NASCAR Execs Discuss Changes To Sport Going Into A New Season
A year after making sweeping changes to its point system and qualifications for its series championships, the news Thursday from NASCAR was no news. The sport’s sanctioning body started its preseason press conference with a video that highlighted closer competition, the addition of new drivers and its push to evolve by adding ethanol to fuel and electronic fuel injection engines. The video closed by saying that the sport wanted to continue its momentum from '11. NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France, who spoke afterward, noted that ratings increased in '11, attendance rose at several tracks and Sprint announced a major sponsorship extension for its entitlement of the sport’s premier series. France said, “We’re pretty pleased with where things are in general.” Despite Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing contracting by a team each this year, France said he doesn’t expect to see smaller fields during races in '12 (Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal). France said, “Last year at this event we announced a number of changes that we believed would build interest and help make it easier for fans to understand the championship race. We're very pleased with how all of those changes played out.” SI.com’s Bruce Martin wrote NASCAR standing pat on the playoff “is fairly notable.” Fans of the sport “will note that the Chase has been tweaked nearly every year since its inception, in 2004” (SI.com, 1/26).
POISED FOR A GOOD YEAR: FOXSPORTS.com’s Lee Spencer writes it appears that sponsorship “is recovering, and television ratings and track attendance both are up.” Certainly, the key to success for NASCAR in ’12 will be “to build on the momentum of last year.” And NASCAR “will not rest on its laurels.” Spencer notes it was the “response from fans that prompted NASCAR to curtail the extensive pairing of drivers at Daytona and Talladega.” Following a successful test for the Daytona 500 earlier this month “to discourage tandem drafting, the product for the Great American Race appears strong.” Surely the sport is “thrilled about three-time champion Tony Stewart defending his title, along with Danica Patrick defecting from IndyCar and making her Sprint Cup debut and Dale Earnhardt’s progress at Hendrick Motorsports.” However the league is “far from over the economic hump.” While there are “more sponsors entering the sport, many primaries have cut back from initial 36-race commitments.” That can be “confusing to newer fans who are more familiar with paint schemes and can’t make out or keep up with car numbers” (FOXSPORTS.com, 1/27).
LOOKING AHEAD: The biggest business questions facing NASCAR in '12 are on the media front. The sport’s broadcast agreements with Fox, Turner and ESPN end after the '14 season, and France said that all three broadcasters are interested in continuing to televise the sport. He added that discussions have begun, but there are no immediate plans to work on new agreements. NASCAR also is focused on its digital rights, and it is in the process of negotiating with Turner, which currently holds those rights, to retain them. France did not speak to those negotiations, but said, “Digital (is) very important to us. (It’s) very important for us to manage those rights in the future. It’s the new medium to develop that deep relationship with our fans, so we will be taking a very active role. Not just us. But the industry. This is one of those things where the industry is working together, the teams, the tracks, so on, to formulate the right social media strategy, the right digital strategy, for the future” (Mickle).
NO HARM DONE: NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson said Kyle and Kurt Busch, who have been under fire for their conduct at the end of the '11 season, "are not bad for NASCAR at all." Johnson said, "Everybody does things they regret. ... I’m not trying to defend anyone, but the era of Junior Johnson, I’m sure he ran through some areas running moonshine and outrunning the cops that he shouldn’t have, and now he’s looked upon like some great hero.” Driver Jeff Gordon “believes a good deal of trouble the two brothers have stirred up can be positive for the sport.” Gordon: “Some would say that any publicity is good publicity. They certainly draw attention, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” He added, “I look at how I want to be portrayed and how I want to be recognized on the track and off the track and how my sponsors and fans feel about those kinds of things. Those things come in my mind when I am about to say or do something that wouldn’t be appropriate. ... That’s the difference I see.” Gordon: “Is it good? It is good, but from where they are standing, they know it is not good because there are repercussions that come along with that. Kurt basically losing one of the best rides out there, that certainly got his attention” (SCENEDAILY.com, 1/25).