SBJ/February 12 - 18, 2007/SBJ In Depth

What's next for the Busch Series?

The phrase has been repeated so often that it’s turned into a mantra for NASCAR’s detractors, who refer to the Busch Series as “Cup Lite” or “Cup Junior” because of the many Nextel Cup drivers who populate the Busch fields. Those guys have a nickname, too — “Buschwhackers.”

Car owner Jack Roush (left) and Nextel Cup regulars
Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart wait
along the pit wall for the restart of the 2005 Busch
Series Stater Bros. 300 at California Speedway.
The race had been delayed by rain.

That’s not how the Busch Series wants to be known, especially as it enters the first year of a new TV contract with ABC/ESPN and seeks $30 million a year from a new title sponsor beginning in 2008.

But what’s the answer? How does the country’s No. 2 racing series, based on TV ratings and attendance, carve out its own identity without compromising those relatively healthy numbers?

From track operators and team owners to marketers and sponsors, the opinions are as abundant as Nextel Cup drivers in a Busch race.

The most popular idea revolves around changing the car, both from a competitive and appearance standpoint, because viewers should be able to instantly identify the series by the car. But the suggestions don’t end there. Maybe Nextel Cup drivers should be restricted to a limited number of Busch races. Maybe the series should have its own Chase, similar to Cup, involving the top drivers in points. And to heck with going to Mexico and Canada, take the Busch Series to China and Japan.

NASCAR is working on a few ideas of its own. Officials want to create Busch majors, much the same way golf has its major tournaments. They might revive some form of Winston’s No Bull 5, a Cup program centered around that series’ biggest events that ended in 2002, to emphasize select Busch races.

Kasey Kahne (No. 9) from Evernham Motorsports battles Kyle Busch of Hendrick Motorsports during the Busch Series Ameriquest 300 last season at California Speedway.
Double duty
Eleven ownership groups raced in both the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and Busch Series last season, up from seven in 2002.

Chip Ganassi Racing
Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Evernham Motorsports
Hendrick Motorsports
Joe Gibbs Racing
Michael Waltrip Racing
Penske Racing South
Richard Childress Racing
Robert Yates Racing
Roush Racing
Wood Brothers/JTG Racing

Bill Davis Racing
Foyt Racing
Hendrick Motorsports
Joe Gibbs Racing
Richard Childress Racing
Roush Racing

Sources: NASCAR media guides,

Whatever the suggestion, the consensus is that the Busch Series must adjust if it intends to shake its “Cup Lite” label and maintain its place as Nextel Cup’s developmental circuit, which is the identity NASCAR wants.

“It has been a proving ground and it still is,” said NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell, vice president of racing operations. “As Cup owners continue to scalp drivers at younger ages, it’s going to become even more important to develop those drivers.”

But here’s the thing: The very aspect of the series that has spurred its growth — the presence of Cup drivers — also serves as the chief complaint.

“Unfortunately, there are problems,” said Larry McReynolds, a racing analyst on Fox and a former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, among others. “I love the Busch Series and it’s very good racing, but it’s like somebody took the lid off the box and before they got it back on, the lid got lost.”

In other words, the genie is out of the bottle. And now that those who sell tickets, televise the races and sponsor the cars have profited from the presence of Cup drivers in the Busch Series, their grip on them isn’t likely to loosen.

The concern, though, is that the sport’s long-term condition could suffer if the developmental series isn’t developing the next generation of stars.

So, how likely is change? Consider that NASCAR CEO Brian France dramatically altered the way the Nextel Cup champion is crowned when he introduced the playoff-style Chase for the 2004 season, the same year Nextel became the title sponsor and at a time when the series was thought to be as healthy as ever.

Despite TV ratings that likely will make the Busch Series the most-watched programming on ESPN2 this year and attendance that tops 100,000 at some venues, France’s history indicates that he’s more likely to make changes while the series is robust. As he’s said, a business that waits for a significant downturn to make change has waited too long, meaning alterations to the Busch Series, especially with a new title sponsor in 2008, could come sooner rather than later.

But virtually no change comes without a cost. For every prescription that soothes one stakeholder, another is potentially harmed.

Of the many ideas that have been floated, here’s a look at five common suggestions to boost the Busch Series’ identity and what the experts say:

Proposal: Cap The Number Of Cup Drivers Who Can Run A Busch Series Race
Positives: More exposure and better chances for Busch-only teams
Negatives: Tough ticket sell, lower TV ratings, less sponsor interest

An average of 13.9 Nextel Cup drivers started each Busch Series race in 2006, including as many as 23 (out of 43 starters) at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway spring race. Nineteen Cup regulars started the season-opening Busch race at Daytona, compared with eight just 10 years earlier.

