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.”
Next year, for example, the Budweiser Shootout – the exhibition race at Daytona that starts the season – will include the top six cars from each carmaker rather than, as in previous years, the pole winners from the prior season. But this tiny concession can’t paper over the us-versus-them relationship that’s long existed between NASCAR and the manufacturers.
That attitude was born during the formative years of stock car racing, when NASCAR was a poor cousin to USAC and the sport got no respect outside blue-collar enclaves of the South. In those days, factory involvement gave stock car racing credibility. But at the same time, the manufacturers’ high-handed decisions to quit NASCAR temporarily at various points during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s threatened to fatally undermine the sport. Bill France and his progeny never forgot, and they never forgave. As one insider puts it: “NASCAR doesn’t consider the manufacturers a necessary evil. It considers them evil, period.”
The balance of power has turned upside-down in the past decade, and NASCAR is now the 900-pound gorilla that can do whatever it damn well pleases. The sexless, widely reviled Car of Tomorrow was implemented over the objections of, well, just about everybody. Likewise, Toyota was welcomed into the NASCAR fold despite fears that it would bring expensive new technology and boatloads of Japanese yen to stock car racing.
Sure enough, earlier this year, NASCAR was forced to dumb down the Toyota engines in the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide circuits to level the playing field. Meanwhile, Sprint Cup’s dominant driver has been Kyle Busch, who pedals a Camry. The American manufacturers are understandably miffed. But do the fans really care? Does NASCAR?
NASCAR was built on a foundation of stock car racing. It was Ford versus Chevy (and Plymouth and Hudson), and “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was more than a meaningless marketing mantra. The connection between street cars and racing cars was stretched by the demands of safety and the desire for competitive parity. But the fiction endured until the Car of Tomorrow, with its common template, revealed “stock car racing” to be a sham.
“NASCAR has created a sport that’s all about competition between personalities,” says Don Taylor, who used to work on GM’s stock car program. “It just so happens that these personalities are competing in cars.”
So NASCAR has rendered the manufacturers obsolete. It’s no longer stock car racing. Now that it’s just another soap opera, watch Americans change the channel.
What’s Next for the Indy Racing League
The hideous, ungainly Dallara chassis and the loud and abrasive Honda V-8 will be phased out after the 2010 season. Although new rules haven’t been announced, look for more handsome – and more versatile – chassis and smaller turbocharged engines in 2011.
Why: Reunification with Champ Car means the new chassis has to work on road courses and street circuits along with the ovals for which the current IRL car was designed. Turbos will allow the development of smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that – it’s hoped – will attract manufacturers other than Honda, the sole supplier since 2006.
What’s Next for Formula 1
Next year, F1 cars will feature slick tires and smaller wings, with fewer aerodynamic aids. But the big news is KERS, or Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, similar in concept to a hybrid’s regenerative braking. In 2011, expect to see smaller engines as well as wings and turbo boost that can be adjusted on the track.
Why: Slicks and reduced downforce are designed to increase overtaking. KERS, meanwhile, is meant to promote a greener image and make F1 more relevant to manufacturers, who could apply this technology to road cars.
What’s Next for Le Mans
For 2009, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest chose to limit the power of diesel engines, reduce the speed of LMP2 cars, and allow hybrids to compete, although not for points. Two years down the road, Le Mans should feature smaller LMP1 engines, quieter exhausts, and kinetic energy recovery.
Why: Diesels are being handicapped, so gasoline-powered cars will once again have a legitimate shot to win overall at Le Mans. At the same time, the ACO – unlike the American Le Mans Series – doesn’t want LMP2 cars competing for overall victories. The 2011 regulations represent the realization that racing can’t survive without at least paying lip service to environmental concerns.