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Lessons from NASCAR: What F1 Could Learn From The Leading Stock Car Series

Richard EverettCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2009

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 7:  Mark Webber of Australia and Jaguar alongside Nascar champion Jeff Gordon during the practise session for the Barcelona F1 Grand Prix on May 7, 2004, at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

At first glance they appear to have nothing in common apart from bearing the moniker of ‘motor-sport series.’

Stock cars are vehicles built to an identical silhouette template, enormously heavy, tube frame chassis and the mechanics involved are often uncomplicated.

Contrastingly Formula One cars bear a light carbon fibre chassis which are aerodynamically perfect, high revving engines and intricate and sophisticated dynamics.

Formula One suffers from a dearth of overtaking, arguably NASCAR suffers just as badly from an excess of it.

Clearly such disparities mean Nascar may not be a model for Formula One, but its undoubted success and fan satisfaction should not be ignored.

Even a fervent F1 supporter such as myself can see there are indeed lessons to be learned.

Lesson 1:The importance of presentation- most products are judged by their jackets

Of course I am not referring to the bespoke Savile Row kind that Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone don regularly but the quality of the transmission of our sport.

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NASCAR offers viewers a plethora of viewing angles and options. Numerous on board cameras, overhead helicopter shots, blimps, and cameras at floor level to name a few.

In F1 distant wide angled cameras are the preferred choice. On board cameras are few and far between and when utilised are high mounted.

Such a paltry selection inhibits our viewing experience.

It does not allow a viewer to garner a full appreciation for the skills required of a driver to control an often-capricious F1 car at speeds exceeding 200mph. Neither can we fully appreciate the challenges that incremental weather or car malfunctions present.

Static wall cameras in NASCAR that shake as cars pass offer an unrivalled (apart from being there in person) sensation of speed.

F1 may not have mounted walls but ground level cameras can be just as impressive and offer a similar luxury.

Also, the use of Helicopter shots in NASCAR would be a wonderful asset to Formula 1. Watching a high overhead shot as a car negotiates apex after apex would be an exhilarating sight.

Naturally, Stock-cars design is more welcoming to on-board devices but nevertheless F1 could be much more dynamic in there usage. NASCAR offers in car shots, roof cameras and bumper cameras covering all angles and all eventualities.

NASCAR’s other televisual methods include the HotPass-allowing viewers to ride along with their favourite driver and frequent use of the split screen to ensure all action is covered, including the ability to simultaneously follow three or four cars during their pitstops.

F1’s coverage seems positively archaic in contrast.

BBC has made some inroads with its red button service, but many of the aforementioned techniques could be adapted, developed and employed in Formula 1.

Unfortunately the capacity for change is impeded by the single director/video feed for the world, produced by Formula One Management.

I have lost count in my 20 years of watching Formula 1 how many pivotal incidents have not been broadcast live because the local director’s focus is either with a home driver or another on road battle which is of smaller consequence.

Such an outdated set-up has also scuppered plans for a High Definition broadcast of Formula One. Yet there remains no development in this area.

Surely if video feeds to all cameras at a race were available to purchase, local broadcasters could then produce how they want and as such tailor their transmission to their target audience.

When watching NASCAR a few weekends ago I was staggered at the amount of radio transmissions that are broadcast openly and freely. There was constant chatter between a driver and his spotter, his team boss and even between two teammates at once.

Contrastingly, in F1 teams still have the ability to withhold conversations during the race broadcast. Of course such regulations have been actively exploited in the past two years.

NASCAR usage of radio transmissions is testament to their pre-eminent understanding of their clientele and what motor-sport television should be.

Add to this that when all cars come to green, multiple radio channels open to broadcast simultaneously. This not only provides viewers with unlimited access but watching teams and spotters trying to get up to speed is a visceral reminder of the work that goes into every second of every race.

In the new age where modes of communication have evolved and organisations must adapt to complement its surroundings Formula 1 remains light-years behind NASCAR and has seemingly not grasped the concept of Internet and new-media presentation.

The official website is disorganised, confusing and suffers from a distinct lack of video content.

NASCAR on the other hand has negotiated the uncertain ground of the modern era with remarkable audacity.