Only eight times last season did a Busch race have fewer than 10 Cup regulars, and those were at stand-alone events, meaning no Cup race at the same track the following day. And typically, the Cup drivers from the big shops such as Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and others ran up front. Eight of the top 10 drivers in the Busch point standings were Cup regulars, and just two non-Cup drivers won in 2006.

For those Busch sponsors without a Cup driver, valuable exposure often proves elusive.

The Telcel-Motorola 200 at Mexico City was
last season’s highest-rated Busch Series race

AutoZone, a longtime Busch sponsor, broke away from ppc Racing and Busch driver Kenny Wallace after the 2006 season to join Richard Childress Racing, where 2006 Busch champ Kevin Harvick will drive its car half the season.

“The Cup name means a lot because name recognition is critical,” said Brett Shanaman, AutoZone’s vice president of marketing. “It adds value to the sponsorship and increases the probability that your car is going to be visible. It’s also easier to activate because people know who you’re supporting.”

NASCAR calls the influx of Cup drivers cyclical, saying that young drivers have elevated into the Cup series so quickly, they need the added experience of Busch racing. All six rookies who ran the full Cup slate in 2006 came straight out of Busch.

“Over the past 10 years, the number of Cup drivers in Busch has gone up and down every year,” Busch Series director Joe Balash said. “It may have reached a high-water mark last year.”

But that high-water mark has Busch stalwarts screaming for change. Rusty Wallace, a former Cup driver and ESPN analyst who now owns a Busch team, calls the presence of so many Cup drivers “its biggest problem.”

“There needs to be some kind of limit so the Cup guys don’t steal the thunder,” Wallace said.

The problem with a cap of, say, no more than 10 races a year for full-time Cup drivers is that it goes against NASCAR’s right-to-work principle. You show up, you pass inspection, you qualify, you race — no matter who you are, no matter what series it is. That’s how NASCAR has always done it.

And don’t even get the track operators started on the subject of limiting Cup drivers in the Busch field. They’re the ones who have to sell the tickets.

Texas Motor Speedway draws one of the largest Busch crowds of the season at about 110,000, and while that number compares favorably with other tracks, it’s less than 60 percent of the attendance for the track’s Cup race. Eddie Gossage, president at Texas Motor Speedway, doesn’t want to envision a day when he has to sell a Busch race without Cup drivers.

“We’ve got to have names,” Gossage said. “You take the Cup guys out of the Busch Series and I can’t sell it. You’re going to have to drop the purse back down to $100,000 and go back to racing at South Boston [Va.] and Myrtle Beach [S.C.] in front of 8,000 people.”

Like the track operators, Busch team sponsors know the value of instant name recognition in the driver’s seat. Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing, said his agency represents two Busch sponsors (Roadloans and Henkel) and both have a Cup driver in their car for at least a portion of the season.

“Hey, when you go to retail, people are going to know Carl Edwards, whether he’s in a Cup car or riding a lawn mower,” Brown said. “Pepsi has done a great job with Jeff Gordon. A lot of people know him as the Pepsi guy as much as they do the DuPont guy.”

At the end of the 2006 season, Clarence Brewer, a longtime Busch team owner, lamented the desire of sponsors to put a Cup driver in a Busch car. It’s simply what they want if they’re going to spend $5 million to $7 million a year as a primary sponsor, and many of them seem willing to pay a $1 million or $2 million premium to get the name driver.

“You’re not given a chance to develop drivers,” Brewer said. “You’ve got to take the guys coming backwards [from Cup].”

Sure enough, in early January, Brewer signed Ward Burton, the 2002 Daytona 500 winner, to drive two-thirds of the Busch schedule in a Brewco Motorsports car. Burton, who also will drive for Morgan-McClure Motorsports in the Nextel Cup Series, hadn’t had a NASCAR ride in nearly two seasons.

Limiting Cup drivers in the Busch Series, most argue, threatens the short-term health of the series. It could hinder ticket sales and TV ratings, and many sponsors might not find the series as attractive.

“Listen, if we’re going to pay $5 million or more to sponsor a car, our position is that we need to run up front and win,” said A.G. Barlow, senior marketing manager of motorsports at Rockwell Automation, a 10-year Busch sponsor that won the 2006 Mexico City Busch race with Cup driver Denny Hamlin.

“The easiest solution is to put a Cup driver in the car. That’s the easiest way to guarantee success.”

