Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Chasing the Future, NASCAR’s Shot at Success

Now that the field has been determined for the 2011 edition of the Chase for the Championship, we can set our sights on more important matters – namely, how will NASCAR, in 2012, try to draw more fans to more events so these attendees might spend more money?

The overall outlook in NASCAR right now is pretty grim from a financial perspective, what with teams shutting down, selling off their assets, and laying off employees. Race teams are cutting back on the number of events they enter, and the presence of “start-and-park” entries has been filling out fields all season.

One thing not filled out as of late has been grandstands at NASCAR events. With race attendance down around 20% over the last five years, and with television ratings posting similar numbers, the France family’s boom seems to be leaning ever closer toward bust. With spectator attendance in 2011 being better, but not great, and television ratings for the year being better, but not stellar, serious and/or thoughtful attention has to be given to the prospects for NASCAR in 2012. Simply put: will some dramatic changes be needed in order to create a better product once we get to Daytona next February?

A step has already been made in what seems to be a positive direction. With the announcement that NASCAR/Turner Sports/ESPN will offer live online broadcasts of this year’s Chase races (except for Charlotte on Oct. 15; that event will be shown only on ABC), could we be looking at an innovative method for spreading the gospel of NASCAR? If stock car racing hopes to capture the always-elusive 19-24-year-old male demographic, posting events online in “real time” just may be the way to go.

I work closely with this age group, and I can assure you that computer/smart phone technology is the method-of-choice for gathering and distributing information. It’s unrealistic to expect these viewers to be viewers in the old-school sense of taking time on a Sunday afternoon (or Saturday evening) to hunker down in front of the TV to watch a race strewn with seemingly-endless commercials.

Putting the Chase online is a genius move because NASCAR/Turner Sports/ESPN is taking the coverage to its hoped-for audience; if I’m a 20-year old male who watches movies and TV shows via my laptop, why should I be required (or expected) to sit down for three-plus hours to see a Sprint Cup race? This development could mean big things for NASCAR by bringing in a new audience and changing the way the fans consume events.

We’re already learning of an assortment of changes for next year, even though we’re just now gearing up for the 2011 postseason. As the Chase for the Cup gets underway at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend, we’ve been introduced to the addition of marquee drivers, the addition of new technology that should improve competition, and the addition of new (yet old) facilities. At the same time, we’re facing the loss (at least for the near future) of established teams, recognized venues and race formats. It’s true that change comes in the form of both gains and losses, and it’s true that some kind of change is inevitable, but it’s also true that change isn’t always suited to the better.

First off, we need to consider that the 2011 season (thus far) has been the best we’ve seen in recent memory. Regardless of driver loyalties, fan favorites and other such subjective criteria, NASCAR 2011 has presented us with exciting competition (most of the time), heroic performances, five first-time winners (so far) and what’s looking like the most hotly-contested chase for the Cup title ever. Give or take two or three drivers in the Dynamic Dozen, and it’s shaping up to be a you-pick-‘em–style finish to the year.

Might Jimmie Johnson win his sixth consecutive championship? I don’t know. Might Jeff Gordon resurrect his title-winning-ways with solid runs over these final 10 events? It’s possible. Could Brad Keselowski sneak up in a cloud of tire smoke from victory lane to steal the biggest trophy of all? Anything might happen, I guess. Is this Kevin Harvick’s year? It could be.

Will Kyle Busch add a Cup championship to the family’s trophy shelf? This might just be the season. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. take advantage of his return to the Chase after a three-year absence to earn the title he’s been trying to claim? One can only wait and see. Tony Stewart has said that his team would be “irrelevant” if they made it into the Chase, but has this not been a year of surprises? Who would have said that a 20-year old driver in only his second Sprint Cup start would win the Daytona 500? Is anything not possible during this season of uncertainty?

Unfortunately, all of this excitement and suspense – the kind of stuff that has gone on to build NASCAR over the past six decades – has faded over recent months. It might be because team budgets are stretched to the breaking point or it might be because human emotions are taxed by the excessive demands of racing for survival each week. Whatever the case, we’re seeing unpopular decisions being made with unhappy consequences.

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Kevin Harvick Inc. shuts down its Truck Series operation and cuts loyal employees loose. Harvick’s Nationwide operation moves back into the Richard Childress Racing fold and now there’s redundancies to consider. A harsh reality in today’s economy is that redundancies are met with layoffs. Once again, loyal employees are left looking for their next opportunity in a culture where crew personnel and drivers far outnumber available opportunities.

The same is true for recent developments at Germain Racing, where personnel have been cut loose in an effort to restructure what seems to be a sinking ship. Sponsors might come and go, but not as quickly as drivers and crew members.

So what are we to make of an historic season that encompasses both great successes and socioeconomic failures? What might 2012 hold in store that can turn things around? I believe there are several positives that are capable of reversing the afore-mentioned negatives.

