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Associated Press
Fans watch as Jimmie Johnson hits the wall during a race July 13 in New Hampshire. In 2012, attendance fell or remained flat at 22 of the 36 Sprint Cup events.

NASCAR trying hard to lure fans back to tracks

– They’ll show up in less than droves again, if history is any guide. And when did history not have the front row to itself at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

And so in a summer when God has blessedly set aside the blowtorch – stealing a convenient excuse – there will be another less-than-robust turnout for the 21st renewal of Stock Cars Come To Indy. From attendance approaching 300,000 just eight years ago, most analysts figure the Brickyard 400 will struggle to hit triple digits for the third consecutive year.

The culprits are familiar: Too much parade racing, too little passing, and, all in all, a venue demonstrably unsuited to the NASCAR product.

“It’s just tough to pass,” Jimmie Johnson said last year. “These corners really aren’t that long. You have four 90-degree turns. That puts a lot against this racetrack.”

The bad news for Johnson ’n’ them?

It’s not just This Racetrack that’s the problem.

Challenges aplenty

The TV dough could choke a woolly mammoth.

Come February, NASCAR begins a 10-year pact with NBC that will be worth $4.4 billion, a hike of $1.66 billion over the expiring deal with ESPN and TNT. Add the $2.4 billion Fox is paying through 2022, and the TVs are paying NASCAR $6.8 billion.

What they’ll be showing in a lot of places, however, is a ton of empty seats.

In 2012 alone, attendance fell or remained flat at 22 of the 36 Sprint Cup events. This year, even the TV ratings are down. And that’s a problem NASCAR President Brian France, to his credit, only partly tries to spin.

“Some markets are just more challenged,” he said this month. “Some are doing better than they did last year. So it’s a mixed bag a little bit.”

But?

“(But) there are some markets that have had a lot of pressure,” he conceded.

There are any number of reasons for that, many of which have been cited numerous times. Jimmie Johnson. Too many cookie-cutter 1.5-mile tracks. An economy that has been particularly hard on NASCAR’s core fan base. Jimmie Johnson.

Changes working

NASCAR can’t do a lot about most of that, but it has done what it can to crank the volume.

The points system, tweaked numerous times, has been reconfigured to make the Chase resemble an actual playoff system, with a “finals” at Homestead the last weekend of the season. Initiatives such as Daytona Rising – a $400 million upgrade by NASCAR partner and track operator ISC – have been encouraged with the hope they’ll spread to other venues. And NASCAR’s incorporation of social media to make the sport more interactive (and to engage younger fans) is an ongoing process.

Tony Stewart can attest to that. When he was down with a broken leg last season, he regularly logged into NASCAR.com to keep track of things.

“I would get on for every practice, qualifying, the race,” he said this week. “It was easy. I mean, I’m not very technology-savvy by any means, but it was easy to use. I can’t see any reason that (NASCAR) is going to go backwards from that.”

As for the new scoring system, it depends who you ask as to whether it’s made drivers less inclined to points-race.

“I really don’t (think so),” Matt Kenseth says. “This is the top division of stock car racing, and you want to win every race. Whether it pays a dollar or a million dollars or whether it pays one point or locks you into the Chase, there’s always been the most incentive to win.”

NASCAR’s incentive, meanwhile, is to hold the line against any further erosion of its once-untouchable empire.

“We like to think that historically important events work themselves out over time, and some of that is on us, too,” France said this month.

“We’ve got to constantly figure out how to make our racing tighter, better. We’re working with our track operators, the ones that have more challenges than others, and we’ll just have to work through it.

“But we’re on nice, steady ground, and sponsorship is coming back for us, thankfully. The business is sound, and we’re going forward.”

bensmith@jg.net

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