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Relief Drivers

Hoopla, Hype, and the Money Didn't Matter
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By Mark Brune | 10/16/2014
Category: Relief Drivers
 

TNN.

Those letters probably don’t mean anything to a younger demographic, but, for me and many in my age group, they symbolize the very essence of what was great about NASCAR in the 90’s and went a long way towards making a fan out of me.

The Nashville Network used to broadcast the “slower” races, or the races which typically extended beyond 4 hours, back when the tracks did their own marketing and negotiated their own TV deals. They also used to broadcast myriad other racing series which helped to keep viewer interest in motorsports consistently high.



They boasted an elite group of broadcasters who are now considered among the best ever to grace the airways as well as a supporting cast who continue to provide excellent coverage even today. I’m sure to have forgotten some but I especially remember Ken Squier, Eli Gold, & Buddy Baker in the booth, and Glenn Jarrett, Steve Byrnes, Ralph Sheheen, Dick Berggren, and Larry McReynolds in the pits. (I don’t want to forget to mention ESPN here as an influence as well. Their broadcast team which included Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, and Jerry Punch was peerless.) These guys weren’t just a bunch of pretty faces reading a script (or an advertisement) but deeply knowledgeable folks with a keen insight into racing and a talent for talking about it in ways that enhanced the race experience rather than distract the viewer from it.

TNN brought NASCAR to the masses is other ways as well. For a short time, when NASCAR merchandising first became big business, they opened a chain of mall stores called NASCAR Thunder which sold die cast cars, videos, and all other manner of collectible. There was one near my home. They knew me by my first name. I was very sad when they closed.

NASCAR in the 90’s was eminently accessible. The TV broadcasts were excellent. The racing, as I remember it, was riveting. The personalities were allowed to shine. Viewers became fans and began attending races. NASCAR’s popularity boomed.

Unfortunately, along with that success came the businessmen aiming to cash in. NASCAR itself took over the marketing and merchandising. Television offered enormous sums of money to broadcast the races and sold sufficient commercial time to cover the cost. The resources necessary to run a top notch race team grew to where only those with the deepest pockets could manage. Successful teams swallowed up the smaller teams by raiding their talent. Personalities were squashed under corporate demand for political correctness. While still successful, all of the elements which made NASCAR fans feel invested in it were gradually being taken away and replaced with splash and dash marketing designed merely to catch your attention long enough to listen to the ad that went with it. Enthusiasm began to wane.

Then Dale Earnhardt died.

Whether you were a fan of his or not, you couldn’t deny the impact he had on NASCAR both on and off the track. At the time you could pick any NASCAR event and at least half of the people in attendance would be wearing Dale Earnhardt hats, shirts, or other insignia. His loss created a vacuum which has never been filled.

NASCAR ramped up the hype to compensate, but by the time the economy tanked in the late 2000’s most of the euphoria over NASCAR had faded. Constant rule changes, mega-teams, sponsor roulette and the corporate spokesperson mentality that went with it, cookie-cutter tracks, and a departure in the design of the cars which made them look nothing like their street-legal equivalent created a disconnect between the sport and its long-term fans and made it less accessible to its casual fans, who soon decided to spend their increasingly limited discretionary money elsewhere.

Along the way people became more attuned to receiving their information in short bursts via social media and through blogs and talk radio where they could read or listen for a few moments, drop a comment if they felt so inspired, and move on without any fear of commitment.

Now we’re seeing evidence that many of the fans gained during the boom years have moved on, leaving the average age of the typical NASCAR fan somewhere in the middle-to-upper 40’s meaning that if you were a fan already in the 1990’s you probably still are. The businessmen who clamored for a piece of the action 15 years ago now want to know what can be done to bring in new fans. “Make it more interesting to a younger demographic” is what they hear.

How?

The emphasis has been on marketing for so long now that the product has suffered. NASCAR, perhaps, now realizes this but can’t get out of its own way. It has been too big, and too rich, for too long.

One of the complaints is that the season is too long. Granted, February to November is a long haul. Perhaps a couple more weekends off during the season would alleviate some stress on the teams. One could argue that two weeks at Charlotte in May is excessive.  But, if you count Spring Training and the Postseason, Baseball also runs from February into November. And they play every day. I don’t hear anyone complaining about that.

