Friday , July 3 2015
Home / Did You Notice? / Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Speedy Rule Reversal, Old Age, Quick Hits

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Speedy Rule Reversal, Old Age, Quick Hits

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Speedy Rule Reversal, Old Age, Quick Hits
(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. © 2014)

Did You Notice? … How quickly NASCAR pulled a role reversal on possible Sprint Cup rule changes? This time last month, we were speculating why they pulled back from testing a reduction of downforce at the All-Star Race. Turns out behind the scenes, owners and others afraid of spending money earned the edge over increasing the quality of competition.

“I think we’re still developing what the 2016 package could be,” NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell said in an article to NBC Sports. “It could very well be the 2015 package. To go down a path that we felt still potentially needed testing, we didn’t think was the right thing to do. From the owner standpoint, we certainly have to manage what we’re looking at for ’15 or ’16 and manage constantly putting new rules in front of them. So that’s where we’re at today.”

What has shifted within the sport, causing Tuesday’s long-winded announcement that puts the “scrapped All-Star test” on the track at Kentucky in a matter of weeks? Let’s investigate.

1) A television ratings debacle. NASCAR has had double-digit declines in three straight races. Some of those overnights are so low, they’ve set the wrong kinds of records since their TV contract went national in 2001. Sports like golf are beating regular season NASCAR races, a sucker punch to a series that likes to claim it’s the second-most popular sport to the NFL. Unfortunately, 20+ million people watching the NBA Finals these days, as opposed to just 3.5 million catching Sunday’s race at Michigan for FOX Sports 1, tells the real story.

Increases in NBA viewership, along with NHL and the Stanley Cup may have made some bigwigs down in Daytona Beach a little nervous. The first year of a new 10-year contract should be showing the same type of increases; instead, racing’s popularity is wilting. NASCAR even lost out to the Indy 500 in the ratings, one of the few times that’s happened in the last decade.

2) Driver’s Council. The sport’s mysterious meeting with the Driver’s Council, held at Dover, seemed to turn the tide in favor of the wheelmen. As purses shrink, a result of declining attendance, drivers will be some of the first to see their salaries cut (it is a business for them, too). But there does seem to be some purity in their arguments for more competitive cars. No one wants to see a sport they’ve spent their life building up fall apart in the form of a single-file, aerodynamic mess.

There are also a limited number of Cup-ready drivers ready to man these cars (see my next DYN point below for more.) Should all of them decide to strike, the closest NASCAR has been to a union, the list of replacements are few and far between. It’s an embarrassment to the sport, who has a list of Fortune 500 companies that would drop their support in the face of such negative publicity, simply has to avoid.

That means the owners, in the form of their Race Team Alliance (RTA) seem to have less power than who they employ right now. As this dynamic develops, what other major sports have had for years score one for the players (err, drivers) early on.

(Photo: Mike Neff)

The Sunday night race at Daytona should be a big draw for television audiences, but what happens after that?(Photo: Mike Neff)

3) NBC, NBC, NBC. Guess who happens to be starting their NASCAR coverage in July? NBC Sports, who has been marketing the heck out of the sport. (In their defense, $4.4 billion over 10 years should have them buying billboards on every corner). The Daytona race, held on Sunday night over July 4th weekend, should bring in big numbers on NBC. After that, coverage switches to NBC Sports Network as the series heads straight to… Kentucky. What better way to put your best foot forward than by going from one of the sport’s most exciting tracks to one where you have an unpredictable list of rule changes?

Of course, this trio of reasons does nothing to tell us whether the fixes will actually work. The list of changes includes a chopped spoiler (from 6″ to 3.5″), a wider splitter extension panel (by 25″) and less of a splitter overhang (1 3/4″ less). All of these will make the cars harder to drive, reducing downforce although they’ll be balanced by a Goodyear tire that supposedly has “better grip.”

We feel like we’ve got a great deal of confidence in this package,” O’Donnell said Tuesday. “The teams have some data on this package, and we wouldn’t implement it if we didn’t feel confident.”

Of course, those emotions can change at a moment’s notice. Just look at the past 30 days. But in announcing the changes, O’Donnell mentioned a point that was striking, a sign of how much the sport is looking to cater at this point to an audience that has started walking away in frustration after a dull start to 2015.

