NASCAR goes around and around on changes

Kevin Harvick landed a familiar NASCAR sponsor, Budweiser, this season for the car he drives in stock-car racing’s premier Sprint Cup Series.

But when Harvick sought backing for a separate race team he owns, he searched “outside of that box” of conventional sponsors, he said.

The result: TapouT, an apparel brand tied to mixed martial arts, debuted this month as the main sponsor of a Harvick-owned car. “That’s a whole different group of fans we’re going to cross-promote with,” he said of MMA’s following.

Which is just what NASCAR needs. After enjoying nearly unbridled popularity a few years ago, the Cup series has seen attendance and television ratings drop 15%-20% from peak levels and is working to get the sport growing again.


NASCAR grapples with a downshift in popularity

NASCAR returns to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana this weekend amid signs its popularity is stabilizing. NASCAR still enjoys a huge audience and “a lot of sports would kill for its kind of viewership,” said Ralph Gilles, president of Dodge, one of the sport’s auto manufacturers.

But the challenge is getting more people, such as those Harvick is courting, to give NASCAR a look and keeping their interest.

In good economic times or bad, achieving that goal boils down to two things, those involved in the sport said: consistently exciting races and a greater show of personality by the drivers, especially if that spawns the pitched rivalries — a la Magic vs. Bird, or Nadal vs. Federer — that sports fans embrace.

“If those two things continue to go in the right direction, everything else will follow,” said Joie Chitwood III, president of Daytona International Speedway. “If we have poor racing and drivers don’t express any personality, we’re in for a long haul.”

David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports, one of the three broadcasters of NASCAR’s Cup races, agreed that “the key thing is for the younger demographic to rediscover the sport and fall in love with it the way they did 10 years ago.” How? “The personalities and [a] focus on the drivers.”

When the sport was surging in popularity, too many NASCAR drivers became bland and politically correct, their rough-and-tumble ways curbed by NASCAR and its influx of sponsors with corporate images to protect.

So last year, NASCAR gave its drivers more freedom to race hard and speak their minds publicly with less fear of retribution by officials — the so-called “boys, have at it” policy — in hopes of heightening the human and emotional aspect of racing.


Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski feuded on the track, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton got into a fistfight and Harvick and Joey Logano had a shouting match as cameras rolled. But NASCAR’s overall attendance and TV ratings still fell last year.

And not everyone agreed there’s a problem. Burton said he gets “perturbed and upset when I hear people say . . . there’s no personalities in our sport. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

NASCAR did open this year with a compelling story when, one day after turning 20, Trevor Bayne won the sport’s crown-jewel race, the Daytona 500. Bayne’s win was “a big deal” because “one of NASCAR’s biggest initiatives for 2011 was to go after … young people,” said veteran driver Mark Martin. “It’s good for our sport.”

But NASCAR’s season drags on for 10 months, and NASCAR needs more than a one-week Cinderella story to sustain a wider following.


Meanwhile, NASCAR and race tracks have made a flurry of changes to lure more customers.

NASCAR, led by Chairman Brian France, rewrote some racing rules and modified its oft-maligned race car, the “Car of Tomorrow,” or COT, to foster more compelling action. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a time in history when the racing has been closer” and more competitive, said Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development.

Starting in 2013, Toyota and NASCAR’s other auto manufacturers — Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge — also will put new bodies on the COT chassis that more closely resemble showroom models and, they hope, enable fans to better identify with the sport.

Race tracks have also slashed ticket prices and launched more promotional campaigns.


Auto Club Speedway, for instance, cut prices to as low as $35 ($30 for Auto Club members), rolled out school programs with free race tickets and stepped up its marketing to the Latino population to try to lure more race fans to Fontana. “We want people to get a taste of what the sport is like,” said Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker.

But it’s a challenge made more daunting by the breadth of entertainment choices available today.

A Sports Business Journal poll showed that the primary reason people watch fewer NASCAR races is because their lives “had become too busy.” NASCAR team owner Roger Penske theorizes that with the popularity of hand-held digital devices, a new generation of consumers is “not as attentive [to NASCAR as before]. There’s a lot of competition.”

So, NASCAR has joined other sports in adapting to a world with texting, smart phones and social media. “You can be playing golf and watch the race on your phone,” said NASCAR driver and team owner Michael Waltrip.


The website Sports Fan Graph ranks NASCAR the 33rd most popular sports social-media entity in the world, just above Major League Baseball, with 1.46 million combined Facebook and Twitter followers. The NBA, by contrast, is fourth at 10.3 million.

Yet there’s also the notion that technology has left the nation with a shorter attention span and perhaps NASCAR should shorten its races.

Most Cup races are 400 to 500 miles and last three hours or more. Those in favor of shortening races include Fox’s Hill, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates, a co-owner of the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. “It’s hard to keep someone’s attention for more than three hours,” Sabates said. “You’ll see shorter races down the road.”

Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway already has been cut, to 400 miles from 500, after its prior race last October was pared to 400 miles and produced one of the most exciting Fontana race in years. In a nutshell, the 100 fewer miles forced drivers to race harder earlier.


But Julie Sobieski, an ESPN executive, isn’t sure shortening other races would attract more viewers. “We don’t see a direct correlation to shortening the races and the ratings going up,” she said.

The move also could hurt NASCAR by alienating some fans who drive long distances and spend hefty sums to attend races and don’t want the events cut short, Waltrip said. “Their attention span is fine,” he said. “We have to take care of those people.”

NASCAR this year did slightly change the drivers’ eligibility for its 10-race “Chase for the Cup” championship playoff to put a greater emphasis on winning races rather than just finishing well.

But ESPN is eyeing more changes during the Chase, including “some kind of elimination format” among the 12 Chase drivers, Sobieski said.


Whether that happens or not, NASCAR must find new ways to attract increasingly distracted fans, Hendrick said. “There’s too much stuff going on,” he said. “The world’s changed.”