Proposal: Change The Busch Cars
Positives: No problems distinguishing between the Busch and Cup series
Negatives: Potential big initial investment for teams

In the minds of many race observers, a series should be instantly identifiable by the cars on the track, and that’s not the case with the Busch Series. The series looks and feels much the same as Nextel Cup, hence the “Cup Lite” references.

Also, the owners who race solely in the Busch Series scream that the playing field is not even. Cup regulars enjoy more practice time on the racetrack, so that when it’s time to race, they have a significant advantage in preparation.

Change the car, change the tires, change the engine, do something, Busch-only owners say. Create some differentiation between the Cup and Busch cars or they’ll become extinct if they can’t compete.

“ESPN is going to show up at some of these Busch races and there’s going to be 30 or 35 cars there [43 typically start a race] because everybody’s gone out of business,” said Greg Pollex, a Busch team owner. “Something’s got to change or else they’re going to realize one day that they’ve waited too long to fix it.”

The discontent among the small-shop owners seems unanimous. This is how Ed Rensi, a Busch owner and former CEO of McDonald’s, put it: “I tell people all the time that, if you think NASCAR is for you, get a bottle of scotch, get someone you know really well, get a couple of million dollars, go sit in front of a fireplace and burn it. And if you can enjoy the hell out of that, maybe you belong in motorsports.”

In addition to creating a separate identity for the Busch Series, changing the cars also could help owners contain costs.

A spec engine — meaning they’d all be the same — capable of running three to five races a season has been tested in the Busch East and West junior series. Busch owners say their annual engine budget of $1.2 million to $1.5 million would drop to about $300,000.

Some team owners would
like to see new car models
introduced to offer a new look.

If owners could find a way to reduce sponsorship costs to about $4 million a year, “we could sell that all day,” Harvick said. “You can have the Cup guys still race, but if the sponsorship would be easier to sell, you’ll have more owners and more teams participating.”

Those who applaud NASCAR for building the Busch Series say upcoming changes to the Cup car will create differentiation without the need for fundamental changes to Busch cars. Nextel Cup introduces the Car of Tomorrow for select races this year and a majority of races in 2008, and features such as a detachable wing on the rear of the car will distinguish its look.

“Then, the Busch car is clearly going to be different,” said Roger VanDerSnick, chief marketing officer at International Speedway Corp. and a former NASCAR executive. “When the cars are different and the Cup guys aren’t benefiting as much from running in the Busch race, you won’t see as many of them.”

Some manufacturers favor a move to what’s known as the “Pony Cars” — Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger — in the Busch Series. Manufacturers say that they’ve talked to NASCAR about introducing these new models and talks are ongoing, but NASCAR’s O’Donnell said the cost has been prohibitive thus far.

“The really hard part about this is that you can’t make decisions in a vacuum,” said Bill Wynne, Ford Racing’s marketing manager. “From a marketing perspective, a different car identity would be a great opportunity, but you’ve got to look at the whole picture. It’s really going to boil down to what NASCAR thinks this series should be.”

Pony Cars have the ability to give the Busch Series the identity it seeks and manufacturers say they’d benefit from the marketing opportunity, but it doesn’t come without a cost. Much of that cost would land squarely on the shoulders of the team owners, who would have to spend millions developing a new fleet of 10 to 15 cars.

Even if the Pony Cars were put on the same 105-inch wheelbase currently used in the Busch Series, the bodies would need modification so they’d be proportioned properly, said Pat Suhy, GM’s group manager for NASCAR.

“We’ve talked to NASCAR about it and so have other manufacturers, but I think the feeling is that two years down the road, with the Car of Tomorrow in Cup, you’ll see the differentiation they want,” Suhy said.

Proposal: Create A Chase For The Busch Title
Positives: More end-of-year excitement
Negatives: Would Cup drivers support a Busch Chase, too?

Hey, it’s worked for Nextel Cup, right? So wouldn’t a Chase format in the Busch Series yield similar results? Wouldn’t it be a great way to recognize those drivers who are committed to the series?

Sure, a playoff-style format might work in the Busch Series, creating excitement down to the final race, just as it does in Cup. But as long as Cup drivers maintain a healthy presence in Busch, would the Busch regulars be able to compete well enough to earn spots in the Chase field?

And if Cup drivers do make the Busch Chase, is that any guarantee they’ll run the full schedule? Greg Biffle made the top 10 in points last season and still skipped five races.

A Busch Chase comes with its own set of hurdles, but the majority of those interviewed favor the idea, even if it does rip off a Cup idea when Busch is trying to differentiate itself.