I think ultimately that’s up to the fans,” he said when asked if the Kentucky changes, currently a one-race deal, would be implemented for more races in the future. “We’ve been very, very vigilant in talking about tighter racing.  I think we’ve achieved that in terms of 1st to 43rd.  You see that those teams are closer than ever, but we certainly want to see more lead changes on the racetrack.  We’ll evaluate not only that, but a number of different factors coming out of Kentucky and see what we can learn and potentially what we can implement down the road.”

In other words, if the fans like it? These rules will stay in place. If you guys walk away? NASCAR’s willing to throw the kitchen sink at it, owners be damned. The big question, and one we don’t have answered yet, is whether they’re willing to fund some of these changes out of their own pocket. Can a team like BK Racing survive a few million in wind tunnel tests? Can they survive 3-4 tweaks to race cars that are already years old? That’s the next question, one NASCAR needs to answer if they’re going to keep churning out a full field.

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s aging group of stars? In an era when major athletes are barely the legal drinking age, 20-somethings dominating the sporting landscape, the Cup Series group of title contenders, is, well… older. Take a look at the 16 current drivers who qualify for this year’s Chase, along with their age by the time the series hits Homestead this November…

Kevin Harvick – 39

Martin Truex, Jr. – 35

Joey Logano – 25

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 41

Jimmie Johnson – 40

Brad Keselowski – 31

Jamie McMurray – 39

Matt Kenseth – 43

Kasey Kahne – 35

Jeff Gordon – 44

Kurt Busch – 37

Paul Menard – 35

Denny Hamlin – 35

Carl Edwards – 36

(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)

Though still capable of winning races, Edwards falls outside of NASCAR’s key demographic. (Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)

Aric Almirola – 31

Ryan Newman – 37

AVERAGE AGE: 36.4

NASCAR talks so often about attracting its key demographic: 18-to-34 year-old fans. Well, it’s kind of hard to bring that age group to the table when you don’t have a set of drivers they can relate to. Just Logano, Keselowski, and Almirola are 18-to-34 out of this group; Logano is the only 20-something. That’s a far cry from early last decade, the sport’s period of explosive growth when Earnhardt, the Most Popular Driver led a group of “young guns” like Kenseth, Edwards and several others who connected immediately with their generation.

At some point, drivers like Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon are supposed to make the same connection. That’s hard to do, though, when you’re not even in position to make the postseason. Successful drivers attract successful fan bases; for the sport to evolve, these younger faces need to mix in with the old. Remember Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt, Sr.? That generational rivalry, in NASCAR these days, simply doesn’t exist.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

– If new rules make these cars harder to drive, watch out for comebacks from Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Both are struggling veterans whose raw talent has a chance to shine when we’re starting from scratch. Bring skill back into the equation, not an engineering wind tunnel, and I expect both in Victory Lane before the Chase.

– Much will be made about fans supporting the XFINITY standalone race at Chicagoland. It’s a great chance to see young, developing talent without Cup driver interference: Austin Dillon is the only Cup full-timer running. But in a series badly in need of exposure, why place the race in the worst time slot possible (late Saturday night) at one of the series’ worst 1.5-mile ovals? Whether it’s Ryan Newman or Ryan Reed, no one’s going to watch if all they see is a single-file procession down the straightaway.

19 comments

  1. “ultimately its up to the fans”. Gee someone should have been thinking about that when ratings and attendance started to slide, rather than constantly telling us we were “mistaken” or “didn’t understand”. Kenny Wallace and his “listen up race fans” along with the constant rah, rah, rah from the paid NASCAR media drove me away from the pre-race shows and has led to me muting the tv rather than listen to the broadcast. At least on the radio I get reasonable play by play.

    These issues are not new, but the epic proportions of fan disinterest may finally have gotten someone’s attention. One race isn’t going to fix all of it.

    And Chicagoland for a stand alone xfinity race? One of the most aero sensitive boring tracks there is in NASCAR? Ha, right, I’ll be tuning right in for that.

  2. Weren’t we told back in February that the 2015 edition of the car was going to cure all the ills of Nascar racing and we would see constant action and passing every week? Darryl Waltrip could hardly contain himself when talking about how awesome the racing would be. Then we went to Las Vegas and it was the same old same old. Then Darryl told us all to be patient. That the teams would adapt. We are now into June and we are still watching the same terrible racing, maybe worse, that we have seen for years. The only difference now is you don’t hear a peep out of DW or Nascar about it. So I don’t believe a word that Steve O’Donnell has to say and never will. Until I see it on the race track, I will not get my hopes up.

