The Final Word – NASCAR has its new car, but can they get back their fans?By Ron Thornton
The 2013 campaign opens up this month with its pre-season events, including the Shootout and the Duels at Daytona in less than three weeks’ time. So, what is the big story coming into the new year?
It is the car, stupid. Coming into the new Sprint Cup season, the big selling point is the new Gen 6 as the Car of Tomorrow became so yesterday after just six seasons. Moving away from a design that made the COT look nothing like the showroom model vehicles you and I could buy, the new auto more closely looks like a real Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. Their designs prevent two car tandems at tracks like Daytona and Talladega, and that is a good thing. However, will they somehow make the races at the 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks more visually stimulating, or will we get more boring events with nicer looking cars?
While we are quick to blame the racing, it is up to the announcers to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Most just remind us that we are watching a pig. There is something majestic about a great announcer. I could never tire of listening to the Dodger’s Vin Scully, or Danny Gallivan of the Canadiens, while NASCAR boasted Chris Economaki and Ken Squier. Iconic voices that drew you into the action, voices who knew how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, if need be.
Still bummed that Dodge is gone. Sure, I may have driven Dodges over much of the past twenty years, but more than anything I was looking forward to seeing something that actually looked like a Charger this season. It looks like I’m back to watching reruns of them Duke boys.
Big team switches for this season has Ricky Stenhouse Jr in the #17, as Matt Kenseth is now in the #20, while Joey Logano moves on to the #22. Kurt Busch continues on with the #78 while Danica Patrick runs full-time in the #10.
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville might be finally done. After 828 races over 37-years, including 44 wins and a Cup title in 1988, 57-year old Bill Elliott figures he might have run his final race on the circuit. He was in just two last season and hasn’t run a full campaign since 2003. Voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 16 times, Elliott plans to spend his time assisting his boy Chase chase some driving dreams of his own.
Juan Pablo Montoya was the finishing driver for Chip Ganassi’s Rolex 24 at Daytona victory recently. I mention this only because I can happily report that no jet drivers were harmed in the running of that race. The Columbian signed a new deal with Earnhardt-Ganassi, but gone are their own engines, to be replaced by the tried and true brand from Hendrick.
Jet dryers might be on their way out, too. Drying with compressed air could be the new thing, at least at Daytona this year. It should cut down on the flames if you know who does you know what again.
In 2013, the Top 36 cars in qualifying make the race no matter where they are in the standings. The next six or seven will make it on points, with one provisional reserved for a past champion if one should need it. At least that comes into play after the first three events, where what they did last year might help save someone’s bacon.
Track owner Bruton Smith would like to get rid of the start-and-park entries, but how? One suggestion could be to alter the payout to cars to better reflect the number of laps they ran. Start and park after twenty laps, and you might lose a chunk of change. As for being wrecked early, well that would sure suck for somebody. What do you think?
Some owners try to pick up a few bucks in Cup, with no intention of actually racing. This does not include the Wood Brothers or James Finch, who do not enter every event but try whenever they do. You got to respect teams like that.
Start and park outfits are merely striving to strike gold, we are told, so that one day they might actually be able to run with the big boys. However, can anyone remember a single such under funded team that actually made it over the past twenty years? I don’t. Robby Gordon at least tried, but as time went along his involvement dwindled to the point he only ran three races last season. This year he is expected to run none.
At this moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr is unsponsored for 13 races. If even Junior has trouble getting sponsors to pony up, imagine how some of the others might be fairing.
There are upgrades planned for Daytona. That is good news, as I can tell you the washroom facilities haven’t changed much over the past 50 years. We still are not certain if the drip, drip, dripping we saw coming down as we went up into the stands was fresh water or the recycled variety. All I know is what goes into the trough does not stay in the trough.
I know, you probably thought coming into the 2013 Sprint Cup season, the big story in NASCAR was going to be the Patrick – Stenhouse romance. Yah, right. Why do some care? Well, Danica Patrick is a 30-year old beauty (31 in March) who, in a seven year IndyCar career, had a win in 2008, claimed three poles, finished third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, and holds the record for 50 straight races still running at the finish. Did I mention she is also damn good looking? She and her husband of seven years are in the midst of divorce proceedings, making her a free agent. Enter two-time Nationwide champion Stenhouse. Of course, nobody gives a damn about Stenhouse in this story, unless he happens to run much better than his paramour in their rookie Cup seasons. From what we’ve seen thus far, my money would be on the guy with the good looking girlfriend.
NASCAR likes to brag about how popular it is…or was. Averaging 100,000 fans for each of its 39 days of action is pretty impressive (including the Shootout and Duels in February along with the All-Star events), but that still averages out to just one race per week over 39 weeks. In fact, the 3.5-million fans it attracted in 2012 is down about a million (or more than 20%) from what is was in 2005. Then compare it to the 2430 game schedule in baseball, the 1230 games basketball and hockey (720 this lockout season) offer, and the 256 for NFL football, and those boys are able to provide us with a lot more highlights and thrills any given week. Major League Baseball attracts nearly 75-million fans annually, the NHL usually is over 20-million, and both the NFL and NBA are over 17-million. In short, NASCAR can not afford to continue to bleed off fans.
Revenues is another measurement, maybe even more important than warm bodies. Television has sure helped in that department, as along with marketing and sponsorship the NFL generates $11-billion in revenues, MLB $7-billion, the NBA $4.3-billion, and the NHL $3.3-billion. I have not seen any definitive totals for NASCAR, but $3-billion seems an accepted number, with about half a billion of that coming from television. It is said that in North America, there are four major sports. I might amend that by saying there are two, football and baseball, with three other significant pro entities. NASCAR would rank fifth among the five.
Which brings us back to the Gen 6 car. Will it prompt closer racing, will its design help make the product more visually appealing to both long time fans and those new to the sport? The last I heard, Rusty and Brad will be back so we can forget about an upgrade in the announce booth. There is a reason NASCAR has responded to fan criticism, as they want them to return and bring new blood with them. It was not going to happen the ways things were. Better cars for better racing for better entertainment for better attendance adding up to better revenues. That is the storyline for NASCAR going into the 2013 season. Enjoy the build up.