NASCAR Hits the Wall

Having done a racing show on radio [Quick 60 Racing Show] for nine years now, I get asked about racing quite often. One question, I get more and more is what is happening with NASCAR? Well that is a difficult question to answer. What I usually tell people is that they have problems, and they are aware of it. I have given it some thought, and naming the problems is a lot easier than fixing them.

Before I head off into detailing NASCAR’s current situation, maybe a bit of history is in order. Stock car racing grew as very much a regional phenomenon in the south. I think Richard Petty gave a very good reason why that was. Petty said that after World War II many southern men returned home and were looking for things to do and get involved in. One of the things people in the south didn’t have was professional sports. Baseball, football, and basketball teams were all located in the north. You could watch it on television, but claiming a team as your own or going to see an actual game was difficult. After the war the country was prosperous, most had jobs, and most were able to afford an automobile for the first time. This wasn’t just a southern thing, but was true nationwide. People will say that moonshiners with their fast running whiskey haulers were the ones that spurred the interest in racing in the south. No doubt that is true, and people being competitive, racing to see who had the fastest moon rod became a popular pastime, and an event people would pay to watch. This lead eventually to NASCAR, a successful, but very regional sport. Then, ironically the professional ball sports that the south didn’t have played a role in helping build NASCAR. By the 80’s NASCAR’s appeal had begun to grow beyond the south. This growth got a big boost from the labor problems that hit baseball, football, and basketball. Fans were looking for  alternative sports to follow when labor problems in these sports ended or shortened seasons. Many of these fans tried NASCAR and liked what they saw. This triggered a huge growth spurt, that included: more television exposure, new race tracks all over the country, new sponsors willing to pay big money to be a part of this growth. New drivers came into the sport, as the face of NASCAR changed from hard driving, straight talking southerners like Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarbrough, to camera ready, media savvy, marketing aware drivers typified by Jeff Gordon. Gordon came to NASCAR from open wheel racing which at one point was more popular than NASCAR. In the 1990’s open wheel racing in the U.S. split into two groups: CART and the Indy Racing League. Open wheel racing, even after reunification of the two groups, has never come close to regaining its popularity.

Where are we now? The news isn’t good, Attendance is down, so much so that NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures anymore. We do know that attendance revenue reports by the tracks are down 52.7% over the last nine years. This unfortunately is evident by watching many races on TV and seeing the large amount of empty seats. In fact several tracks are removing seats. Television ratings have been faltering as well. This year’s ratings are down for all races with the exception of the Daytona 500, and the race at Indianapolis. Some race’s viewership is down as much as 18% [Las Vegas and Phoenix] from last year.

So NASCAR is dealing with a decline in attendance, decline in TV ratings, and a general decline in popularity. Having identified the problem, the next step is to discuss the causes. Here is my list of the causes of this decline, in order of when they popped into my brain.