    • Exactly! This is the same song and dance we’ve heard from NASCAR since the COT was developed and every year, the same issues happen.

      I was willing to be patient 10 years ago, now, not so much. O’Donnell is a PR guy so he’ll spin it and hope for the best.

      I think its funny that NOW NASCAR thinks it should listen to the fans, but how do they plan to do that– the vaunted “fan council” is a nice idea but how many fans are actually in that and how are the surveys structured as in how much bias does NASCAR’s marketing people build into them? Or is it going to be solely based on whether or not people watch the race in KY? Again, people may tune in because they are curious but not necessarily continue to watch.

      sounds like a bunch of crap to me.

  3. It gives me great pleasure to see France frequently flip flopping around in a desperate attempt to maintain stockholder value. We all have ideas to what the problem and solution might be but what if there isn’t an answer. Maybe the rise of the 800 Lb. gorilla was a bubble that was never sustainable. Racing is the only sport I enjoy but it’s apparent that it’s popularity is a full tier below stick and ball (even golf now??). So it’s hard to say where the sport will land if this is an unavoidable correction. I can say that my loyalty has shifted to other forms of racing and I don’t own any ISCA stock so I will continue to watch the show from the cheap seats.

  4. How can free fall ratings declines surprise anyone. Racing without passing is commuting! Gimmicks, in race manipulation, hourly rules changes, and a tame press that functions primarily as PR, it is not just a mess, it is a boring mess Who wants to watch that? I didn’t watch a lap last week and did not miss it at all. I will probably not watch a lap this week either. Wake me up when someone passes somebody.

  5. Biff Baynehouse

    I admire & appreciate Nascar looking for improvements. I hope this produces the desired effect, but it seems like grasping at straws. The abruptness of the changes is baffling & seems to be indicatory of unprecedented levels of uncertainty & frailty.
    The down force reduction is said to be the equivalent of 800 to 1000 pounds. But, why implement this large, if not severe, reduction in downforce without tire testing? Or were such changes looked into at “super secret test sessions” in the recent past?
    Is it possible to gather a meaningful impression or a realistic data set about the new Kentucky aero changes if the tires for the race (which are already made, per the old aero package) were specified under different aero parameters?
    And, pray tell, how is “everyone on board & communicating well” if Goodyear made & will provide tires designed for an obsolete aero rules & has not been given an opportunity to optimize/revise tire specifications for the new aero parameters?

  6. Biff Baynehouse

    Imo, the racing is somewhat suspect, but not the main problem. Ratings are tanking because the broadcasting reeks! Imo, there is no such thing as a boring race, but **itty TV broadcasting is plenty capable of making racing seem boring.
    “The corporate network in question” consistently packs more commercials than laps of racing into their broadcasts. They deploy commentators who best “dumb-down” the events & so as they are suitable to be spoon fed to a 1st grader. And they completely ignore multiple significant race developments weekly.
    How upset would NFL, NBA, or NHL fans be if half of every televised game was obliterated & ignored? Would that effect fan loyalty & the sport’s bottom lines? How about every televised MLB game with 4 innings of each game skipped & ignored? Would MLB fan loyalty be affected? Would TV ratings decline? Pfft! You’re darn right & rightfully so! In fact, Nascar fan loyalty is negatively effected MUCH more by this, because races are races. They do not contain naturally occurring breaks, like quarters, halftime or field swaps. Only soccer is similar to racing, in that the game clock only stops at halftime. But the ultimate irony is that “the corporate network in question” is also broadcasting World Cup soccer, which they do COMMERCIAL FREE!
    33% of loyal Nascar fans have not moved to Siberia in the span of the last 3 weeks. Imo Nascar’s main problem seems to be a failure to put conditions or limits on their broadcaster’s contract, namely regarding race integrity & amounts of ads.
    The fun part is …reinventing the game is not the solution! It has not provided the desired effect in the past (or they would not be in this situation) & won’t now. NO RACE, no gimmicks, no rules iterations & no combination of that said can defeat ethically bankrupt broadcasting!

    • I agree & more to the point – it’s the Chase. How many drivers do you hear saying – we’ve won a race so now there’s no pressure to race? how many times do you hear – since we’re in we’re just experimenting now.Once a drivers wins there’s no incentive to actually race anymore. they aren’t even ‘point’ racing anymore.

