Race Weekend Central

Looking Ahead

Say what you will about Brian France and his perspective on NASCAR, but there’s no doubting his vision for the sport’s future.

The cars? What used to be, years ago, production-based models commonly found on dealer lots became the Car of Tomorrow with its standard design, safety features, and dependence on decals to provide the “showroom” appearance of Fords, Toyotas, and Chevrolets.

The points system? What used to be the format developed by the late Bob Latford on a cocktail napkin became, in 2004, the Chase for the Championship with its ten-race “post-season” intended to rival college football on television. As audience numbers waned, the format was amended to emphasize the current “win-and-in” system with its focus on creating a “Final Four” running for the Sprint Cup title at Homestead.

The connection with fans? What used to be centered on personal appearances and NASCAR’s “open door” policy with spectators became, with an ever-increasing use of technologies like the Internet and smartphones and the acceptance of emerging social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope. Fans today define themselves as being part of “NASCAR Nation” and pride themselves on their close connection with their favorite teams.

The relationship with corporate sponsors? What used to be deals involving motor oil, parts suppliers, tobacco, beer, and fast food have become tie-ins with lucrative global players like Microsoft, Sprint, XFINITY, and other technology-based providers.

The competitors? What used to be easily-recognized names like Earnhardt, Mears, Gordon, Johnson, Stewart, and Truex are … well … still that way. Toss in a Danica Patrick, a Kyle Larson, and a Kyle Busch, and you have an ongoing state of change.

And these kinds of changes seem natural in the House of Brian. His background in more high-profile endeavors like entertainment and promotion make this kind of evolutionary development almost anticipated. We’d likely be suspicious if today’s NASCAR more closely resembled the sport circa 1985.

So when ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass broke the news on Monday that NASCAR was discussing possible “long-term equity” agreements for race teams, it struck me as yet another chapter in the story of the sport’s evolution.

It has always been that teams in NASCAR operated as independent contractors. As long as a car owner had equipment, personnel, and financing to keep the doors open, they could compete whenever and wherever they wished. If the money ran out, you either looked elsewhere for more funding or you stayed home. NASCAR provided the circus, race teams provided the acts.

The realities of racing, however, work differently. Without race teams, there would be no NASCAR. Without NASCAR, there would be no race teams. Without either, there would be no sport in its present form. Suddenly, long-term equity becomes a point of discussion.

Options for how to achieve such long-term survival vary greatly. According to Rob Kauffman, who is both co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing and head of the Race Team Alliance, the details will likely be complicated and technical, meaning that fans will likely not learn about the particulars until deals have been negotiated and decided.

Transparency is only beneficial if fans agree with the eventual outcome, I guess.

One way to reach long-term equity for teams is to award franchises, like is done in other professional sports. Another way is for NASCAR to grant a select number of licenses to race teams so as to guarantee starting spots and full fields of popular cars.

Here’s a suggestion: why not provide driver appearance licenses? Granted, this is an old-school (as in over a century ago) approach, but it helped make automobile racing the sporting powerhouse it is today. Drivers like Barney Oldfield were more popular with fans than they were successful in races. The mere presence of his name on a poster meant grandstands packed with curious and interested spectators.

Given that Danica Patrick is without a viable sponsor for next season, yet is one of the most popular and recognized drivers in NASCAR, would this new format of “equity” not mutually-benefit both her and Stewart-Haas Racing? Maybe toss that notion into the pile of ideas currently on the table….

Imagine what an appearance clause could do for the fortunes of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Jeff Gordon. It might be easier to reward popularity than to accurately calculate either loyalty or longevity in the sport.

Loyalty and longevity might be treated as tenure, meaning that certain teams with a distinct history within the sport would receive automatic “acceptance” within NASCAR competition. The tenured teams would be allowed to start races without qualifying, allowing the established teams a level of security and permanence.

As someone who works in a field where tenure is both encouraged and aspired to, all I can say is that achieving such “permanence” is not always a good thing. How you get there, and – more importantly – what you do once you get there, are not always beneficial for the greater community. What qualities you represent will be your lasting legacy.

And the common denominator for all these options is sponsorship. Without solid and consistent financial backing, none of these possible “long-term equity” formats will work.

I guess some things in NASCAR will never change. Regardless of the vision, the view remains the same.

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