What Has Happened to NASCAR?
This is a blog post that I wrote at the beginning of August, but the general premise is still relevant.
It’s time to face it folks the days of Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty working a real job by day and on their race cars at night are long gone. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone because as we know NASCAR is in the age of big money. Teams need a large amount of start-up capital to build their shop and the infrastructure needed to run a team, but they also need sponsors.
Today it seems like the old conundrum: what came firs the chicken or the egg? In NASCAR terms, what comes first the sponsor or the team? For an established team that answer is obvious the sponsors come before the team. Without a sponsor you are unable to put a car on the track.
Hands down, NASCAR is a great marketing tool. Where else can you get your logo four hours of national television coverage? Not to mention the fact that all Sprint Cup series practices and qualifying are televised providing exposure from Friday to Sunday.
What does all of this mean though?
Simple, the focus of NASCAR and it’s race teams has moved from performance to marketability. The first step in that was the Car of Tomorrow (COT). There’s no way that’s true you say? Think about it for a minute.
Why did NASCAR institute the COT? To make performance more consistent amongst all teams not just the perennial powerhouses. Has that really come to pass? No, it hasn’t. One of the most common things that drivers say about the COT is that they have a hard time passing with these cars.
Now we have double file restarts. What does each of these things provide? More TV time for each sponsor. The TV cameras move to where the action is and if you have two drivers battling for two to three laps to pass each other that’s laps of coverage for those two primary sponsors.
The other answer NASCAR gives is that the changes it is making are for the fans. Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Yes, the changes may have been made to increase and maintain the fan base, but not truly for the fans. Who is it for then? Simple, the sponsors.
Without fans, NASCAR teams are going to lose sponsors. Teams are already losing sponsors. Take for example, Dewalt leaving Matt Kenseth after ten seasons. The failing car manufacturers are cutting back and cutting off payments to NASCAR teams that run their emblem. These cut-backs don’t have anything to do with fans, it’s due to the economy. So just imagine what would happen if legions of fans were dropping away.
Back to the economy though, with sponsors pulling back their money and cutting budgets NASCAR teams have to start showing that the drivers can offer something more to the sponsors to keep them. This unfortunately means more “drivers” (I’m using the term loosely) like Paul Menard who have money to back themselves are more likely to remain in the series as well as get picked up by teams. The second downside to finding and keeping sponsors in this economy is that a team’s focus shifts from performance to marketability. Let’s check out a recent rumor.
Reports are running rampant that Reed Sorenson is going to be out of a job at Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) who will close down the 44 team and place A.J. Allmendinger in the historic 43. If RPM was looking at their team in a performance based way Sadler and Allmendinger would be on their way out. As both drivers have been consistently finishing from 20’th on back since the start of the season. Whereas, after a rough start to the season with mechanical failures and involvement in wrecks Sorenson is posting top 15 finishes and consistently runs with or only a few spots behind RPM money maker Kasey Kahne. Sorenson is also doing so without the Dodge R6 engine, which RPM wasted on Sadler at Indianapolis.
So why does RPM keep Allmendinger and Sadler. Well Sadler has already sued RPM once during the off-season for trying to fire him. So the team is stuck with him until the end of 2010.
As for Allmendinger there are two main reasons why he is preferred at RPM. First, he is currently more marketable than Sorenson. How? First, Allmendinger is fine with shamelessly marketing himself if no one else will do it for him. Remember the shirts his wife, Lynne, and dog, Misty, wore during the All-Star week promoting him? If he’s willing to do that for himself imagine what he would do for a sponsor. Have you seen Sorenson do anything like that? The answer is a simple, no.
The second reason Allmendinger may be preferred by RPM, is that he raced for Red Bull Racing in a Toyota. With RPM’s Dodge contract running out at the end of this season and the team seriously considering the switch to Toyota they could use someone in their stable who is familiar with the Camry COT.
So even though Sorenson is hands down the second best performer as of late in the RPM stable he will be the odd man out as RPM hangs on to the drivers it considers are money makers on and off the track.
Kasey Kahne’s remarks earlier this season about RPM taking three to four months to adopt new equipment that other teams get at the start of the season show that RPM is not performance focused at all. Kahne was right when he said taking so long to get the new equipment is holding RPM back from being an elite team.
Update: RPM released a statement saying that all four teams will run the remainder of the 2009 season but that there are personnel changes on the horizon.
Allmendinger and Sorenson are switching Crew Chiefs, crews, and equipment. The only thing that will remain the same are sponsors and numbers. Allmendinger posted on Twitter earlier this week about testing at Dover with his new crew. Monday during the race at Pocono Allmendinger’s wife Lynne repeatedly tweeted about how poorly the pit crew was performing. Sorenson’s pit crew has had its troubles but is overall a very good pit crew.
Between reports, statements from the team, and Allmendinger’s comments it is clear that RPM is favoring the driver of the 44.
So what’s my personal take on all of this?
1) NASCAR and its teams are doing what they have to do to keep this sport going through an economic downturn.
2) Be prepared to see many more Michael Waltrip and Paul Menard-esque drivers enter the Cup series.
3) Favoring marketability of a driver over performance is going to drive many fans, specifically the lifetime fans, away from the sport. The lifetime dedicated fans are the ones that NASCAR is trying to keep but by chasing the dollar the racing will suffer and so won’t the fan base.
4) Sorenson is one of the most underrated drivers in the sport. He has yet to find a team that will provide him with the people and equipment he needs to run out front every week. He needs to start looking for another ride.
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