“I would call it something other than the Chase,” said Mike Bartelli, senior vice president of motorsports at Millsport, whose NASCAR clients include Tylenol and Sunoco. “It needs its own identity. Part of the problem is the lack of a clear, coherent brand, one that stands apart from the Cup.”

The consensus is that only those drivers who are committed to running the entire 35-race schedule would be allowed to compete in the Busch Chase.

“If a Cup guy like Kevin Harvick wants to race the entire Busch schedule and make those sacrifices, have no weekends off, hey, I applaud him,” Fox’s McReynolds said. “They’re helping build the Busch Series and they should be eligible for the championship.”

Proposal: Hold More Stand-Alone Events Vs. Companion Events
Positives: Potential new markets and expanded popularity
Negatives: Companion events draw more eyeballs … and more sponsors

A vast majority of Busch Series races are run on the same track as the Cup races and those companion events tend to draw bigger crowds and better TV audiences. Sponsors also prefer the atmosphere of the combined Busch-Cup weekend when it comes to hospitality and activation.

The Busch Series will have nine stand-alone events in 2007, including expansion north for its first trip to Montreal. In 2006, those stand-alone events failed to meet the average TV ratings for the season, with the exception of the Mexico City race.

The average network rating for the year was a 2.2 (3.3 million viewers), buoyed in large part by the season’s highest mark at Mexico City, a 3.5 on Fox (5.3 million viewers). The Memphis race on NBC, the only Busch stand-alone event on the network, drew a 1.6 rating (2.4 million).

The season average for Busch races on cable was a 1.7 (2.1 million). None of the stand-alone events hit that mark, ranging from a low of 1.2 (1.4 million) at Milwaukee to a high of 1.6 (1.9 million) at Kentucky.

The numbers from 2004 and 2005 were similar. With the exception of Mexico City, the highest-rated Busch races are companion events.

Sponsors say the stand-alone races don’t offer the same excitement when they’re not accompanied by a Cup race the next day. Unless there’s a specific local tie, many sponsors don’t even activate in those markets.

“For a big weekend, you go with the companion events,” said Grant LaMontagne, vice president of sales for Clorox Co., whose Kingsford brand is a 10-year team sponsor in the Busch Series.

Sue Christopherson, manager of motorsports for GM parts and service, including longtime Busch Series sponsor ACDelco, said she rarely entertained customers at the stand-alone events.

“You don’t have the weekend attendees, you don’t have all of the RVs parked out there, you don’t have the attendance,” said Christopherson, who ended ACDelco’s Busch team sponsorship after 10 years and decided to focus on the NHRA this year.

Race promoters are trying to change the perception that stand-alone events don’t carry the same cachet. Kentucky Speedway is bringing in rock guitarist Peter Frampton to perform, giving its June 16 Busch race an accompanying concert.

Stand-alone events also take NASCAR to significant markets like St. Louis, Nashville and the Louisville-Lexington, Ky.-Cincinnati areas, where the sport rarely appears on the front of the sports section unless the race is in town. As NASCAR seeks to broaden its audience, that exposure creates potentially more long-term good.

The Chase format has worked well in Nextel Cup,
but some wonder if Cup drivers would shut out
Busch regulars from making a playoff.

Harvick favors more stand-alone events as part of a shorter schedule, which would give the Busch races more chances to be the only game in town. The more stand-alone events on the schedule, the more difficult it is for Cup drivers to logistically make the races, so it could have a dual purpose.

And while the lack of Cup names might create some short-term pains for track operators and sponsors, the exposure in new markets where the spotlight stays strictly on the Busch race has an inherent value.

“Give the guys their own weekend, promote it as NASCAR, not Busch,” said Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “You’re trying to make the sport healthier for the long term and if you have to burp a little, that’s OK. A burp never killed anybody.”

Proposal: Go International
Positives: Furthers NASCAR’s footprint
Negatives: Big-time travel expenses

The Busch Series’ first two trips to Mexico City were huge hits, marked by tremendous crowds and season-best TV ratings. Anticipation for the first race in Montreal this year is already palpable, even though it’s more than five months away.

NASCAR Busch Series sponsors

Thirty-four companies have signed either a title or presenting sponsorship deal for a 2007 NASCAR Busch Series race. Only 11 of those companies (listed below) had a comparable deal in 2002, and only Anheuser-Busch and Kroger can trace such a deal back to 1982, the series’ first year.
• Aaron’s
• Bashas’ Supermarkets
• Anheuser-Busch
• Carquest Auto Parts
• Circuit City 250 presented by FUNAI*
• Food City
• Ford
• Kroger
• O’Reilly
• Pepsi
• Sam’s Town
* FUNAI was a sponsor in 2002; Circuit City was not.

