by: PattyKay Lilley
Good day gentle readers. Today I’d like to add my voice and perhaps yours as well, to a subject introduced on these pages yesterday by my friend Tim Leeming, known around RacersReunion as The Legend. First though, allow me to clear up one small misconception. In his Legendtorial, Tim mentioned a conversation between him and me in which he said I stated that NASCAR was “Too big to fail.” That wasn’t quite accurate. I did utter the words, but only as a mocking comparison to some of the financial institutions “bailed out” a few short years ago by our Federal Government.
Too big to fail? Oh no… and I have written proof that I indeed began to predict the possibility of failure as long ago as 2004, that year that keeps inconveniently coming up in conversations dealing with two things… NASCAR and “What the hell happened?” Tim’s article centered on The Chase, so I will start there, but hopefully fill in some more blanks for both you, the fans, and whoever’s task it is to read my writings down in Daytona Beach today.
This morning I let my fingers do the walking through my files and came to the conclusion that it was in my Lady in Black column offering a recap of the race at Fontana, May 2, 2004 that I first used the words, “The Chase for No Sponsorship.” (As opposed to “The Chase for the Championship) From the beginning of that year, I had voiced concern over the multitude of changes not merely proposed but enacted by a brand new regime in the NASCAR hierarchy. Before you ask, no, I am not fundamentally opposed to change, but the purpose of change should be to improve, not destroy. The first concept is a good thing; the second is a disaster.
Let’s calmly examine this “Chase” thing. It took a 36-race season and essentially shortened it to 26 races. At that point, everything changed. For folks that claimed to want a simpler point system, NASCAR came up with one of the most convoluted, cockamamie systems of deciding a Champion ever conceived. It is however, a fluid system, changing by the year to suit the whims and fancies of those same folks that designed it.
The purpose? Originally, it was supposed to make NASCAR more closely resemble the NFL so that we might offer more competition for America’s most popular sport. Rather farcical in my opinion, as the two sports are about as comparable as onions and kangaroos. Honestly, whether I were the onion or the kangaroo, I would find no joy or sense in resembling the other, nor have I ever found sense in NASCAR wanting to be like the NFL. The two have shared Sunday afternoons and now evenings for many, many years, and each had done nicely until this silly Chase thing came to be.
The NFL consists of teams not only in two different Conferences, National and American, but in geographical divisions, North, South, East and West, within each Conference. In order to decide a single Champion for a given year, they have to hold playoffs. It’s the only way to fairly decide who wears the crown. But a playoff in NASCAR is nothing more than ridiculous. We have no divisions in stock car racing. We have a “field” which consists of 43 (arbitrary number) cars in any given race. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a bit that all 43 teams actually race. If one wanted to institute a playoff, who would race against whom?
The cars could be split in half… roughly… 22 and 21, and run two races in each venue and the top 10 or 12 could then “play off” against the other top 10 or 12. Done that way, one could make at least a bit of sense of the format, but that’s not the way it’s done. Once 26 races have been run, all bets are off and the field is narrowed to ten drivers and two “wild-card” drivers, all based on a combination of points and wins that Albert Einstein would have a difficult time in understanding. That gives us the twelve that will be allowed to compete in the final ten races, known as “The Chase.”
Well, as lovely (Please insert font for sarcasm there) as that sounds, the twelve do not get to race each other; they get to race against the same 42 drivers they’ve been racing against since Daytona, only 31 of them no longer count. They are there for decoration only, as we pretend they are part of the race. Fans, we are not the only ones that realize those 31 teams have no purpose other than to obstruct the “Chasers.”
The “Trained professionals” in the broadcast booth are well aware of the fact and persistently ignore all efforts by those coldly designated as “non-chasers” to be a part of the race. As a good example, at the end of the Chicago race last Sunday, ESPN never even sought an interview with Kyle Busch, who finished fourth. Any week prior to the Chase, the press claims the inherent “right” to interview the top-5 finishers and have summarily stoned that same driver for occasionally refusing or seeking to avoid an interview for whatever reason. However, Kyle narrowly missed being in the Chase, and is now persona non grata with the motorsports media that serves NASCAR.
