual fans to watch these series. These are races that are usually built on and played to the diehard race fans who watch any kind of racing that is on television. I know many want the Sprint Cup Series drivers gone from both Nationwide and Trucks, but how much does it help short tracks when Kyle Busch shows up to race on a given weekend? You can’t tell these drivers not to race and then complain when their fans follow them out the door. NASCAR needs to make sure the racing is competitive in both series and the diehards will continue to pay attention.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer/Short Track Coordinator: The answer is simple: Get the Trucks and Nationwide away from the Sprint Cup series and tracks. Have them run at more local tracks in conjunction with each other rather than supporting the Cup Series. If the “minor league” teams can put on a show at the local level they’ll cultivate a new fan base that can follow the drivers up to the Cup series and ultimately build the fan totals for the entire sport. The sanctioning body also needs to pump more money into the series via purses so that teams are more well compensated for their support of the organization. As long as they run in companion with the Cup series for most of their schedules, both series will flounder.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: Simply put, expecting the Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series to draw the same kind of attendance numbers and ratings as the Sprint Cup Series is just crazy. Do minor-league baseball games draw the same crowds as their major league counterparts? For the Nationwide Series, especially, fans are likely choosing to save their money for the Cup races since they’ll see many of the same stars dominate both events.
But with the Truck Series, the crowds have certainly looked healthier in recent years—did you see the crowd at Eldora last year? Plus, every time I turn around, I’m reading something about how ratings for this Truck race or that Truck race are up over the previous year. While those numbers may be lower than “desired,” they’re certainly heading in the right direction.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: In a word, yes, but NASCAR doesn’t want to hear the solution. Fans who were once diehard followers of these series, Nationwide in particular, have tuned out because of the dominance of a couple of Sprint Cup drivers and teams. When the race winner is all but predetermined each week, there’s not much incentive for fans to tune in. Sure, the names might attract the casual fan who can’t be bothered to learn drivers from more than one series, but for every fan who watches to see the Cup stars, there’s one who tunes out because they’re tired of them running roughshod over the field.
Should NASCAR ban these drivers completely? No, but they need to either severely limit both the number of races they can participate in and the number of Cup drivers who can participate in each race or provide no incentive whatsoever for them to race by paying a Cup driver who races for a Cup organization last place money regardless of finish, and by not awarding owner points to car owners whose drivers also race full time in Sprint Cup, eliminating the over-hyped owner’s title from the picture. It was truly sad to see the battle between Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing’s Cup stars for the owner title overshadow the driver’s championship in the media to the degree that it did, and that’s doing the series no favors.
This is, however, a little like minor league baseball. If everyone expected those games to have the same level of attendance and ratings as major league games, they’re going to be disappointed. If they hold them up to their own standard, or against other sports at the same level, then the picture might not look so bleak. Comparing NNS or CWTS numbers to Cup is just not feasible. The series should be looked at as their own entity, and held to their own standards, not held against the elite series. When they are, they will inevitably fall short. If looked at against other high-level minor-league sports, the perception might well change.
Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: Race at smaller tracks. The move the Nationwide Series made from ORP to the Brickyard was heartbreaking because that was one of the best Nationwide Series races left. No one wants to watch Nationwide cars and trucks race around 2-mile tracks. These lower series’ should be about showcasing up-and-coming drivers, but it often showcases Cup drivers and the teams with the most resources to run fast at big tracks. If the Nationwide Series races at more short tracks, it evens the playing field a little bit between Gibbs, RCR and everyone else, and gives other drivers more of a chance to showcase their driving ability.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Editor: Yes; don’t race on Friday nights when your core demographic is out partying. Second, start racing at smaller tracks around the country so the stands look full to over-flowing. If that means that you have to help fund the installation of some SAFER Barriers, so be it. Maybe that would help lure Ford back into the CWTS fray in a more substantial manner if people were showing up and creating excitement and enthusiasm for the product.
Secondly, and this is a no-brainer, run the Truck Series races on Sunday morning or early afternoon before the Cup race at the larger tracks for companion races. Mix in a few road courses too. If Mosport was any indication last year of how great that can be, they should be turning right about once a month. As I’ve long said, if NASCAR is going to shy away from short tracks, then replace them with road courses, as they have become the new short track for the series as far as beating, banging, great finishes, and creating some rivalries within the sport. Plus if the wives and girlfriends are taking swings at the drivers afterwards, it’s a win for everybody.
