SBD/Issue 103/NASCAR Season Preview

Two Prominent Motorsports Writers Continue Talk On NASCAR

Facing a NASCAR season with numerous changes and challenges, longtime motorsports writers David Poole of the Charlotte Observer and NASCAR Scene’s Steve Waid spoke recently with Senior Staff Writer Jon Show.  Following is the conclusion that discussion.  See Thursday’s issue of THE DAILY for part one.

Q: What affect will the new tweaks have on the Chase this season?

Waid: Minimal.  I don’t see a whole lot of change based on the conversations that I’ve had with drivers.  In the first 26 races they don’t see themselves doing much of anything different.  However, maybe some of them will have in the back of their heads that they need to win as many races as they can because of the seeding for the Chase.  If nothing else it makes it a little more intriguing and drives more interest, but otherwise I just don’t see any major changes in strategy.

Poole: I think the 12 drivers in the Chase is the interesting thing because it broadens the playing field and at least, theoretically, opens up more chance for an unexpected team to make the Chase.  But I don’t think that will happen because changes to the cars this year mean the best teams will flourish.

Q: All things considered -- fan interest, TV ratings, attendance, etc. -- has the Chase been a success?

Waid: I do believe fans had their interest piqued by the Chase.  I think they try to keep up with it even though some absolutely hate it and want to go back to the old way.  But I don’t believe you can call it an unqualified success when the (ratings) numbers aren’t what they should be and, in fact, have been falling.  The idea behind the Chase was to increase NASCAR’s ratings in comparison to the NFL.  That hasn’t happened and it’s gone the other direction.  Based on those figures I don’t see how you can call it a success.

Poole: The thing you don’t know is where the ratings would be if there wasn’t a Chase.  The last three years we’ve had runaways by Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.  Would we have had even lower ratings?  I don’t think the Chase has been a resounding success with the fans that NASCAR hoped it would be.  I know for a fact that it has raised the sport’s profile among the American sports media.  More reporters come to the season’s final eleven races than ever did before.  If that’s a measure of success -- that NASCAR’s getting ink and television -- then to that degree it has been a success. But it has not been a homerun with fans as they hoped it would be.

Writer Says NASCAR Should
Promote Jimmie Johnson More

Q: On which drivers should NASCAR be putting more of a marketing emphasis?

Waid: Most of these promotional TV vehicles utilize drivers who are established stars, for the most part.  You don’t see the younger generation getting out there as a promotional vehicle for NASCAR. ... One of the things NASCAR has been trying to do is appeal to a different demographic; they want a younger audience and they pretty much ignore guys like me that have been around forever.  I’m no marketer, but wouldn’t it be somewhat reasonable to take one of these younger drivers and put him in some of these promotions that encourage younger people to take a look?

Poole: I don’t think NASCAR needs to market drivers, and by that I mean pick out two or three guys.  I think NASCAR needs to let competition identify the drivers that need to be marketed and then market those drivers.  I think Jimmie Johnson should have a lot more emphasis than Jeff Gordon right now because Jimmie Johnson’s team is what Jeff Gordon’s team used to be -- the standard by which other teams measure themselves.  Jimmie Johnson may not have the personality or charisma of Jeff Gordon, but he can certainly hold his own in the marketplace.  In the same way the NBA keeps trying to jam LeBron James down my throat, NASCAR keeps trying to feed me Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Q: What affect is Toyota going to have on NASCAR?

Waid: In the long run it’s going to have a positive affect.  I know you hear fans saying it’s an American sport and should have American cars, but this is the No. 1 car in the country and that means a heck of a lot of Americans are driving it.  That means they are very successful company and they came into the sport with every intent of winning and doing well and becoming an even more meaningful part of the American motorsports scene.  By doing well they will cultivate their own group of fans and cause these other fans to forget about the fact that it’s a foreign car and accept it.

Poole: What’s wrong with people picking sides?  If Toyota creates fans that pull for them and against them that’s fine with NASCAR.  Notre Dame football has fans that pull for them and people watching that hope they get their butts kicked.  If Toyota develops that kind of following where the fans come to the racetrack to pull for their drivers and against them that’s another reason to give a crap about NASCAR.

Q: What will ESPN’s return to NASCAR do for the sport?

Poole: The thing about ESPN is when they get hold of something they market the bejesus out of it.  They’ve got so many platforms and so many places to put NASCAR and -- like them or not -- they set the American sports agenda.  All you have to look at is hockey.  When ESPN had hockey and was promoting hockey, hockey became a cache sport.  It had positive momentum and people talked about how cool it was to be a hockey fan.  Now that the NHL is on Versus they ought to put hockey on milk cartons.  NASCAR will benefit from being spoken about in the mainstream of ESPN broadcasts.  Whether they’ll admit it or not, the news judgment ESPN employs on “SportsCenter” is affected by who they’re in business with.

Waid: The other effect this has had is the other sports entities are ratcheting up what they are doing in NASCAR to try to keep pace.  You’re going to see a heck of a lot more promotion on Fox.  ESPN has greatly increased the content of NASCAR on its Web site, forcing Fox and the Speed Channel to do the same.  That cannot be bad for NASCAR and is also great for the fans.  Just look at the outlets they have to get information and entertainment about NASCAR that really weren’t present a year ago.  The affect that ESPN is going to have on NASCAR has already taken place to some degree by what it’s forced its rival networks to do.

Q: Are movies like “Talladega Nights” good or bad for NASCAR’s image?

Poole: I think “Talladega Nights” was an embarrassment.  I think NASCAR backed the wrong horse.  They should have pushed marketing money behind “Cars,” which was a beautiful animated movie that the family could have gone to see.  While it did well and will probably win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, NASCAR put its money behind a really silly movie that made fun of the very people that make the sport great.  It angered me.

Waid: It angered the fans as well for several different reasons.  It played up the stereotypical redneck, which is a long dead slam at NASCAR fans.  And, let’s face it, how do I phrase this, a gay Frenchman driving in NASCAR?  That is about as improbable as it gets.

Q: Who is the most innovative executive in or around NASCAR?

France Gets Credit For Innovative
Ideas In Growing NASCAR

Poole: David Hill from Fox. He’s moved the ball from what NASCAR telecasts used to be back in the day when ESPN left.  He’s brought a lot of the things that fans will tell you they hate but they couldn’t live without.  Fox changed the way that NASCAR was shown on television for the better.

Waid: He doesn’t always hit a homerun but he’s always up there swinging, and that’s Brian France.  You’ve got to give him credit for trying.  We sometimes call him crazy and nuts and things of that nature but if he doesn’t find ways to help propel NASCAR well into the 21st century -- and it stayed pretty much how it was before he got a firm hold on the reins -- there’s no question that it would not be in the situation it is today.

Q: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. get his stake in DEI?

Poole: What choice does Teresa have?

Waid: He’s got both guns, he has them fully loaded and he got them aimed at her head.

Open-wheel drivers going to NASCAR?
Waid: Future.
Poole: Future.
Later race start times?
Waid: Future.
Poole: Fad.
Partnerships with musicians like Kelly Clarkson?
Waid: Fad.
Poole: Fad.
Better booth -- ESPN, Fox or TNT?
Poole: Fox.
Waid: Haven’t seen ESPN so I have to go with Fox.
Most media friendly owner?
Waid: Felix Sabates.
Poole: Rick Hendrick.
Least media friendly owner?
Poole: Teresa Earnhardt.
Waid: Teresa Earnhardt.
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