Another complaint is that the races are too long. With new track records being set weekly, they’re actually not taking as long as they used to back when everyone couldn’t get enough. A typical NASCAR race lasts about three hours. So does a typical baseball or football game. I haven’t heard any cries for a 5 inning baseball game or for ending a football game at halftime.

I think the problem is truly that rather than invest ourselves in our choice of entertainment – learn about it, understand it, and accept it for what it is – we want our entertainment to fit our limited attention spans.  So how do we hold the attention of the disaffected?

Improve the product.  Not the hype. The product.

Each NASCAR race used to have its own personality. The Daytona 500 was the superspeedway Super Bowl of racing. Winning it was a meaningful credential a driver and team could carry with them for the rest of their careers. The World 600 and The Southern 500, to name but a couple, are examples of races which had their own pedigree and were different than the rest. The majority of the schedule now is run on very similar 1.5 mile tracks which have made each week the same as the week before.  It’s easy to skip one because the same thing will happen next week. And when the name of a race takes two deep breaths and 45 seconds to say, no one will remember it. It needs to be something short and memorable. Like, The Brickyard 400.

As the tracks have grown longer, the speeds have risen. This has shifted the premium from driver skill to aerodynamic accuracy. They’re not drivers anymore, they’re pilots. One little ding and a car goes from being the class of the field to an also-ran. Aerodynamics prevents the cars from performing correctly when they get anywhere near each other. A race where the cars can’t be near each other isn’t a race, it’s a parade. Believe me, folks have noticed. See four paragraphs above. Better racing requires tires that wear predictably and don’t self-destruct, cars with less downforce that can be near each other and still go fast, and something to race for. The money has grown so big as to be irrelevant to all but the stockholders. When is the last time you saw the winning driver hold up the winner’s cheque? It’s as if they’re embarrassed by it. “Put this in the church basket for me, boy, I need to go see my sponsor.” I’m not advocating throwing more money at it. I’d like to see some prestige attached to a race win. Bonus points, yes. But make the win meaningful in another way like they do at The Masters. Win and you’re qualified forever. And last year’s winner gets the #1 pit stall regardless of where he qualifies. And promote the fact that he won it. Make people remember the name of the race and who won it. “Jeff Gordon, WINNER of the Brickyard 400”.

Sponsor roulette has become the de facto means of funding a race team. Someone has to pay the bills and few companies have a 20 million dollar marketing budget. So that is unlikely to change. The unfortunate side effect is that due to the multiple paint schemes it is sometimes difficult on TV and in the stands to pick your favorite driver out of a lineup. My suggestion is this: Each team gets to pick a base color and design. The 43 can have Petty blue - they’ve earned it. But THAT is your car’s design for the year. You can put anything you want on the hood and the deck lid, but the rest of the car must remain the base color and design. People will be able to recognize your car from race to race and they won’t be afraid to buy your team’s merchandise because it won’t have to be replaced as often.

NASCAR, or someone, needs to create a free racing TV channel which broadcasts all kinds of racing and all kinds of shows promoting it. Not just NASCAR. Follow the lead of good old TNN and aim at keeping interest levels in motorsports high by broadcasting actual events - not fluff.

Finally, NASCAR needs to reduce the hoopla. We’re all smart enough to recognize marketing when we see it. Make the sport accessible again. Let the drivers talk. Let the press write. Let the TV and radio announcers call the race instead of having the race on as filler between commercials. Stop feeding us the vanilla pablum that offends no one. We need variety.

If NASCAR can achieve all of that, maybe some new interest will be generated. And maybe we can all go back to enjoying NASCAR racing the way we used to.

Thanks to Mark Brune for sharing his thoughts with RJO!

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Comments:
stacey963
10/15/2014 6:57 pm (1)
Amazing article. Thank you.
Bill B
10/16/2014 5:58 am (2)
"We're smart enough to recognize marketing when we see it" and many of us find it insulting that they think we are too stupid to recognize it.

