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What are NASCAR's newest ideas?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Here we go again.
It’s time for the mid-annual NASCAR trial balloon launch. Float ideas out to the teams, the sponsors and the media to see which ones fly and which ones sink.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France didn’t come to the media center at Daytona International Speedway by accident on Friday morning. France was well rehearsed. He began with selected talking points out of the box: the 2011 schedule, possible if not probable changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format (twice), the economy, the auto manufacturers and the recently held town hall meetings that FOXSports.com first reported on last month. France’s meetings with competitors have encouraged an open exchange of dialogue to feel more invested in the sport.
Throughout France’s 45-minute exchange with reporters, a variety of other topics were raised including revamping the Nationwide Series, the use of ethanol and sagging TV ratings despite a more competitive product on the racetrack.
But what's really going to change in the coming weeks and months ahead? Here are three things that could change the course of NASCAR in the near future.
There will be changes to the 2011 schedule. It’s just a matter of what makes sense for the sanctioning body, the TV partners and the tracks.
For the sanctioning body, the key is product, exposure and climate. Where can NASCAR reach the most fans with an acceptable facility in a temperate area? For the TV partners, what venue will provide the best entertainment for its viewers and hence attract the highest ratings. While the tracks are also concerned with where they land on the calendar, the length of the race and existing sponsorship/business agreements must also figure in the process.
France said the deadline has come and gone for tracks to submit requests for changes for next season. His goal is to have something announced by or around Labor Day.
Topics being discussed include shuffling the last 11 dates of the season so different venues could promote Chase races on a revolving basis. Another issue is geography and bouncing between coasts.
While the Sprint Cup schedule is likely not to be shortened any time soon, the Nationwide schedule is under review. And by 2012, some Truck and NNS dates could move to weeknight shows.
Certainly, the six tracks that have been mentioned as possible candidates for realignment include Kansas Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kentucky Motor Speedway. At this point, it’s up to the track owners to determine what they’re willing to give up to make something happen.
From an attendance standpoint, Fontana and Atlanta could both stand to lose a race. Time will tell whether Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith is serious about taking a date from New Hampshire — the only track that serves the New England area. The Fontana spring date is likely to fall, but what to put in its place? Phoenix is likely to move to an earlier date. One thing is for certain, Homestead-Miami Speedway stands to lose a chunk of change if the season finale is moved from that track. Ford has a contract to be the title sponsor through 2014 — but only if it’s the last race of the season. An alternative placement for Las Vegas could be in the kick off position for the Chase, replacing the first race of the playoffs, which is currently being held in New Hampshire.
NASCAR needs to take into consideration what tracks offer the most bang for the entertainment buck, what tracks are in the geographically desirable areas and what tracks provide the best facilities for the fans. If the track doesn’t put on a show, there’s no reason for the fans to go. Also, the attention span of the upcoming generations of fans that watch racing isn't the same as their grandparents. Three-plus hour shows just won’t cut it unless the action is so scintillating they refuse to leave their seats.
France mentioned changes to the title-deciding Chase format repeatedly in his opening statement.
“We’re looking at the Chase format very, very carefully as we always do — maybe even more carefully,” France said initially. Followed by “the Chase format, whatever it might be.” And finally scrutinizing the Chase, “pretty carefully." You get the picture.
France says the sanctioning body studies the format every year because NASCAR “wants to make sure it’s giving us the biggest impact moments” over the 10 races in the Chase. France believes that a playoff format distinguishes NASCAR from other forms of motorsports and is different because there are 43 teams rather than just a couple vying for the title. But generally, doesn’t the championship just come down to a couple teams?
France also said he’d like to have the Chase balanced correctly and since the program has been in effect since 2004, there’s more historical data to draw from when making future decisions. Could this be the politically correct way for the Chairman to say there might be a way to slow the efforts of the four-time champ who has not only figured out the system, but made child’s play of the current format?
France concedes, “It wouldn’t be surprising for us to take back the original objectives." While he’s happy with the Chase, it doesn’t mean it can’t be enhanced in some way to provide for more of the big moments fans remember in sports.
He used the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament as an example of how other sports have tweaked existing playoff system and admitted the Chase is an evolution. France concluded that a decision could come along in the next couple of months.
Coming out of the town hall meetings, one proposed suggestion includes 15 drivers, then through a process of elimination work down to three or four by the season finale with a winner of the race taking the title at the end. While this might be the wildest scenario among possibilities being discussed, there seems to be concern among the competitors that something too wacky would alienate the core fans even further. NASCAR must be careful not to make knee-jerk reactions in hopes of enticing interest just for the short term. The emphasis must be on long-term growth.
The Nationwide Series
France expects changes to the tour to encourage new owners and drivers. His wish is for the NNS to evolve into NASCAR’s version of college football where teams can build their identities and careers. France insisted that a policy change was in the works for 2011 to offer that opportunity to young Nationwide regulars who need experience.
Former Nationwide Series champ Carl Edwards has a few suggestions of his own. First, he advocates limiting practice for Sprint Cup Series regulars that compete in the NNS. Another suggestion might be starting the Cup regulars from the back of the field at the start of the race and battle their way through. Edwards believes it’s still important to let them race for the championship because for teams not running for the title, there’s only the incentive to win the race.
While the pony car debut on Friday night at Daytona was a resounding success, this has been a difficult year for the NNS. The cost of switching to a new car places a sizable strain on team budgets. Consequently, teams must acquire significant sponsor dollars to subsidize those costs and it’s difficult to find a benefactor that will support an unknown driver.
This season alone, there have been several NNS drivers who have had their careers stall before they were started. When Kelly Bires and Jon Wes Townley could not cut it in the early going, both were quickly dismissed. Colin Braun has had his scheduled cut to only sponsored races.
Sponsorship woes are nothing new in the NNS. Over time, what should be the feeder series for NASCAR’S top tour has been saturated with Sprint Cup drivers that attract necessary sponsorship. However, where will tomorrow’s future stars come from if there is no avenue for the drivers to reach the next series? Again, the decisions made for NNS will have a great impact on the future of the sport and should not be taken lightly.
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