For NASCAR, the Past is Interesting. And Irrelevant
Tomorrow’s Daytona 500 — the sport’s biggest race is also its first of the season — brings with it a slew of articles on the business of NASCAR, in which the usual suspects appear.
- Television ratings are down.
- Track attendance is down.
- The shift to a “Premier Partner” model with Busch Beer, GEICO, Xfinity, and Coca-Cola featured on multiple platforms, when landing a title sponsor became increasingly difficult.
- The retirement of stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and the often-mentioned Danica Patrick, who failed to star in terms of performance but was widely assumed to bring significant attention to the sport.
- An overall lack of parity, with the majority of races won by drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and to a lesser extent for the past few years, Hendrick Motorsports.
- And that old standby, that millennials aren’t “into” cars.
Add to all that the uncertainty of the future — most notably due to the “Next Gen” car, arguably the biggest specification and rules iteration in the sport’s history.
While details have not been finalized, it appears certain that teams will no longer build their own chassis; that independent rear suspension and wider tires will dramatically change how the cars handle; and that a composite body will require less wind tunnel time and decrease aerodynamic improvement possibilities.
In short, the cars will change. The teams will change; common parts means fewer race shop engineers, machinists, fabricators, etc. New manufacturers may — or may not — enter the sport.
The sport will look, and feel, hugely different.
Will that bring back all the “casual” fans the sport has lost, and that critics say are vital to the sport’s future?
But maybe it’s not necessary.
Except for possibly football, “casual” sports fans no longer exist. You and I have too many entertainment options to be casual fans of anything.
Because make no mistake: NASCAR is, like every sport, entertainment. The sport is only a competition for teams and drivers. For everyone else, it’s entertainment.
If we are not entertained, we move on to something else. Why be casual when we have so many ways to be avid?
Critics who beat the casual fan drum miss the point. Broadly speaking, entertainment options — in terms of content and consumption — will only expand. Slices will only grow thinner.
And NASCAR has, in many ways, already embraced that fact.
The Next Gen car should improve parity (one of the major factors in football’s popularity.) Everyone in the NASCAR garage is smart, and while you could argue the bigger teams can afford to hire the smartest people… with funding less of a factor, intelligence and talent should make a bigger impact in on-track performance.
The Next Gen car should also cut costs and help offset a shrinking sponsorship market — and better position the sport for when television contracts expire in 2024.
Shifting race dates and introducing new tracks — possibilities made easier by NASCAR’s acquisition of International Speedway Corporation — and trying a double-header weekend at Pocono… mixing things up should add interest for long-term fans, while giving budding fans a “hook” to catch their interest.
Like a NASCAR/IndyCar double-header, an idea long supported by Roger Penske. (If Roger likes an idea, odds are it’s a great idea.)
As for stars? The sport has plenty. Constantly looking to the past ignores the present.
Jimmie Johnson not only won seven championships, he sparked a transformation in driver fitness.
If your taste skews to the reserved, Chase Elliott is your guy: Quiet, unassuming, analytical, rarely puts a foot wrong. (And also the sport’s most popular driver as voted by fans.)
If you like brash and outgoing, Kyle Busch is your guy: Largely unfiltered, often entertaining. (And will someday be remembered as one of the most talented drivers in the sport’s history.
If you like businesspeople, Brad Kewelowski launched a hybrid additive manufacturing company. Kevin Harvick and his wife Delana founded a sports and celebrity marketing agency. Every driver is, in effect, an entrepreneur, because while hired to drive for a team, ultimately they are in the business of themselves.
We can all relate to that.
NASCAR should focus less on drawing in casual fans and instead forge tighter bonds with existing fans — which, in the process, could draw in new fans.
Take pit stops. Teams pit a number of times per race, and at certain tracks more positions are gained on pit road than on the track. Pit stop speed is crucial, so race broadcasts naturally point out who gained or lost spots on pit road.
So a replay showing a tire changer lose seconds due to a faulty air gun makes sense.
What would be fun — especially to people with a manufacturing or process improvement background — is digging deeper: Comparing two teams, side by side, to see where tenths of a second were gained or lost.
Analyzing two different pit teams to show differences in choreography, body positioning, even foot and hand placement. Overlaying one team with another (think a ghost car in a video game) to show which individuals were quicker or slower, and why.
Caution flag periods often last for five to seven minutes; there’s plenty of time for an expert to do a NFL-N-Motion-style pit stop breakdown.
Would everyone love the segment? Nope. But some would… and in a four-hour broadcast, there’s definitely room for a deep dive or two. Existing fans might appreciate the analysis, and get to know pit crew members a little better. Process geeks (I’m one) might come for the breakdown and stay for the race.
That’s just one example to highlight a larger point.
Trying to appeal to a broad base won’t work. There are no broad bases. But there are plenty of narrow bases, eager to dive deeper and become more engaged in things they enjoy.
Which is why discussing whether NASCAR can ever return to those halcyon days of tens of millions of television viewers misses the point. (As it does for baseball, and basketball, and hockey…)
Casual fans don’t exist. In fact, they never existed: Casual fans — of anything — were just people who didn’t have better options.
Now they have plenty of options.
NASCAR’s goal, one it has begun to and should continue embrace, is to build on its extensive fan base by giving people not just a reason to be interested, but to care.
Because interest can make you look… but caring makes you stay.
Published on: Feb 15, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.