Good article that echoes what most of us are feeling. What we don't need are more gimmicks and marketing. The NASCAR leadership couldn't leave a good thing alone, they had to keep screwing around with it until they broke it.
grumpyone
10/16/2014 6:48 am (3)
Thanks for the article Carol. In order to get new fans or butts in the seats, NASCAR under Brian France has sold its soul for the younger demographic. Reality racing has come of age and that it what that demographic loves. As long as a years worth of racing is not considered you will only have a reality champion and I bet that the old timers will be rolling over in their graves after Homestead. How the powers that be in NASCAR could allow their "sport" to degrade to this point is beyond me. As I have posted before the trophy this year should be engraved, NASCAR "Reality Racing" Champion. What a sad state of affairs for a once proud owners and drivers. Think that the Wood Brothers like this crap? Ask any owner or team member that has busted their butts since February and the "Champion" can be crowned in just one race. In private I know what the answer will be but in public they don't want to take a trip to the "red hauler."
SrRaceFan
10/16/2014 9:36 am (4)
Great insight, Mark! You hit on all the points that change has brought and how that change has now ruined a great American sport. I was brought up on good old-fashioned stock car racing and what we see today doesn't even come close. It's a 4 hour commercial with a glimpse of cars going around on a track - I can't say "racing" because what most of them do today is not racing. I'm pushing 75, NASCAR was in my blood, and I couldn't wait for the weekends. Now my enthusiasm has run out of gas. Thanks, Brian France, for wrecking this sport before the Finish Line.
KBTOYS
10/16/2014 10:15 am (5)
Mark, thank you for the article. We fans have been screaming for years the very things you mentioned. Also, Nascar needs to get rid of "The Chase". Nascar has been losing fans and they don't seem to care or listen. Sadly, and there will come a point when the do wake up and smell the coffee, it will be to late and they will only have themselves to blame.
RacinRhino
10/16/2014 1:16 pm (6)
One other thing entered into the loss of those who brung NASCAR to the dance. Political Correctness.

Confederate flags were discouraged if not outright banned. There was a race team from around here that wanted to be known as "Redneck Racin". Nope, cannot have that.

NASCAR began courting the wine and croissant crowd. They had more money that the Redneck, confederate flag totin' fans that had supported NASCAR and racing for years.

NASCAR let it be known loud and clear that they could do very nicely with this segment of society.

They offended the "Good Ol' Boys", and they never got them back.
eddo
10/16/2014 1:29 pm (7)
Good article Mark. I completely agree- except for my complete distaste for Ken Squier in the booth. yikes... lol That man had his nose so firmly planted up Earnhardt's backside he could tell what Dale had for breakfast...

;)
Dataman
10/16/2014 2:39 pm (8)
@RacinRhino
I mentioned the adverse effect of "political correctness" but forgot to mention that NASCAR forgot Clausewitz' First Principle, which is to make sure Home Base is secure.
NASCAR is suffering through the pain any business encounters when they expand too far too fast.

@eddo
I don't remember KS's fondness for DE, but now that we're talking about it, I DO remember his penchant for making every wreck sound like a funeral and for occasionally forgetting what sport he was broadcasting.
nebraskaparkfan
10/17/2014 10:06 pm (9)
Great article. the point that really resonated with me is that the TNN booth enhanced the race rather than distracting from it. Someone needs to tell the Waltrips and several others of their kind that we are tuning in to watch, not to watch them tell us about the race. I think one of the other problems with the racing is that in the search for the younger demographic, we keep getting younger and younger drivers. The result is that drivers are leaving the lower series too soon and the racing will suffer. Unless you are a superstar caliber driver, drivers are being pushed aside as soon as they get some experience. I don't want to watch a race with a bunch of 20 somethings and a couple of veterans. I want to watch those drivers who have worked at their craft and developed the skill to handle the cars that are less than perfect.
Bobby
10/18/2014 8:23 pm (10)
I remember when CBS/TNN (as it later was), but MTV ended what was racing's golden era helped advance an off-road racer who moved Midwest to race ASA. Fifteen years later, might we know who that star in the yellow and black #44 Pennzoil Monte Carlo became.

And we miss the Bahres' Loudon concept of Mod Squad and K&N East cars on Cup weekends. None of the national stuff, they got their own weekends. The Truck race there drew well only because of ACT and Mod Squad.

"Every wreck sound like a funeral," but motorsport was far more dangerous back in the day. There's a reason we cheer loudly when that driver exits his car and waves to the fans. At the local level, all drivers are neighbours, regular guys.

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