  7. i agree with the article but as far as people watching the NBA finals compared to michigan last i checked over 32 mill tuned into the daytona 500 the year it was ran on a monday night. im not a hundred percent sure if my memory is correct but i think over 20 mil tuned into the end of this years. i think this is a good start in the right direction though at least and hey maybe it will work lol

  8. A major problem with the racing is the teams/alliances. Drivers will not risk wrecking another car that belongs to their owner. Can anyone name a race in the last 10 years where a driver bumped a teammate on purpose? If you can, I bet you can’t name 2.

    Can you imagine if two NFL teams were owned by 1 person & when they played each other the owner said to try to beat each other but I don’t want to risk anyone not being 100% next week so only run at ¾ speed – don’t go all out.

    People will say if you limit owners to 1 car the fields wouldn’t be full. So what? Aggressive racing with 30 cars on the track beats boring racing with 43 cars & the number of cars would increase over time.

    • RH, you make a good point about the multi-car teams. They won’t go back to single car teams anymore however. It costs progressively less to add cars to a team. And if you get the same sponsorship, the profits go up.

      But IMHO, the pursuit of “parity” is a problem. If the cars are equal how can you pass? What happens if the new rules expose some drivers? What will Nascar allow the teams to do?

      • Economies of scale make it cheaper to operate multiple teams which gives the large teams an advantage. However, NASCAR should be concerned about the viability of the sport not whether car owners can make large sums of money. I don’t care if car owners can’t afford personal jets our 100s of hours of wind tunnel time. It would probably be good for the sport if teams could not afford as many engineers.

  9. When will NA$CAR look at the TV presentation? It is torturing to listen to the same old announcers and the director thinks the constant changes, especially from in-car and ground level, show racing. Instead of Brian’s
    entourage of marketing geniusry, allow the fans input on how they want the racing (?) to be displayed. Is anyone
    smart enough to study “Back In the Day”?

  10. So the tires will have “better grip.” That implies a softer tire that should wear as the run goes on. That means Johnson complains. That means Hendrick phones Brian. That means Brian phones Goodyear. Bedrock tires.
    As an aside I worked at a place where there was Fred, Wilma and Dino.

    • ha, unfortunately I agree with you. Johnson can’t manage tires. He proved that in 2014 when there was a softer tire and the 48 team struggled. Somehow after that, we were back to rock hard never wear out tires but that fact was pretty much ignored by the media.

  11. I think this Kentucky race could be the first sub-one rating in the post-2001 era of the big NASCAR TV deal.
    NASCAR is kidding everyone if they think the phenomenon of lackluster racing is a 2015 thing. This goes back almost a decade to the start of the COT days.
    Regarding Chicagoland, this is where the ball is completely dropped. There are any number of tracks that would treat this as a big deal and most likely, put on a much better show. Not sure I understand the concept of having the second level series race at a track that holds a Cup race later in the year. It’s just a prescription for a friends and family only crowd.

    • Spot on on both points. Even before the COT, when you had the old car crab-walking down the straightaways, competition was lackluster. This may be a tiny step in the right direction, if you are going to make the cars equal, then making them as difficult to drive as possible brings in one variable. Two things will fix NASCAR racing–get the cars off the ground and reduce corner speeds where they have to take chances in the corners (and run different grooves). Add some old-school, non-PC rivalries and it may come back.
      2ND–NASCAR’S Infatuation with Cup-Lite continues to hurt the (e)X-Series.

      The old standalone’s at IRP, Myrtle Beach, South Boston, Memphis, Pikes Peak, Nazareth, Hickory, The Milwaukee Mile etc created interest and were often more entertaining than the Cup Schedule. If they can run the trucks on dirt, imagine the interest that would be created by a four-race Saturday night Summer Series at IRP, Hickory, Myrtle Beach, and South Boston. Better yet, run it on Thursday nights so you don’t compete with the local short tracks. Fan excitement, a return to the roots of racing and lower costs for the teams!

  12. I’ll give NASCAR credit for at least trying to do something to fix the problems. It’s really to the point where they have to do something. Still, I don’t think anyone should fool themselves into thinking this is the silver bullet that will fix everything wrong with the racing. I suspect it will be an iterative process with a high cost associated with it but it has to be done. If nothing else it may provide hope, in the short run at least, to the fans which is better than the apathy that has taken root.