I grew up in Indianapolis, thus Auto Racing has always been in my blood. It had always been open-wheeled racing and my heroes were Foyt, Andretti, Unser, and Penske. Then in 1979, on that fateful weekend when the Mother of All Blizzards hit the Midwest and East Coast and we were forced to sit inside and try to find something to watch, we all found the first-ever live coverage of the Daytona 500 beginning to end–a NASCAR Race that had always been perceived as a regional sport of rednecks in the South. Boy, were we awakened. The race started with a caution, as it had rained hard and delayed the race, and I wasn’t sure it would be able to finish. But NASCAR President Bill France knew he had a captured audience and a shot of national attention. He was shrewd enough to not let it slip out of his hands. Few will remember who won the race (Richard Petty) but most all will remember the fight that broke out after it between Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, and his brother Bobbie Allison. In an instant, “Good Old Boys” and “Rubbin’ is Racing” became a part of national vernacular. A regional sport had gone national.
Under the leadership of “Big” Bill France and his son Bill France Jr, the sport grew to national prominence and the most watched form of Auto Racing in the United States. New ‘southern’ personalities emerged to join the likes of Petty, Allison, Baker, Junior Johnson, and Smokey Yates. Dale Earnhardt arrived that year as well. His nickname was either “Iron Head” or the “Intimidator,” depending on how he raced you that night. He was as much loved as he was hated. His motto was “I don’t care if you’re booing me or cheering me, as long as you’re making noise, you know I’m there.”
He along with the Frances grew the sport to national prominence as “The King,” Richard Petty was hitting his swan song years. NASCAR exploded. It remained true to its roots and kept it’s “southern charm” and we fell in love with these characters. Sponsors were lining up to jump on board and grab some of the attention. Winston Tobacco had been the primary sponsor since 1971 and every driver coveted the Winston Cup at the end of each season. The sport was rather simple. The cars had fenders so they could rub and tempers could flare. The competition was fierce each week with few cars coming off the track unscathed. These guys weren’t outwardly savvy and spoke their minds both on and off the track. It was pure, genuine and unique to any gentlemen’s sport. It was frickin’ fun to watch.
Then comes along a young upstart, who grew up in open-wheel racing. He was well-versed, polite, very media savvy, and knew how to represent his sponsors and sell their products. The Jeff Gordon era of NASCAR had begun and it clashed directly with the Earnhardt, Waltrip era. France was still running NASCAR with his iron fist, but he also began to see the dollars rolling in from the sharpness of Jeff Gordon. The transition had begun. Almost immediately, all new drivers coming into the sport were becoming some type of clone of Jeff Gordon. Polite, proper and a gentleman. Sponsors came flocking and the sport was achieving incredible financial success, and the attention of all forms of business to promote products and services. Everyone was getting fat and happy.
As Bill France Senior stepped aside to allow his son to rule, the sport grew even more. Bill Jr. brought in the big TV contracts and other opportunities that seemingly could not fail. Bill had trained under his dad and was better educated of the Jeff Gordon era. The sport was a sure bet across the board. The problem was that, as all this was happening, NASCAR was losing it’s “Southern Charm” and becoming corporate. Drivers no longer worked on their cars, engineers did. Marketing teams created sponsor opportunities and autograph sessions and the personalities went stale. Due to tobacco regulation, Winston was forced to drop its sponsorship of the series and momentum began to shift. The France family was now being directed by Brian France, who appears to be no “chip off the old block” of his father and grandfather. It seemed that money became the primary focus of the competition. Now “SUPER TEAMS” had been formed: Hendricks, Yates, Roush, RCR, DEI, Penske, and Joe Gibbs. Pretty much everyone else was relegated to parade for cash with no real chance to win.
Promoters and track owners were forced to build more grandstands to meet demands just at the same time NASCAR was losing its momentum. Over-saturation was a growing cancer for the sport. Every driver spoke alike with a media person right next to them and spent the bulk of their time hawking sponsors rather than talking racing. Fans became disinterested or decided to stay home and DVR the activities. It appeared that Brian France had no grasp on the sinking ship. Now the NASCAR is in trouble with no real strategy to bail itself out. Aside from a few of today’s drivers, few have any personality and are always poised to say the right corporate thing, another commercial for a product.