  1. The season is too long, NASCAR starts around Valentine’s Day, and finishes just before Thanksgiving. That is a long time to hold fans interest. If they miss the race this week, there will be another next week. The same holds true for attending a race, but to a lesser degree due to race proximity. Indy Car starts their season the middle of March, and finish early September. NASCAR races in September, October, and November, generally go head to head with NFL Football. That is a matchup that NASCAR cannot win. When NASCAR is in it’s playoffs, when the most interest should be focused on the sport, they are in direct competition with football [college and pro], baseball playoffs and World Series, and the beginning of the NBA season. It is easy to get lost in the landslide of sports activity.
  2. The cars all look alike, the tracks all look alike, and the drivers all look alike. In 2009 NASCAR went to the Car of Tomorrow, a standardized car that virtually eliminated the differences between cars. Each car had to conform to a ridged set of specs that determines body shape and chassis design. Except for the brand logos on the cars each one looked the same. It is hard for fans to identify with their favorite brand of car. During the boom years of NASCAR growth, a number of new race tracks were built to accommodate the increase in fans wanting to see live races. Unfortunately, the new tracks all seemed to be roughly the same design – 1.5 mile, D-shaped ovals [Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta, Kansas, Chicagoland, Las Vegas, Homestead, and Kentucky]. The tracks did have variable amounts of banking, but looked, and often raced similarly. Add to this the new generation of drivers all seemed to have been trained by the same marketing firm. They were going to tell you their sponsors and what a great job the team did getting the car ready for the race. That was about it. You would occasionally get a little individuality and emotion from the Busch brothers or Tony Stewart, but when that happened NASCAR would quickly put an end to it.
  3. Too many races are decided in the pits and not on the track. This is probably the result of cars and drivers being fairly equal, the only place a real difference can be made is in the pits. On this I know that NASCAR is in accord with the fans and want to make more of the finish of races based on action on the track rather than in the pits.
  4. How much is the drop in TV ratings the result of the availability of races via live streaming on their mobile devices? The trend, especially among young consumers is towards cutting the cord. Additionally NASCAR has been quick to embrace new ways for fans to stay up to date with NASCAR.
  5. The rules seem to be constantly changing. This is true for the cars, drivers, crews, and championship points system. To it’s credit NASCAR is working to make races more competitive and entertaining for fans from start to finish. To accomplish this they have tried several ideas, some good and some not so. The main idea is to put more of the race outcome in the hands of the drivers. It is my hope that sometime soon we reach a point where that is close to being accomplished, and NASCAR can quit tinkering with every little element of their product.
  6. Less than a full field of cars at many races in NASCAR’s top division, even after cutting the standard field from 43 cars to 40. It isn’t relevant to the quality of the actual racing, but is obviously symptomatic of a greater problem that NASCAR will have to address. That being the high cost of operating a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series car for a full season. This problem has been made worse by the decline in attendance and TV ratings, which has a direct effect on decisions by potential sponsors. The economic down turn of 2009 seemingly hit NASCAR harder than most sports. Instead of one major sponsor for the entire season, most teams must now piece together multiple sponsors to run the entire season. For years car’s sponsors were as familiar to the fans as the car’s number. Now fans often have a hard time identifying their favorite driver. Although the number of cars in the field doesn’t have a great effect on the actual race, personally the most exciting part of the race, other than the finish, is the roar of a full pack of race cars charging to the start/finish line all accelerating at once. The sound and the vibration is exhilarating.
  7. NASCAR lost touch with its roots. When the great NASCAR expansion came and new tracks were being built across the country, there was only one added in the south. – Homestead Florida in 1995. Texas Motor Speedway is technically in the south, but Ft. Worth feels much more Midwestern/Western than southern. When I have been there to watch races, most of the license plates [other than Texas] are from Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, rather than southern states. In order to clear dates on the schedule for the new tracks, the track at North Wilkesboro [ two races], was closed, plus Atlanta , and Darlington race tracks each lost a race. At the same this shift away from the south was taking place, the places where the drivers came from changed as well. Where most of the drivers came from southern roots, now most of the drivers came from places like California, Wisconsin, Nevada, Indiana,, etc. Prior to a recent influx of young southern drivers, there were only three regulars in the Cup Series from the south: Dale Earnhardt Jr. [North Carolina], David Ragan [Georgia], and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. [Mississippi].   The NASCAR base felt very disconnected from the sport they helped build.

With all these causes [there are more] outlined above, what are the answers to reversing the NASCAR decline? If I had those answers, I would make millions in the business consulting trade, as all major sports are facing a similar problem to some degree. Here are my thoughts, not solutions, for the problems I’ve outlined.