These companies sponsored Busch Series teams in both 2001 and 2006:
• Aaron’s
• ACDelco
• Holiday Inn
• Kingsford
• Rockwell Automation
• U.S. Marines
• Yellow Transportation

These sponsors aren’t returning for the 2007 season:
• Lowe’s
• ACDelco
• U.S. Coast Guard
• U.S. Marines
• Duraflame

Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

Could the Busch Series establish the identity of being NASCAR’s international ambassador? It goes north and south of the border, so could it go overseas? Could it go to South America?

Certainly not without a significant subsidy from NASCAR to the teams to cover travel expenses. Busch-only owners say they’re barely making it financially as it is and the bigger shop owners don’t want to spend money on Busch that might take away from their Cup operation.

From NASCAR’s perspective, it sees plenty of room for growth in the United States.

NASCAR and ESPN are attempting to sell the title rights by emphasizing the opportunity to improve the series. ESPN says it will give the Busch Series’ stars Cup-like treatment. And the new title sponsor will be challenged to help elevate the series’ status.

“We look at it as more of an opportunity” NASCAR’s O’Donnell said. “It’s really an under-marketed property and we see Saturdays as a huge growth opportunity. We can fill more seats, we can promote the series and we’re going to with ESPN coming on board. The sky is the limit for this series.”

Ultimately, NASCAR wants the Busch Series to provide great racing, no matter who’s in the driver’s seat.

As it makes the pitch to prospective title sponsors, NASCAR is pushing the idea that the Busch Series is college football compared with pro football, in terms of the level of racing and the marketing opportunities involved.

“With Triple-A baseball vs. Major League Baseball, you look at it and know that it’s really not close to the same thing,” said NASCAR’s O’Donnell. “But you can look at college football and see that it’s a really good show, and that’s how we look at the Busch Series. It’s an under-marketed property with huge growth opportunity.”

The success of Busch Series races in Mexico City
raises the question of whether the series could
become NASCAR’s international ambassador.

The difference, obviously, is that college football has its own distinct identity and passionate following, whereas stakeholders in the Busch Series say it lacks that identity.

NASCAR is counting on ESPN’s involvement to provide a boost. Just this past week, the network began a Busch campaign that includes three 30-second spots with drivers Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Stephen Leicht, along with 17 other Busch drivers, that will run throughout the season.

It’s designed to “bring a face and a personality not only to the Busch Series, but to the drivers as well,” said Katie Lacey, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing.

Edwards and Hamlin are Cup drivers who will drive in a majority or all of the Busch races, which means ESPN is doing the same thing promoters and sponsors are doing: tapping into the Cup names to raise awareness of the Busch events.

But it’s with that kind of promotion, ESPN and NASCAR believe, that the Busch Series can begin to distinguish its races, even if many of those faces and personalities promoting it belong to Cup drivers.

Most-watched Busch Series races 2004-06
Ranked by total average households
Event (Week)
Households (000s)
Telcel-Motorola Mexico 200 (3) Mexico Fox
Telcel-Motorola Mexico 200 (3) Mexico Fox
Hershey’s Kissables (1) Daytona Fox
Aaron’s 312 (10) Talladega Fox
Hershey’s Kissables (1) Daytona NBC
Hershey’s Kissables (1) Daytona TNT 3.3 2,947 2006
Stater Bros. 300 (2) California FX 2.6 2,212 2005
Winn-Dixie 250 (18) Daytona TNT 2.3 2,088 2005
Carquest Auto Parts 300 (13) Lowe’s FX 2.2 1,946 2006
Sam’s Town 300 (4) Las Vegas FX 2.2 1,912 2005
Least-watched Busch Series races 2004-06
Ranked by total average households
Event (Week)
Zippo 200 (24) Watkins Glen NBC
Sam’s Town 250 (32) Memphis NBC
Ameriquest 300 (27) California NBC
Goody’s 250 (21) Martinsville NBC
Arizona.Travel 200 (34) Phoenix NBC
AT&T 250 (17) Milwaukee FX
Carquest Auto Parts 300 (13) Lowe’s FX
Busch Silver Celebration 250 (22) Gateway FX
Pepsi 300 (8) Nashville FX
Dover 200 (29) Dover TNT
Note: Does not include events that were significantly delayed due to weather
Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of Nielsen Media Research

NASCAR Busch Series ratings trends
NASCAR Busch Series network ratings slipped last year, but the circuit has been trending upward.
Total average households (000s)
1-year change
2-year change
Network 2,410 2,747 2,245 -12.3% 7.3%
Cable 1,527 1,524 1,237 0.2% 23.4%

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