The powers that be at NASCAR must surely be shaking their heads at the current state of affairs in the sport, at least from the public relations perspective.
In spite of all the changes that have been made, from double file restarts, ‘boys have at it’ to green-white-checkered finishes, as well as one of the most competitive, wide-open Chase battles ever this year, the negative publicity continues to pile up, taking away attention of all the good things happening in the sport.
It all started in the last few weeks with NASCAR went into the Chase with their top twelve championship competitors set. The sport was ready to wow the media in one of the biggest public relations venues, New York City.
Yet, while the elite drivers blitzed various media outlets, from print to television to the internet, the tough New York media needle barely moved. In fact, very few stories were even picked up by the major New York papers, save for one focused story on Jeff Gordon in the New York Times.
Putting the best face possible on the limited coverage and questions asked by media who were clueless about the sport and passing on an opportunity to have their championship contenders throw eggs at one another on the Regis and Kelly show, NASCAR fled from the City to the Granite state in hopes of churning up some good publicity for the first race of the Chase.
That goal was actually achieved, with a Cinderella-like ending for barely-in-the-Chase driver Clint Bowyer, who ended up in victory lane. The competition was intense throughout most of the race and the finish was dramatic, with Tony Stewart running out of gas, allowing Bowyer to take the win and rocket to the second position in the Chase standings.
For that brief and shining moment, NASCAR was on top of the publicity world and even some of the media outlets back in New York City and the tri-state area took notice. Yet, the bad publicity would soon yet again take over all of the good that had been the previous week’s focus.
First up in the negative public relations realm was the continuing story of sponsorship struggles. Penske Racing made headlines with the announcement that their Cup driver, Sam Hornish Jr., and their Nationwide up and comer. Justin Allgaier. were free to look elsewhere for rides as their sponsors, Mobil 1 and Verizon respectively, were leaving the sport.
The ‘Captain’ Roger Penske summed it up best. “You can’t race without funding,” Penske said. “We’re certainly not going to stand in their way as far as furthering their careers.”
NASCAR was dealt another public relations blow when the deal that Hendrick Motorsports had been working on with Wal-mart to sponsor four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s car fell through. NASCAR had reportedly been wooing Wal-mart for many years without success and felt that this option might just one to bring the mega-company to the table.
“The Wal-Mart thing was a little disappointing because I feel like everybody was wanting to see that company in this sport for a long time and we would have loved to have represented them,” Jeff Gordon said. Gordon’s primary sponsor for years, Dupont, will be leaving the Hendrick team and his car next year.
All of these sponsor woes, as well as sponsors like Old Spice leaving Tony Stewart’s team, led to headlines in a local paper that NASCAR no doubt never wanted to see. One story headlined “NASCAR Corporate Sponsors Sought,” read like a help wanted or real estate for sale advertisement.
The article, attributed to the Associated Press, stated, “For sale, prime real estate on cars driven by former Sprint Cup champions Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Gordon and Stewart who have six championships between them are NASCAR’s two biggest stars looking for additional sponsorship next season. They’re chasing corporate dollars just as much as they’re driving for a title over the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.”
With NASCAR no doubt cringing after reading this headline and story smack dab in the middle of Chase promotion, its first race story-book ending also fell apart this week. After warning the Richard Childress Race team that Clint Bowyer’s Richmond car was dangerously close to illegality, NASCAR determined that Bowyer’s winning car from New Hampshire was definitely over the edge and he and the team were severely penalized.
While NASCAR did not take away Bowyer’s win, they did levy a 150 points penalty, dropping the team from second back to last in the twelve Chase racer standings. They also suspended Bowyer’s crew and car chief for six weeks, with probation for the rest of the season.
“We don’t consider taking away the win,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, said of the penalties. “We try to be consistent throughout the year and the Chase.”
With NASCAR no doubt hoping that penalty would be it and the sport could move on to this weekend’s second Chase race at the Monster Mile in Dover, Delaware, word came shortly after the sanctioning body’s announcement that Richard Childress would be appealing this decision.
“We feel certain that the cause of the car being out of tolerance happened as a result of the wrecker hitting the rear bumper when it pushed the car into winner’s circle,” Childress said. “The rear bumper was also hit on the cool-down lap by other drivers congratulating Clint on his victory. That’s the only logical way that the left rear of the car was found to be high at the tech center.”
With the knowledge that this controversy would not go away soon, NASCAR was then dealt one more public relations blow this past week. They received the television ratings from the New Hampshire race and they were definitely not good news.
As reported by SceneDaily.com staff, “the telecast of the first race in the Chase for The Sprint Cup, the Sylvania 300 from New Hampshire Motor Speedway, earned a 2.3 national rating on ESPN, down 28 percent from a 3.2 on ABC a year ago.”
This drop of 28 percent was the second biggest drop of the year, rivaling only the 32 percent drop for the Las Vegas race earlier in the season. The Cup races have been averaging a national rating of somewhere around the 4.0 percent mark, but even that has been dropping recently, leaving NASCAR, the NASCAR media corps, and fans simply scratching their heads.
While the old adage of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ may be true in other venues, this is most certainly not true in the world of NASCAR. The sport desperately needs some good public relations to head its way, especially in what many deem as its ‘play off’ season.
Yet if the bad publicity continues to overshadow the good, the sport may be in true trouble. And the spiral of shrinking corporate dollars, fewer fans in the seats, and drivers pursuing other ways to make a living may just continue to grow, leaving NASCAR leadership and all involved in decision-making in the sport wondering just what has to be done to turn the once great buzz about the fastest growing sport in America back around.