By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
Rubbing is racing.
Popularized by the movie Days of Thunder dramatizing stock-car racing at its most cartoonish, the axiom might be the easiest way to explain NASCAR's rise from regional phenomenon to national platform.
"The bare essence of the sport is, 'He crashed me, so I crashed him back,' " Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage says. "That's the appeal."
But after a first half of the 2010 Sprint Cup season filled with slam-bang feuding primarily the row between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski but also boiling between Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano and unpredictable finishes, it hasn't caused a spike in the rooting interests of NASCAR.
Based off feedback from a 12,000-member fan council (created by NASCAR and surveyed regularly online) that demanded more action, a series of rule changes were implemented over the past 18 months double-file restarts, multiple attempts at overtime finishes, a return to the traditional spoiler. It's resulted in first-half records for leaders, lead changes per race and green-flag passes.
"The gods in the NASCAR control booth made some great moves, and it seems to have produced much better racing," says longtime racing promoter and consultant Humpy Wheeler, "but it is bombing at the box office."
According to NASCAR estimates, attendance has dropped in 14 of the first 19 races of the season, and the average crowd of 99,853 projects to 3.6 million which would be nearly a million off the total in 2003, the last season before the Chase for the Sprint Cup made its debut.
Another less-than-capacity crowd is expected for Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (whose 257,000 seats could be less than two-thirds full and off last year's 180,000 pace). Meanwhile, TV ratings remain mired in a slump with TNT closing its six-race schedule down 9.1%.
"I wish that it had an immediate effect on attendance and the audience, but it appears there's a bit of a lag," says Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development. "I can't believe people wouldn't be here watching if they knew what they were going to see. But it's going to take time to have an effect."
The recession can be blamed in part, given that NASCAR demographics say its fan base is middle class, but some of the erosion predates the downturn.
As a way to goose interest in his sport, NASCAR chairman Brian France has hinted at overhauling the Chase, the 10-race championship run that closes the season. Citing a need for more "Game 7"-style moments, everything from adding knockout-style eliminations to ensuring a one-race playoff for the championship is being considered. The Chase currently resets the top 12 in points, seeds them by wins and uses the same consistency-based points system to determine the champion. The past two seasons, Jimmie Johnson virtually had clinched the title entering the finale, and aside from its first two years, the Chase hasn't delievered a multiple-driver battle for the title as intended.
The playoffs have had a positive impact on the viewership in other sports with the NFL (102%), NBA (158%) and Major League Baseball (425%) all posting large ratings gains over the regular season last year. All three leagues posted a triple-digit gain over the regular season with a championship game or series. In NASCAR, the 10 Chase events last year shown on ABC earned a 3.5 rating that was down from Fox's 5.1 during the first 13 races (and a 3.8 for the 2008 Chase).
Julie Sobieski, ESPN's vice president of programming & acquisitions who handles its business relationship with NASCAR, says the network believes there'd be an opportunity for increases in NASCAR viewership with a format change. ESPN and ABC broadcast the final 17 races of the season, starting with Sunday's Brickyard.
"Anything that really puts the emphasis on winning in every race throughout those playoffs increases the drama for fans, knowing everything is on the line every single race," she said. "That's something we support as an opportunity to get the NASCAR fans excited again and the casual sports fan as well."
'The more we change stuff the lower the ratings get'
It's not such an easy philosophical shift, though. After mocking the mainstream as "stick and ball sports" while trying to differentiate itself during its formative years, NASCAR would be mimicking them in adopting their playoff systems.
"I struggle deciding which side of that argument I'm on," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver. "The changes they want to make fit into what seems to be the demand these days, even if it isn't traditional. It just seems to be what's hot. I'm not sure that it's a positive for the long haul. After we make this kind of change, where do to go from there? That's pretty radical."
Gossage, whose Texas track plays host to two races annually, loves the Chase but says "fans haven't connected to it, so Brian is right in trying to find ways to create drama." Attendance has dropped annually in five of the Chase's six seasons (the format was tweaked in 2007, increasing the field from 10 to 12 drivers and adding bonus points).
"Race fans have a problem if a guy has a great regular season, gets in the Chase and loses," Gossage says. "A single-elimination format is the standard in most sports, but it's one of those things that race fans have a problem with.
"We can't just say OK, we're doing the NFL, because it doesn't work that way."
On the day France floated the idea of tweaking the Chase, Denny Hamlin posted on Twitter that "if we haven't noticed already the more we change stuff the lower the ratings get."
Hamlin, who finished fifth in last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, doesn't think NASCAR is analogous enough to other team sports to justify the switch because the competition isn't head to head.
"This is a sport where if somebody else makes a mistake, it can cost you," Hamlin says. "(In) other sports, if another team makes a mistake, you're the one who wins because of it. That's why I think we originally chased this out into 36 weeks to make sure you brought it out into a long enough season to where the true champion was crowned every year."
Veteran Jeff Burton says a driver's "body of work should count" toward a title but adds "I don't view it from the same eyes as the fans. The (racing) is better because of enhancing the aggressiveness, (and) I think NASCAR will want to try to figure out how to do more. That's why they're looking at reshuffling the Chase. If the fans are telling them, 'We want to see a more exciting Chase,' NASCAR is going to do whatever they have to do to make it exciting."
Finding the right appeal
NASCAR isn't the only sport considering changes in the face of stiff financial headwinds and lagging interest from its fan base, says David Carter, of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute.
"There's plenty of concern to go around, and the biggest issue is complacency," Carter says. "I don't think you can accuse NASCAR of being complacent. Fans demand meaningful change and progress, whether that's instant replay at the World Cup or adding a playoff element in NASCAR.
"That's why these leagues need to continue to tweak, especially if they went to resonate with the next generation of fans that wants everything now and wants technology at their fingertips. You better be able to deliver it, or you're going to run into trouble. All sports need new storylines, and those tend to come from young people."
Fox Sports chairman David Hill recently told the Sports Business Journal "the biggest problem facing NASCAR is that young males have left the sport." Fox said ratings among men 18-34 declined 29%.
Gossage says his track is tailoring its 2011 promotions to a younger audience than ever.
"I'm trying to find a campaign that appeals to car guys with an old hot rod but also to a guy who wears a flat-bill hat and drinks Red Bull," he says. "I think I got it, but I can tell you it's not easy."
Regardless of demographics, the economy also remains a major drain in a sport where France says "we ask our fans in the big event business to stay longer, drive further, buy hotel rooms and the like as part of what it takes to come to our events."
International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 speedways that host Cup races, slashed prices on more than half a million tickets but didn't discount prices once the season started.
Craig Rust, president of ISC's Chicagoland Speedway, says the track's ticket ($156-$280 for a Nationwide-Cup package; individual races weren't available) was too expensive this season, making it difficult to capitalize on this year's improvements to the competition.
"Sometimes as an industry, the expectations are, 'that'll fix it' and that's not the case," says Rust, who plans to decouple the track's ticket package next year along with a possible price cut. "This is going to be a two-, three-, four-year process of being consistent with the messaging. The product sells tickets, and I think the product is good."
NASCAR might not be done tweaking the product, either. A redesign of cars in its second-tier Nationwide Series allowed for rebranding models as muscle cars such as Mustangs and Challengers. There'll be similar changes to the front end of Sprint Cup cars next year that could allow for more brand identity for auto manufacturers.
"I'm hoping as quick as possible they get that into the Cup series," says Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, whose company owns seven tracks that host Sprint Cup races. "Fans all want these vehicles we recognize. They're doing things now with those cars where you can recognize them. That is a giant step in the right direction. That's going to add ticket sales."