Monday, February 25, 2013

Brad Keselowski On NASCAR's Business Model

Lost amid the nightmare of Kyle Larson's crash and the spectacle of Danica-mania was that Brad Keselowski spoke for an expansive analysis of NASCAR where he took to task the sanctioning body's business model. For this he was taken to task by Brian France in a dinner meeting. Such efforts by NASCAR at stifling criticism have become more and more of an issue and further damage the credibility of Brian France as the sanctioning body's leader. So it is worth taking a look at what Keselowski said and the merits of his analysis.


Keselowski notes there are four separate entities in the sport - the tracks, the sanctioning body, sponsors, and teams, and they may work at cross-purposes; the fans are also part of the sport.   He also notes the role of television and how Bill France Jr. was undisputed leader of NASCAR.   Today, in contrast, NASCAR is run by Brian France but power is not unified as Lesa France Kennedy is also involved.   The issue of Brian France's ability to run the sanctioning has long been controversial and he does nothing but prove it year after year.

The four partners in the sport aren't united.   "We're fighting the tracks," Keselowski notes.   Indeed, it is a change from a generation or so back when tracks and teams worked together far more - that there were far more independent tracks as well as teams back then certainly played a role; today's over-centralization of tracks and teams has long been a problem for the sport.


Keselowski discusses the competition.   He praises the Generation Six car as "a big step forward.   It's part of the solution."  Here he warrants being taken to task, for the Gen-6 car was a flop at Daytona and is part of the problem.   It is a top-heavy sedan design with a stump of a rear deck and underside changes that took away downforce.   It is not a car designed to allow passing.  

The issue remains that NASCAR has a rules myopia that constantly gets in the way.   The right design for the racecars remains the 1970s "Generation Two", mid-1980s "Generation Three", and 1990s "Generation Four" design concept - the long snout, lean, raked roofline aerocoupe design.    In the 2000s NASCAR added a roof blade for Daytona and Talladega and that package was spectacularly effective; it needs to be returned, and used for all the tracks.   Over and over NASCAR has sought to cut downforce from the cars (from the 1998 "5 and 5 Rule" onward) and the concept has never worked - NASCAR needs to give it up and allow use of a 6-inch rear spoiler with 1-inch wicker on top, made of clear material like local Late Models and Pro Stocks so drivers can see through out the leader's windshield.   Underside changes made in 2013 to reduce downforce need to be reversed, because cutting downforce has never worked.

When handling is more important than the draft - and this applies not just to the biggest tracks, it applies to "cookie cutter" intermediates because they have a history where the draft has been effective - then passing always is stifled.   NASCAR's rules myopia has to end and the racing needs to be where the draft matters more than handling.

Keselowski notes the sport can't produce last-lap lead changes every week - true enough.   But even so he is selling short the sport's competitive ability.   In 2011 Daytona and Talladega averaged 80 lead changes per Cup race, and in the last five Daytona Nationwide Series races the track has averaged some 35 lead changes per race, while Talladega's lone annual Nationwide race has averaged some 40 lead changes per race in the last five seasons.   There is no reason more tracks cannot produce that intensity of competition on a frequent basis.  


Keselowski is on his strongest ground when noting the sport has to "move away from team sponsors" because the present model is fratricidal to everyone involved.   Indeed, for all the nearly $3 billion NASCAR is getting from FOX Television's new deal with the series, the sport has shown serious money issues to where "start and park" teams have become an issue - a result of lack of money in the sport.  

Team spending has been out of control for many years now - decades, realistically.   There is no reason why the sanctioning body cannot have some program of spending controls for its participants.   Getting the sport more affordable so teams can win more on race purse money than on sponsorships is hardly a negative for the sport; this is where team spending needs to be addressed.   No team should have to spend $10 million a year to win races.


Where Keselowski should be taken to task is when he discusses the schedule, criticizing that it has too many races with too many tracks (he wisely avoids naming names) holding two dates apiece.   Saying the sport needs a Cup race at Iowa Speedway and also Toronto and Vancouver is stretching it, since Iowa, though a good racing market, is not that good a racetrack; Toronto and Vancouver do not appear to be particularly strong racing demographics, either.   And Keselowski seems to ignore the tracks that have lost dates in recent years - Atlanta and Fontana.

36 races is not too many a year.  Also, the trend toward cutting race distances needs to be resisted and reversed.   500 miles at Pocono, Michigan, etc. is a better test of racecar and racer than 400 miles - Pocono in particular proved this point in the nearly 20 seasons it ran 500s while the Brickyard ran 400s - only in 1994 did the Brickyard 400 produce better racing; the better quality of racing in Pocono's 500s was especially shown in 2010's unusually physical 500 milers.


Keselowski also discusses diversity within the sport.   The problem is the same as with any area involving "diversity" - it can't be forced, it has to evolve naturally, and if it evolves in a way that isn't "diverse," then so be it.  

He also notes, "It's everyone's responsibility to carry the sport whether they're a champion or not."   This is true to some extent, but it also contains its own warning about how drivers etc. are to handle how others conduct themselves.   Indeed, Brian France can use that quote in stifling Keselowski et al's opinions, and this is the last thing the sport needs.   Honesty has long been in short supply in this spin-obsessed sport and there has never been a case where lack of honesty was helpful.   While everyone involved has a responsibility in carrying the sport, it must never come at the expense of honesty.   If something is wrong, NASCAR should not suppress speaking out about it.

That makes Brian France's dinner meeting with Keselowski all the more reprehensible.   An honest examination of the sport's issues is the way to solve those issues; going after someone for pointing this out just makes the problem worse. 

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