  1. The season is probably too long, but I don’t see NASCAR shortening the season any time soon. There are television contracts, sponsor commitments, race tracks with commitments to fans and sponsors. The problem with the schedule is that by the time the playoffs [Chase], start, you lose a large portion of the casual race fans to other sports. NASCAR could run races on week day nights, which would probably improve TV ratings, The problem is track owners would not be happy about the decrease in attendance week night events would bring. One of the things that still excites are races with great traditions, like the Daytona 500 and the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These are the only two races with increased TV viewership this year over last. Also, races that are unique or offer a point of difference. This was true for years of the races at Bristol – until the track owners decided to monkey with the track. In the Camping World Truck Series, the race on dirt at Eldora Speedway drew plus ratings [TV], on a Wednesday night,, with a late [8PM] start time, on a non sports channel. There has also been an increase in interest in road course races, probably because the races are unique, with different strategies for the crews, and different challenges for the drivers. Charlotte Motor Speedway is going to a hybrid track with elements of a road course and a traditional track. If I had the money to gamble with I would build a three quarter mile dirt track, with full NASCAR ready infield, and pit area. Of course I wouldn’t advise anyone to build a race track now, with any hope of attracting a NASCAR race anytime soon. Themed race weekends could be a source of generating additional interest. For example the Throw Back Weekend at Darlington. Fans love the paint schemes on cars honoring past racers.
  2. Don’t expect the look a like car situation to change as NASCAR has begun work on the Generation 7 Car of Tomorrow which will probably be implemented in the next couple of years. As far as the tracks go, don’t look for any major schedule changes. The individual tracks may repave, change banking, try to make wider race groves and better grip, but essentially no major changes. Plus, don’t know of any tracks that are likely to close. This brings us to the drivers. NASCAR has a unique opportunity with so many young talented drivers coming into the sport. NASCAR and race teams should let these drivers display their personalities, instead of being as buttoned down and marketing polished as the last group. It is an impressive list of young drivers all coming into NASCAR about the same time and should be the face of the sport for years to come. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, the Dillon brothers, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Blaney, each has the potential to be the next Dale Earnhardt Jr. Larson’s driving style will win him lots of fans. Everyone loved Chase Elliott’s father Bill, and Chase will eventually step out of that shadow. Daniel Suarez has the potential to bring a whole new group of fans to NASCAR. Ryan Blaney is a fun loving, young driver that loves to interact with fans at the track.
  3. NASCAR is trying to put more of the outcome of races in the hands of drivers, but pit stops and pit strategy will always play a big role in race outcomes. The talent of the crews who build the car and drivers of the cars is all so close, the primary variable is what takes place in the pits. NASCAR has worked with down force and track bar adjustments to put more importance on driver talent. NASCAR and track owners have begun developing compounds that can be added to the track surface to increase grip. This has had some success in adding a second grove at certain tracks where passing can be difficult. I think we are just seeing the beginning of such technology. If you really want to see almost total equality among race teams, NASCAR is discussing going to a universal, standard engine. If this comes to pass each team would get their standard, sealed engines from NASCAR. I personally don’t think this will happen, as it takes the auto manufacturers totally out of racing.
  4. Cutting the cord is here to stay. we started with TV with an antenna, then cable, next satellite, now there are numerous ways to stay connected with your sports. NASCAR is smart to make sure that keeping up with racing is as easy as possible. It may hurt TV ratings, but it has to be available.
  5. I personally don’t want NASCAR to become complacent, and say that racing is as good as it is going to get. With so many variables that can effect the speed, and handling of a race car, NASCAR has to constantly be making rule changes to maintain competition and safety. We may at some point see each race track have it’s own race specs. What I am afraid of is when we will get this current car design tuned where NASCAR wants it, along comes the new C.O.T. in 2019 and we start all over.
  6. NASCAR needs to, and fairly quickly, address the high cost of fielding a NASCAR race team. This is especially true in light of the growing challenge of finding and maintaining sponsors. Event top teams such as Hendrick Motor Sports struggle with securing enough sponsorship for their four race teams. This is true at all of the top three levels of NASCAR Series. In the Truck Series, two multi truck teams have shut down or will at the end of the year because they can’t continue to lose money. NASCAR has taken some steps to cut cost such as shortening the length of some race weekends. There is also talk of limiting even more the number of sets of tires teams can have for the weekend. Also, NASCAR will begin mandating that race teams must run each race engine they use during the year a minimum of two races starting in 2018. NASCAR is considering other cost saving moves as well. Will any of these moves result in enough savings that we will see the return of full fields of race cars at all tracks? Probably not. There is a desire by several teams to add additional cars to their teams, and even teams that compete in the Xfinity Series that would like to take it to the next level. Of course when any of these teams say that they want to add cars, they also always say – if sponsorship can be found.
  7. When it comes to reconnecting with NASCAR’s southern roots, that problem  make take care of itself. Several of the top young drivers that are coming into the sport are coming from southern states. Austin Dillon born in Tennessee, lives in North Carolina,Ty Dillon born in Tennessee, lives in North Carolina, Ryan Blaney North Carolina, Chase Elliott Georgia, Chris Buescher Texas, William Byron North Carolina, Christopher Bell Oklahoma. This group hopefully will help reinvigorate NASCAR’s southern fans.
  8. Finally, having written most of this by candlelight during the powerless nights after Hurricane Harvey, it gave me time to write that I haven’t had in some months. Doing a one hour racing show on Saturdays doesn’t offer an opportunity to go into any depth on the subject of NASCAR. I welcome your comments at larry@sportsradiocc.com