One such positive will be the addition of Danica Patrick as the full-time driver for JR Motorsports. Like her or not, Patrick will bring media attention to NASCAR and the Nationwide Series every time she shows up at the track. Ticket inquiries at New Hampshire Motor Speedway jumped (supposedly) by almost 30% in 2010 when it was announced that Danica would be competing in the New England 200.

Much has been written – and speculated – about the arrival of Patrick in NASCAR, but a given is that her “brand” will be a huge benefit to the business of stock car racing. And now that she’s moving into Sprint Cup competition during 2012 with a team most-likely operated by Stewart-Haas Racing, we can expect to hear more about NASCAR in more diverse and “non-traditional” outlets. Whether or not you think it’s a good thing, combining the most-recognized name (and face) in motorsports with the most-recognized racing series in America will be a “win-win” for all parties involved.

Another overall positive development in NASCAR will be the incorporation of electronic fuel injection into Sprint Cup competition, beginning with the 2012 running of the Daytona 500. The use of EFI will signal an end to restrictor-plate racing on superspeedways, even though the “electronic” nature of EFI could mean an entirely new means by which to restrict and/or control engine performance.

We saw the advent of two-car/tandem drafting on the big tracks in 2011, but one can only guess what running EFI will do when it comes to making speed on the high-banks. Might 2012 signal a return to those long, freight-train-like rows of cars we used to see in The Great American Race? Looks like we’ll have to tune in and find out.

The announcement last week that Rockingham was returning to the NASCAR schedule in 2012 was wonderful news. “The Rock” has been – since 1965 – one of those love-it-or-hate-it tracks. Sand and grit were always rough on tires, and its position on the Cup schedules of old often turned the fall race there into a pressure cooker of sorts. I was at Rockingham in the autumn of 1994 with Travis Carter Racing and that was the year Dale Earnhardt won both the race and the then-Winston Cup championship on the same afternoon.

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To see the historic facility dropped from the Cup schedule back in 2004 was a blow that signaled NASCAR’s apparent need to “rise above its raisins,” to borrow a phrase from Richard Petty. Andy Hillenburg, whose picture you see when you look up the word “racer” in your Funk & Wagnall’s, bought Rockingham Speedway in 2007 and began (in 2008) petitioning NASCAR for another race date. Three short years later, the announcement came down from high that a CWTS event (the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200) would be run there in April 2012, a victory for the tracks that had faded in the bright lights of growth and grandeur.

But the return of Rockingham has also raised questions about other more “famous” tracks that have been pushed aside in NASCAR’s quest for new markets. What, as some fans have asked, about North Wilkesboro? If we’re excited about bringing a legendary NASCAR facility back into the sport’s present-day relevance, might we see yet another press conference heralding the addition of another Camping World Truck Series event – this time at the racetrack made famous by NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson and located just down the road from the home of Lowe’s home improvement stores?

There have been several attempts over the years to get North Wilkesboro back on its feet, but the financial demands have been too daunting. If the right people step in with the right amount of money, might NASCAR again be approached to add the legendary facility to one of its schedules? It worked out fine for the Rock, so might similar efforts at North Wilkesboro achieve a similar result?

But just as Rockingham announced its return to NASCAR, it was also announced that Darlington was going to drop its CWTS event for 2012. Recent date shifting within NASCAR has already affected the track’s recognized position as a historic facility, what with the Southern 500 being pushed up to May from its traditional Labor Day slot on the calendar.

Historic significance aside, there will be one less NASCAR event at “The Lady in Black” come 2012. The new race at Rockingham supposedly had nothing to do with the change, nor is the dropping of the Darlington truck race permanent, but it is a change, nevertheless. Will developments like all of these help NASCAR next year? NASCAR certainly hopes so.

And the hits just keep on coming. Both Cup races at Pocono will be reduced to 400-milers in 2012, a change that was welcomed by both race teams and race fans alike (but not by yours truly, for the record). With fewer available seats in fewer available racecars by fewer available teams thanks to fewer available sponsors, we can expect more of the nail-biting negotiating we experienced this year with Carl Edwards (and are seeing with the plight of Clint Bowyer).

On the plus side of the NASCAR ledger, there’s been the announcement of a new CWTS team for 2012 with former champion Johnny Benson Jr. behind the wheel of a Chevrolet backed by the “Pure Michigan” campaign. Is this new team taking a huge gamble? It sure is, especially in this economy, but perhaps now is the time for drivers, car owners and sponsors to take risks. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” as the old saying goes.

Will 2011 go down as the most thrilling season in NASCAR history? Maybe. Will this year’s Chase be the best ever in terms of competition, human interest stories, and sheer excitement? Only the next ten weeks will tell. Does 2012 have the makings of yet another big year for NASCAR Nation? If I were the gambling sort, I’d have to put my money on “It sure seems that way,”

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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