Stay with me now; we’re getting to the meat of The Chase for No Sponsorship. Essentially, for the final ten races, we are viewing a new season, with only twelve drivers eligible for a seat at the head table in Las Vegas in December. Knowing that if your driver is not one of them your car will be ignored, how do you feel as a sponsor of one of the other 31? Announcers are not going to comment on your progress unless your driver is leading and cannot be ignored. Likewise, the camera is not going to follow your driver or isolate your car if it can be avoided. You don’t count!
How long do you think it took sponsors to figure that out for themselves? Not long at all. It was in that inconveniently too often mentioned year of 2004 that we began to hear the words “field fillers” more and more often. That term has now given way to the term “Start and park” as the number of cars engaging in that practice has steadily increased over the years to the point that there are not enough full-time teams running to fill that 43-car field of which NASCAR has become so fond. Now, because I know I’m going to hear it, yes, the downturn and total lack of recovery of our national economy has contributed to the problem, but consider that the housing bust occurred in 2008, yet NASCAR’s numbers, in attendance, TV ratings and even souvenirs, began to drop in 2004. (There’s that year again!)
Today, we see things we wouldn’t have even imagined eight years ago. We see a past Champion and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth, leave the team he has driven for all of his career, Roush Racing, to move to a team that can find sponsorship for him, Joe Gibbs Racing. We see Office Depot pull their primary sponsorship in 2013 from the car of our reigning Champion, Tony Stewart. Yes fans, and you too NASCAR, that goes far toward defining the situation as dire.
Missing or almost gone from the hoods of stock cars are names such as UPS, Crown Royal, Sirius Satellite Radio, DeWalt Tools, Harrah’s Casinos, CITGO, Grainger, Exide Batteries and of course, AT&T, Verizon and Alltel (for reasons of sponsor conflict with the current Series Sponsor) and others will be added at the end of this season. The sponsor exodus from NASCAR has almost reached stampede proportion, even as the cost of such sponsorship continues to escalate. No one need hold a degree in economics to understand that formula will not work.
Teams that used to operate comfortably with a single sponsor are now forced to change their colors on an almost weekly basis to coincide with the sponsor du jur in that particular race. That has come to render a great number of cars unrecognizable even to the most avid and attentive fans as the races become an ever-changing panorama of unfamiliar colors and designs. Fans no longer know that it’s Petty in the Petty-blue and red Plymouth, sponsored by STP. The car might be any color of the rainbow and the sponsor had better use extra-large print on the hood or remain unknown. Fans, and you too NASCAR… what effect do you suppose that has had on the brand loyalty that has served NASCAR so well for so many years? Correct… brand loyalty has gone right down the tubes.
Certainly, there are many contributing factors to the undeniable decline in NASCAR popularity, with both fans and sponsors, and as noted, the economy does play a part… but the economy didn’t start it and it’s not fair to ask it to shoulder all the blame. What clearly was the snowflake that set off the avalanche is this thing we know as The Chase. It has become, as predicted eight years ago, The Chase for No Sponsorship. Fans, our sport has been sullied in the name of clever marketing and may not recover.
NASCAR, you did this to yourself, yet still today you shake your corporate head in denial and attempt to place the blame anywhere but where it belongs, squarely on your shoulders. Like a willful child, you stamp your feet and insist that it wasn’t you; it was someone else, something else… anything but accept the responsibility for your actions. Hey! Blame it on me! I have broad shoulders for an old lady. The fact remains, no matter whom you try to blame, you’re in trouble and we all know it.
Keep your books locked away. No one needs to see them; instead we see those empty seats that are ever on the increase. We see the hoods of far too many cars undecorated by even the smallest amount of sponsorship. We see entry lists for races in all three top series dangerously close to not even equaling the arbitrary “minimum” set by you. Look around you! It’s no longer eight years ago when you dismissed me and others like me with the words, “It is what it is.” That year of 2004 is now history, and in eight short years, almost everything built by two generations of the France family has been squandered and/or trampled into the ground. A once-great sport lies in ruins, and that is a shame. Too big to fail? Obviously not!
You know what NASCAR? I was going to end this dissertation with a rousing “I told you so”, but I find I no longer have the heart or stomach for that. What I have is tears… tears for something that I loved, and you killed.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!
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