Not only is NASCAR the most popular form of racing in America, it's probably more popular than all of its rivals put together. It's got more fans, more sponsors, more money, and more credibility. It's also got a tragic flaw - a well-deserved reputation for being the most arrogant sanctioning body in the country. And its long-overdue comeuppance is on the way.
After a decade as America's most-ballyhooed sports-marketing marvel, the bloom is coming off the NASCAR rose. Its fan base is aging. Attendance is plummeting. Television ratings are off significantly from historic highs. Licensing revenue is down. Sponsors are walking. Operating costs are skyrocketing. So despite the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR is looking more and more like yesterday's news.
"NASCAR's model is resisting change rather than embracing it," says a longtime motorsports media and marketing maven who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "In an age that celebrates individuality, it's a mass-market, homogenized product featuring cars that are nothing more than parity appliances. It's stuck in a time warp, and it seems old all of a sudden - a twentieth-century sport in the twenty-first century."
To a certain degree, NASCAR is a victim of its own success. So much money has flowed into the Sprint Cup series that top drivers now earn as much as it cost to run an entire program ten years ago, and annual car budgets are running as high as $25 million. With the economy tanking, sponsors are hard to find. Thus, Carl Edwards, a perennial front-runner with the Roush Fenway juggernaut, has raced with Office Depot, Claritin, Aflac, AAA, and Dish Network on his hood at different Cup events this year. In the meantime, the truck series is losing Craftsman as its title sponsor, and NASCAR hasn't been able to land a replacement.
The latest body blow is the news that American automobile manufacturers intend to slash their NASCAR funding. With the Big Three hemorrhaging money, cuts are inevitable. But there's a bigger issue. For the first time, automakers are seriously asking themselves why they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a series that promotes drivers rather than cars and showcases carbureted pushrod V-8s in massive, one-size-fits-all chassis clothed in generic bodywork with minimal connection to products sold in dealer showrooms.
"We don't feel we have enough identity in the cars," says Ford Racing spokeman Kevin Kennedy. "Also, we would like NASCAR to consider changes that would make the technology more relevant. We'd like them to consider alternative fuels, for example. We'd like them to look at smaller [engine] displacement. But NASCAR understands our concerns, and they're thinking of ways to create more rivalries between manufacturers."