To race fans, it’s about the racing.
Pretty simple concept, really. People don’t want to devote three hours to watching cars drive in circles. That goes double if they’re paying for tickets, hotels, parking, food and T-shirts to commemorate the event. They want to see battles throughout the pack, throughout the day, preferably with a close finish.
They want drivers they can root for, full bore. Drivers who can show their personalities freely, who aren’t afraid to be bold on the track and speak their minds off it. Drivers they can relate to. Drivers who earned their places.
It really is that simple… but if only it were really that simple.
It’s About Television
Should the networks have so much control of the schedule? Should they have a say in the sport itself, like its made-for-TV playoffs and stage racing to produce commercial breaks? Should they get to decide which teams are worth covering based on what the sponsors spend on advertising?
Probably not, but they do. TV money pays for things fans take for granted. Sure, NASCAR gets a cut, but most of the money goes to the tracks. Gate receipts are not enough to cover the massive undertaking that is a race weekend and all the things that come with it. Personnel, entertainment, sanctioning fees, fan amenities and utilities, just to name a few, are expensive, and the TV deal helps tracks cover them so that fans can enjoy the experience in person as well as on television.
TV money also goes toward race purses through the tracks, the payout to teams for entering the race and hauling sometimes hundreds of miles to compete. Teams also get a media rights payout from the overall deal. And as sponsorships dwindle, teams depend more and more on this money.
And in return, the networks control more of the sport with each successive deal. Earlier start times? Fans want them, but the networks don’t. Broadcasts that end closer to (or in) prime time have more potential for commercial revenue. Later starts to bleed into dinner time on the East Coast, but the networks want the West Coast fans to have races start after lunch. They schedule around other commitments and other sports, finding times that will offer them the best return on their sizeable investment.
NASCAR is, to a large extent, powerless to stop them, especially as ratings have waned in the last decade. The sanctioning body needs that TV revenue. Tracks need the revenue. Teams need the revenue.
So, as long as the networks want playoffs and stage breaks and races in football stadiums, they will get them. They will continue to have a major say in the schedule. NASCAR could put its foot down during negotiations, but the sport is a harder sell than it was in 2000 or even than it was at the beginning of the current deal.
It’s About Sponsors
Since the beginning of NASCAR, teams have used money from sponsors to pay for racing. It has evolved from small local businesses covering tires and entry fees to multi-national companies paying tens of millions per year to splash their logos on the sides of racecars.
The return on their investment comes largely from how much they’re seen on TV, so, at least in theory, the better they run, the more time they’re on screen. It has also long been held that those who buy additional ad time during the broadcast get more coverage than those who don’t.
Full-season sponsors are few and far between these days, the product of the rising cost of sponsorship meeting the waning popularity of the sport. A year’s worth of sponsorship can run well over $20 million, and dollars come with expectations.
Some of that means the driver has obligations to meet. And that doesn’t just mean showing up for a Sunday morning meet and greet in the suite or a midweek appearance at a company event. There are also expectations on how that driver will act and what he will say. He’s expected to thank them (and every other company who backs him) in interviews and pose with their hat on in victory lane.
And sure, to the fans watching, those smiling expressions of gratitude are pretty vanilla, the smiles pasted on after the 15th hat photo. The driver would probably like to say something sarcastic about his day, tell everyone in graphic terms how the car really ran, run screaming from the hat dance to the nearest Porta Potty and crack slightly inappropriate jokes with the fans at his meet and greets. He is, after all, a human being.
But the sponsors are all too often paying for a human being with… less personality than the average lobster. And when that money is the reason the driver has a racecar to drive on Sundays, he’ll do what’s asked. And sometimes it’s asked of him 24/7, not just on weekends.
It’s About Tracks
Many tracks depend on NASCAR weekends for a large percentage of their income. Other events alone don’t make up for a NASCAR weekend.
It costs a lot to maintain a racetrack, let alone keep improving it as fans demand more from a race weekend than just a seat. Tracks get a large percentage of television money, so track owners aren’t willing to give dates to other track owners. NASCAR sometimes has to work within that framework.
On the outside, telling a track owner to pound sand when it comes to scheduling race dates looks easy. NASCAR owns several tracks, Speedway Motorsports owns a bunch and a couple are still privately owned. Speedway Motorsports in particular has already shown it will take legal action to keep its dates though it has been willing to move some to other tracks.
Tracks also need to fill seats. Not only does that pay for operations, but the optics of full stands are important to the sport as a whole. NASCAR can try to add tracks, but if fans don’t show up, those tracks won’t keep those races because they either can’t afford to or because NASCAR will move those dates to tracks that will sell seats. Remember Rockingham Speedway? Had those NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races sold every seat with a waiting list, the track’s fate might have been different.
It’s About Teams
Team owners want to race. Drivers and crewmen certainly want to be competitive. And that’s ridiculously expensive at the NASCAR Cup Series level. Tens of millions of dollars don’t grow on trees.
So sometimes those teams are faced with a dilemma: race with a driver they believe in, who has shown real talent at other levels but does it with less sponsor support, or race with a driver who came to them with a sponsor in his back pocket willing to pay the bills.
As nice as it would be to think a wealthy owner could foot the difference himself, that’s not a viable long-term solution. So, sometimes, the driver in the seat is a little below the elite level everyone hoped for, but the car can show up and race mostly competitively because the equipment is top-notch.
Money buys speed, and there’s only so much a driver, even the best driver, can pull out of a car that doesn’t have the dollars behind it. So owners take the driver the sponsor wants, and the sponsor makes sure the driver fits their mold.
It’s About the Cars
We all know that Cup cars are as far from stock as they can be these days. But the manufacturers and the fans want them to at least bear a passing resemblance to a street car.
And street cars don’t look like they used to either. They’re more aerodynamic, more efficient and more generic than ever. Such is the evolution of the automobile, and it stands to reason that NASCAR has, at least sort of, followed suit. There’s a reason the cars don’t look like the cars of old that longtime fans miss on the track – those are long gone from the showroom.
But keeping at least a passing resemblance to today’s everyday driver poses some issues. They’re not shaped like a brick and the air around them matters more than ever.
NASCAR seems to be able to come up with a racecar that can do one of two things and still resemble the street version that bears its name. They either race well on the short tracks, flat tracks and road courses, or they race well on the intermediates as the current car does.
Teams have asked NASCAR to keep costs low, so the car became a bigger problem. The solution could be two types of chassis with similar skins: one the current configuration for the intermediates and superspeedways and another for the flat tracks, short tracks and road courses. It could also be two different engines, one with significantly more horsepower for the non-intermediates.
But those cost money to develop and build. They’d also require multiple offseason tests, which run in the six digits for teams. Owners would have to spend twice as much money as they do now. And that means finding more sponsor dollars or more TV money (or both), and more demands on the driver.
It should be simple. It should just be about the racing – not just for fans but for the sanctioning body, teams and drivers.
But the truth is, the bigger the sport, the farther from simple it strays. It should just be about the racing, but it’s also about survival.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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