FORT WORTH, Texas — NASCAR just left Texas Motor Speedway, and as they say, everything is big …
… aw, c’mon, who are we kidding?
Nothing seems bigger about NASCAR these days. Despite a year where the racing has genuinely improved and a year where the major car owners and NASCAR took the first step of many toward a more manageable business model, NASCAR remains stuck in a rut.
The public companies say ticket revenue compared to last year has dropped 9.2 percent since the Daytona 500. The television ratings for the Chase have tanked quicker than a 3-games-to-1 lead in the World Series. Despite trying to tackle the problems with grit and determination, NASCAR brass just can’t seem to lift NASCAR out of its funk.
NASCAR has a glaring problem. It needs more people to care about its drivers and its outcomes. Unlike the baseball drought phenomenon that dominated its World Series, NASCAR has no such story line. The final eight drivers in its Chase come from the four organizations that have won titles in the previous four years. Five of the eight drivers have already won championships and none of the remaining three (Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano) would trigger a wave of passion by hoisting the Cup. When Jimmie Johnson goes for his seventh championship, the audience might rally behind it — to root against him.
NASCAR doesn’t have a Conor McGregor. It doesn’t have a Tiger Woods. It kind of has Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he has remained sidelined by a concussion, but NASCAR needs to prepare for life without him anyway as he enters the twilight of his racing career with or without battling the head injury.
Beyond the big rain delay, there was a big elephant in the room at Texas: The fact that NASCAR has not announced a series sponsor yet for next season. NASCAR has had nearly two years to find a new sponsor and NASCAR executives have tried to keep everyone calm, indicating that finding the right partner takes time and that conversations remain productive. Patience is the key to finding the best deal for the industry. In just the past few days, those in the industry feel confident that NASCAR will land a sponsor soon.
But teams have finished 2017 photo shoots, leaving spots open on uniforms for a series logo. Walk through the garage in the past couple of months, and many wonder who will sponsor the series. Johnson said last week even the drivers are being left in the dark when it comes to who will be the series sponsor.
That’s understandable. No company looking to spend likely in the nine figures during the duration of the contract would want to face too much scrutiny beforehand in worries of it potentially killing the deal.
NASCAR needs to announce the deal is done sooner than later. The later this process goes, the less time a company has to implement a strong kickoff of the sponsorship in February. Track signage, NASCAR official uniforms, any advertising that needs to be sold for radio and television needs to get done.
Most important: NASCAR needs a company to serve as a public face that NASCAR remains a valuable entity for sponsors.
While track seating capacities have shrunk in the past few years, anyone who spent time in the Talladega infield a few weekends ago or in the parking lots at Bristol in August could see enough people that only the myopic would primarily blame the economy for the sport’s ills.
Just last Thursday, Anheuser-Busch announced it would increase the number of races it would sponsor Kevin Harvick next year, going from 12 to 16 after a successful launch with its Busch brand in 2016. Geico also will increase its spend at tracks next year. Those decisions make solid counterarguments to the recent announcements that Dollar General and Farmers Insurance plan to leave the sport.
But until NASCAR signs a series sponsor, its leadership will come into question. Texas boasted last week that it has fans from every continent. It needs all the diverse fans it can get — having the sport’s chairman endorse either of the polarizing political candidates doesn’t exactly scream inclusion.
In 2011, NASCAR’s leadership began to implement a five-year industry action plan. Later that year, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to rebuild its baseball organization. The sporting world saw last week what patience and commitment can bring during a five-year stretch.
NASCAR couldn’t execute its plan. It has tried admirably in many ways, although it seems every step toward improvement was saddled with challenges. NASCAR tried to more nimbly change things that needed changing, but then it got criticized (in some ways rightfully so) for not sticking to its rules. It tried to turn inspection into more black-and-white and now suffers the problem that when measuring to thousandths of an inch, it can’t figure out how to equitably penalize those who fail by thousands of an inch while managing the public perception of cheating.
Those haven’t been the only growing pains. NASCAR tried to make cars that look more like the cars at home but, handcuffed by the reality that these cars need to be safe, can’t go back to the days of racing true stock cars. It tried to design cars that created parity only to make it as much of a battle of engineers instead of a battle of drivers. It created an elimination-style points Chase where every point and every win put the season in the balance to create incredible drama and excitement but it also created a scenario where every instance of borderline unethical teamwork and every scoring decision turns a spotlight on NASCAR officials instead of its drivers.
By trying to create a spark by bringing in people from outside the sport into its leadership team, NASCAR created a level of mistrust between its leadership and those entrenched in the garage for decades. It has admirably — in a huge shift in philosophy — created the most collaborative atmosphere the industry has seen, but it still leaves some wondering how much NASCAR listens when NASCAR makes a decision that frustrates as many as it pleases.
NASCAR has tried to stay relevant in a world where passion for cars has dwindled and its stars no longer develop personalities and skills at their local short tracks. Its developmental series primarily serve as a vehicle for drivers who come from money to play with high-speed toys, leaving those with pure talent at a disadvantage and those with raw talent not much time to develop.
Some of NASCAR’s initiatives shouldn’t be discounted. Its pit-road officiating system has appeared to have worked flawlessly. Its Air Titans proved effective in drying tracks quicker — some more than others — depending on the surface, banking and the temperatures. NASCAR has not had a death in any of its three national touring series since 2001, a record of safety that one can’t ignore even amid the slowness of adding SAFER Barrier to more walls.
Those successes show NASCAR has hope, has potential to dig itself out of its hole. It has a great television deal — at least as far as the money it pours into the tracks to keep their stock prices as stable as possible — and eight years left on it to figure out how to build the sport so when the television contract ends, NASCAR has veered from its dirt road on to the recovery highway.
Which brings NASCAR back to trying to find a sponsor. It can’t promise the world to a sponsor or tell the sponsor that everything is great. Anyone with the ability to read a financial report or television ratings report can figure that out. NASCAR might never return to its money printing days of the mid-2000s, but it doesn’t have to in order to survive, in order to have a place in the sports landscape.
As NASCAR remains at the crossroads, the industry must remember the big picture of providing big value to fans and sponsors with drivers having a big influence on their result.
Those hoping for bigger wallets and either wearing or trying to deliver big blinders as far as the state of a sport still trying to regain its footing will only set themselves up for a Texas-sized disappointment.