Mike Mehedin, Senior Writer/Marketing Assistant: There has always been an issue with minor league teams not always performing as well as the major league teams. The Nationwide Series has an issue with dominance from very few teams. You can turn on any Nationwide race and expect to see a Joe Gibbs Racing car leading the race. Regretfully NASCAR can’t magically create more competitive cars. And they have tried reducing the cost for teams to come to the track. Truth is, it’s an expensive sport and a lot of the speed comes from the shop and wind tunnel, and teams that can’t utilize those things are already at a disadvantage. Speed continues to be an issue, so if they slow down the cars and take away the aero issues, I feel the racing would be a lot better on the high-speed tracks.
The Camping World Truck Series, I believe, is better than the Nationwide Series when it comes to competitive racing and the rules package. I’m surprised that attendance is so low in this series. I would easily place the Truck Series second behind the Cup series and before the Nationwide series. I don’t think NASCAR should play with the rules package. They should just do a better job of marketing the series.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The novelty has worn off for the Camping World Truck Series, a form of racing that was sort of unique back in the mid-1990’s (even though NASCAR had floated an idea for racing pickup trucks years earlier). As with other “minor league” divisions, the NCWTS quickly became a high-speed elevator for those at the start/near the end of their racing careers.
Kudos to the Nationwide Series for trying to build waning fan interest in recent years by allowing popular models like Mustangs, Camaros, Camrys, and Challengers to compete; unfortunately, the NNS continues to be plagued by Sprint Cup drivers who take both wins and prize money away from teams trying to leverage themselves in hopes of making the NSCS “show”. Such is the plight of a “minor league” franchise in today’s high-profile/big name culture of professional sports: the competition might be good, but it’s still considered second-best.
Matt Stallknecht, Assistant Editor: I am of the opinion that NASCAR does not need a third national-level series. Two is more than enough. The Truck Series, while exciting to watch, is not financially profitable for the team’s that compete in the series. The payouts in that league do not justify the costs it takes to run a Truck team. Nationwide is a bit better in this regard, but even there, the cost-benefit of that series just does not make sense. NASCAR would be better served by consolidating the two series into one series and redesigning the cost structure so that the new series would have Truck-level costs coupled with Nationwide-level payouts. The loss of the third series could be made up by giving a facelift to the K&N Pro Regional Series to make each a bit more glamorous, visible, and nationally recognized, while still maintaining the cost-effectiveness of those series. Ultimately, I think such measures would serve to boost all of NASCAR’s minor leagues while simultaneously lowering the cost of entrance into the sport of NASCAR.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor:
The Camping World Truck Series puts on some of the best racing in NASCAR, but still sees many empty seats in the grandstands. What is the solution?
Sadly, the Nationwide Series has had these identity problems for what seems like forever. NASCAR believes that having Nationwide races to support Sprint Cup is very important. Sprint Cup does need series to support them at their race weekends, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the Nationwide Series. Separating the Nationwide Series more often from Cup will definitely help them foster a bigger identity. 5 of 33 races just isn’t enough. However, different engine rules should be instituted as well. Potentially a return to 274 cubic inch V6’s. Prior to 1992, the series was primarily a short track series with something like 13 support races to Cup a year. Even then, the Cup drivers were dominating the support races. However, there was enough separation that the series had an identity.
The Camping World Truck Series continues to suffer from NASCAR’s insistence that the season begin and end with Sprint Cup and Nationwide in Daytona and Homestead. With a 22-race season, a 40-week schedule is far from ideal. The early part of the year is so spread out that no one can get anything going. People who aren’t necessarily diehards are going to forget about the series. That’s just not going to work.
To an extent, the TV ratings for both series are more or less indicative of lower division series. They’re not horrible, although there has been a decrease in Nationwide ratings on ESPN over the past two years. The changeover to FOX Sports 1 has put the Camping World Truck Series in more homes. In addition, the Fred’s 250 at Talladega in October will be televised on FOX, the series’ first race on network television since 2009. That should help the series’ visibility a little.