With the 2013 season proceding Mike Mulhern takes a look at NASCAR's "game plan" for renewing the sport's popularity. Mulhern asks what in this game plan is working and what isn't.
My own view on the plan -
What NASCAR is doing is trying to push star power with the drivers, get in people's face through every social media outlet possible, trying to "make a NASCAR weekend about more than just the racing," trying to improve "product relevance," and trying to attract other demographics.
By any look at all this, so far it isn't happening.
The sport's fanbase is still what it always has been, and the attempts to market to the "pinkhat" crowd simply aren't working - the same thing has been happening with the Boston Red Sox of Roush-Fenway co-owners John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner, whose belligerent marketing of The Brand drew in the pinkhat crowd and angered the true fanbase of the team to where the Red Sox's relevance to New England has dropped quite dramatically. The Sox's marketing efforts in 2013 have changed noticeably back toward a stronger marketing of baseball as opposed to the Red Sox Brand.
The first effort in NASCAR's marketing effort is of course the Generation Six racecar, and that part of the scheme is manifestly not working - the Gen-6 is not terribly different from the much-mocked Car Of Tomorrow and after a promising month where the racing showed some signs of improving, the competitive ennui of the sport's last ten-plus seasons has returned, low-lighted by an abysmal All Star weekend.
This failure really is the first of the two big individual failings in the sport - to put it bluntly, where did 60-lead-change-racing go?
Constantly forgotten by so many in the sport is how its popularity first took off in the 1970s when, despite the factory withdrawal and economic crunch of the time, the competitiveness of the racing took off - 1971-80 the sport saw over 30 races break 40 official lead changes with another two dozen or so flirting with 40 and memorable last-laps at such races as the 1974 Volunteer 500 at Bristol and 1975 Yankee 400 at Michigan. 1981-4 it continued as 15 races broke 40 lead changes with Talladega in 1984 breaking 68 lead changes twice. Even with the beginning of the Dead Lane Era in 1985 there were still races that at least flirted with 40 lead changes as well as wild finishes in the next 15-plus years of the sport. In that period Talladega has been by far the best racing anywhere, breaking 40 official lead changes 21 times after 1984, while Daytona nearly reached 40 in 1993 and 1996 and then broke that number six times in the last twelve years.
As the technology arms race has increased in the last 2.5 decades, however, the result has been stifling of passing, speeds too high for the tracks to handle, and safety issues, plus the second of the sport's great individual failings - spiralling costs and utter lack of any cost/spending controls. NASCAR's recent TV deals for Cup have been in the billions - yet it is harder and harder for sponsors to stay and the dying off of teams that rose in the first half of the 2000-10 decade has been a graphic downfall for the sport.
Related to the technology arms race has been NASCAR's idiotic "Green" initiatives, pushing as they do the perpetual myth that the environment is in some kind of serious crisis that must be dealt with - that the environment is in fact quite healthy and in no particular need of "rescuing" makes eco initiatives ultimately a waste.
Oversold is that NASCAR somehow was wrong to hold onto carburated pushrod technology for as long as it has - the fact that technology still works makes nonsense of arguments against it. If anything NASCAR was wrong to abandon carburation; its experiment with EFI has accomplished nothing as far as betterment of the sport goes.
For all of NASCAR's efforts at broading the fanbase etc. they have simply gone about it the wrong way.
What is needed is great racing. The Winston/Aarons 500 weekend was a boost for the sport because it produced superior racing - 47 lead changes among 16 drivers in the Nationwide 312-miler and the most amazing finishes the sport has seen in decades in both - the Ron Bouchard pass in the 312, David Ragan's spectacular charge to victory in the 500.
Give us back the lead changes - then NASCAR will have something that it can market that's actually worth watching. It's to be understood not every race can break 60 lead changes, but the sport can only benefit if it saw more than a few such races during the year - the much-hated "cookie cutter" tracks are manifestly capable of such races because they've had them before.
The lead changes produce the excitement that draws in fans and makes them want to learn about the sport. Billy France understood this when he was in charge of NASCAR; Brian France does not, hence his constant pushing of The Brand.
The bottom line is this -
NASCAR needs to figure out getting the competition package to where 60 lead changes is not the exception.
NASCAR needs to reign in the overmarketing.
NASCAR needs to figure out how to reduce the spending and thus improve the sport's affordability.
This is a proven formula for improving a sport's popularity.