Now the sport seems to continue to try to foster ways to bolster competition and regenerate interest. The chase, heat racing, competition cautions, and session qualifying are some of the methods. Some have generated more interest but it all seems like a forced competition. We don’t know who’s gonna’ win a race (WWE) but we know when most events are going to happen to bunch them up again to keep the interest. SO 16 races into this season the sport has seen 6 different winners from 5 different teams. No matter what they want to tell you, it’s become a money sport. RCR, Steward Haas, Barney Visser Racing, Joe Gibbs, and Penske own all the wins. Superpower Hendrick has yet to surface as they are a Chevrolet Team and with the new Camaro body, they will stay there until Ford becomes fat and happy. Keeping the manufacturers in the game is critical to the racing. I predict that next season the Camaro will dominate (They have had that body in NASCAR for several years in the Xfinity Series). NASCAR just needs to make sure Ford stays on board, a company who has suffered the last few years as Toyota and Chevy prospered. The institution if the mile and a half tracks have not helped either. They are more built for parades than races. The Brickyard is an awful track to hold a NASCAR race, however, the prestige of running on the track is too profitable for NASCAR. There has never been a great competitive NASCAR race on that track. Close but not competitive, well, except for the year Goodyear brought bad tires and teams had to pit every 7-10 laps and change tires. It was a great Pit Stop competition that year.
So where are we now? The sport is suffering badly. Track seats are empty, television ratings are way down and sponsor interest is waning. Winston served as the series sponsor from 1971 to 2003, 33 years. Nextel, Sprint and Monster Energy Drinks have split the last 14 years. Now Monster is reevaluating it’s $40 million sponsorship for next season. The rumors have NASCAR creating bundled race packages that can be bought for around $10 million and include 8-10 races. Then a new sponsor would take the next bundle.
NASACR is just no longer a good investment with your marketing dollars. Along that same route, driver sponsors are falling by the wayside. Lowe’s has been the only sponsor for all of Jimmy Johnson’s stellar career. They are not renewing for next season. DuPont, who sponsored Jeff Gordon’s career (became Axalta), has become a secondary sponsor for Hendricks. Most teams will now sell sponsorship packages for selected races with the high visibility races drawing the bigger pricing. Drivers now come into the sport as much for the sponsors they bring as the talent they have. The sport has lost some big names recently and have not been able to replace the personalities. Gordon, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Edwards, Stewart, and Danica Patrick have all eroded the fan base. The newer drivers coming in just don’t seem to capture the intensity of their predecessors. That leaves the work load on the shoulders of the Busch Brothers, Clint Bowyer, Hamlin, Lagano, and Truex Jr. Fewer personalities to identify with.
The final piece of the puzzle is the constant rule changes or interpretations each week. It appears that NASCAR is searching and are admitting NASCAR no longer has a great, stable product to sell. You can actually see qualifying sessions where drivers are not allowed to attempt qualification because they are off variance my fractions of inches. Drivers win races and then fail post-race inspection but the win is allowed to stand. Fans still go to races to see their heros race and will be loyal to their sponsors. Don’t let them qualify and they’ll stop spending the money to come. The elder France’s always said it’s my way or the Highway. Go dig ditches. This generation seems to be trying to please everyone but the fans, assuming they will always be there. Guess what, they’re leaving in droves. It appears it is slowly moving back to a regional sport. The region being just the hardcore fan base that will watch no matter what. Loosing Danica Patrick was bad. She brought another whole element to the sport. She’s gone. The have tried to replace her will Bubba Wallace and paring him with Petty but that does not seem to be working out so well. He, like Petty these days, is a non-factor in the race, except to the announcers who are paid to promote the sport. It is now also rumored that the NASCAR franchise is on the block for new ownership. Maybe that’s the answer to save it from falling all the way down. Although, I’m sure the price is well over-inflated and it is still producing a profit but at what price and for how long? Indy Car should be a good example of what can happen if mismanaged. It was once the premiere form of racing in America. It’s hard to find now and has a much smaller audience than NASCAR. ABC, which has been the only network to cover the Indy 500, dropped them after this last race. NBC has picked them up at a song of the fees ABC was paying.
The moral of the story here is simple, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I understand that every venture has to evolve and grow to face the paradigm shifts of business. But NASCAR sold its golden egg (it’s charm) to make a profit. Disappointing to say the least. One good thing that may come from this all is if Monster Energy Drink Leaves its post, is that I hope they take the Champions Cup and just name it the FRANCE CUP in honor of Big Bill and Bill Jr. France, who built NASCAR into what it became and what it should have remained. Take a lesson from Vince McMahon and the WWE. How many times has Hulk Hogan come out of retirement to wrestle again. McMahon sees the importance and relevance of it’s roots and is not afraid to return to them when ever he needs to.
NASCAR bring back your mojo! Your “Southern Charm”.