What is future of NASCAR series?
|Scant crowds and a tough sponsorship market have challenged the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series still draw solid TV audiences. For example, the Xfinity Series is averaging 1.1 million viewers across NBC and NBCSN so far this year, while the Truck Series this season is averaging 672,000 viewers on Fox Sports’ channels.
But there are increasing concerns around the sport about team shutdowns, low attendance and the quest to properly define the identity of each series.
“If you’re comparing motorsports to the second and third tiers of other professional sports, NASCAR is blowing them out of the water,” said Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion who will shut down his Truck Series team after this season. “But NASCAR has lost the middle class [of team owners in the series], and you just can’t grow that back overnight.”
The challenges are mainly split between financial issues on the team side and questions on the fan side about what mixture of venues and eligibility rules will produce the most attractive product.
Two notable Truck Series outfits in Keselowski’s team and Red Horse Racing announced plans this year to shut down, with Red Horse shutting down mid-season. And multiple Xfinity Series cars stopped running mid-season due to a lack of sponsorship. That included the Roush Fenway Racing Ford that was driven by rising star Darrell Wallace Jr., who has been on the sidelines since then save for a few one-off appearances.
On the fan side, scant crowds turn out at some races, which are often held in the days leading up to that weekend’s premier series race. NASCAR this year introduced a youth policy where fans 12 and under are free for the lower-tier races, a move that industry executives say is seeing incremental results. However, NASCAR does not provide attendance figures for its races.
Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, said he doesn’t view now as a particularly critical juncture for the lower-tier series’ future. But he conceded that the sport has a big focus on the team business model in the lower tiers.
|Some wonder if the Truck Series would be better off at short tracks instead of being companion events at larger speedways.
Teams are working with NASCAR to cut costs. For example, NASCAR is introducing rules to switch from a steel body to a lower-cost composite body in the Xfinity Series and considering implementing a spec engine for the Truck Series. Keselowski said teams also could save money by using fewer crew members at the track, and by racing at more short tracks.
It costs about $6 million to run a top Xfinity Series car per season, a figure that JR Motorsports executive Joe Mattes thinks needs to come down to $4 million to $5 million in order to keep teams better afloat. It costs about $4 million to $5 million to run a top Truck Series entry, a figure that Keselowski says should be closer to $2 million to $2.5 million.
Some observers have called for a re-evaluation of the sport’s split of television money. While teams get 25 percent of the $820 million annually that goes into the sport from Fox Sports and NBC Sports, the two lower-tier series get only a small percentage of the total.
“There’s a three-legged stool: sanctioning body, tracks and teams — and none of us can sit, survive and stand alone,” said Mattes, JR Motorsports’ vice president of marketing and licensing. “The only issue with the three-legged stool is two legs make all the rules and the third leg in teams … really aren’t making any money.”
On top of Keselowski, drivers who have publicly opined on the future of the lower-tier series this year include Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Harvick proposed shifting the lower-tier series’ schedules to local short tracks around the country to build more grassroots interest in the sport, though that would raise questions about those venues’ financing, amenities and safety features.
The two lower-tier series used to race often on short tracks but evolved into primarily companion events at larger tracks. Out of the Monster Energy Series’ 36 points races this season, 35 were companion events featuring either a race from the Xfinity Series or Truck Series, or on rare occasions both.
Ben May is president of the independent Pocono Raceway, which has two annual Monster Energy Series weekends that feature companion events. He said his track still finds value in the lower-tier races.
“We love our companion events; they’re a major part of the show, and are also why we continue to host ARCA races as well,” May wrote in a text message. “The safety [features] of the short tracks would be the first thing that I think of [regarding lower-tier races at local short tracks]. Adding SAFER barriers is a heavy lift.”
One of the more extreme suggestions has included switching one of the lower-tier series to running electric vehicles, given the trend away from gas-based cars.
This all comes as NASCAR implements rules that will cut back on the number of races top drivers can participate in with the lower series. The Xfinity Series’ tagline is “Names Are Made Here,” but it often features veteran Monster Energy Series drivers such as Busch waxing the field. Some fans have grown weary at such top-flight drivers dominating those races, making the events less exciting and stealing the spotlight from younger drivers trying to make a name for themselves.
Still, observers in the sport say there is a wealth of young talent rising through the ranks. Daniel Suarez stayed in the Xfinity Series for two years, winning the championship last season, before graduating to the premier series, and William Byron is set to move up, too, and wheel Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 ride.
Cassidy remains confident.
“We’re definitely relatively happy [with where the two series are], but never complacent,” he said. “Motorsports and racing requires constant attention at all levels, and that’s exactly what we provide day in and day out.”