Their website is the antithesis of the FIA's, the layout is much more accommodating, it is crammed full of video content and is so accessible everyone can follow it.

F1 may have shown signs of improvement but NASCAR’s innovations in this area should be guidance to the powers that be.

First impressions are everything and if the jacket you are selling is outdated and unkempt there is always better elsewhere.

Lesson 2:An adaptable and coherent marketing strategy is vital

NASCAR offers prospective advertisers more opportunities. Allowing advertisers to sponsor cars instead of teams, permitting teams to rotate logos so they can sell a space over and over so many times.

I do not advocate adopting the same activities; I don’t think such gratuitous advertising as NASCAR’s is necessarily appropriate for a predominantly European fan base.

For one, using faux headlights to identify the sponsoring manufacturer doesn’t seem very appealing and quite frankly seems odd.

Seriously speaking though, a malleable approach to market strategy is highly beneficial. It offers more opportunity, creates competition and increases the potential amongst brands.

Shell, the petroleum company, work with both Ferrari in F1 and the Richard Childress Racing team in NASCAR. Branding expert, Stuart Humm highlighted the need for F1 to adapt in an article for Brits on Pole- ‘Shell recognised the technical value of NASCAR years ago, F1 must evolve to complement its financial market, there are a number of alternative routes offering comparable packages at a lower ticket price.’

Bernie Ecclestone seems far too single minded in his approach, focusing on making the maximum amount he can from TV rights and promotional fees rather than putting enough emphasis on retail marketing.

Two debacles highlight F1 and in particular how Bernie Ecclestone is out of touch with the necessary modern approach to marketing strategy.

Take the infamous six-car Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2005. Due to stringent TV rights there was no local coverage, highlights or announcement.

The only advertisement for the Grand Prix was on Speed TV- generally speaking purchasers of such a channel most probably already have an established interest in Formula One.

There is little benefit in preaching to the converted. If TV restrictions were loosened it offers a larger platform on which to promote F1 the product. You can’t sell if you don’t offer it!

Another example is the F1 video game, which has not spawned a new edition for almost three years. In 2006 Sony’s $15 million deal expired and they offered Ecclestone a continuance of the deal for the same price. The offer was declined - not deemed to be a sufficient amount.

A subsequent deal was never struck and as Ecclestone was so hell bent on receiving a single colossal bid, in the event he did not and the game would not be produced.

Yet this could have been a blessing in disguise- non-exclusive licensing could have been made available at reasonable royalty prices allowing more companies to develop games with ultimately only the best survive.

Not only would this competition create a better product, but modern games often feature advertisements- thus offering another avenue for prospective brands.

Most importantly video games are an important marketing tool for Sports associations. They can recruit a whole new audience. Those that have enjoyed the game may out of intrigue, start watching F1 possibly becoming life-long fans in the process.

Formula One continues to make the same mistakes and seems incapable or unwilling to adapt.

Unfortunately it appears Bernie and his helmsmen were absent from the marketing seminar. It seems they were too busy setting deadlines for race proposals.

Lesson 3-Motor-sports owners should be the fans servant not master

The France family that runs NASCAR is astute, produce a great product, is not averse to change and has the sport set up for long term sustainability and success.

Its current popularity is astounding with 75 million fans worldwide and currently boasts the accolade of being the second most watched sport in the US.

In 2008 NASCAR made more than three billion dollars in licensing rights and had double-digit percentage revenue increases seven years in a row with its growth projected to continue, at least for the short term.

It is quite simply more accessible to its fans; it doesn’t maintain an air of exclusivity or superiority a la F1. The Pitzone Pass is a prime example - an initiative developed to allow fans to see cars being worked on in garages and to be part of the crowd around the winner’s car.

In F1, BBC rarely gets such access let alone the fans.

Many of F1's most ardent of supporters - myself included- consider it to be the elite motor-racing series.

Seemingly it is. It certainly remains light-years ahead in technical innovation and engineering prowess of Nascar and any other racing series.

NASCAR, however, retains a greater rapport with its fans.

F1 appears like a private members club that opens its doors every race weekend, then tells you to leave. Such an elitist approach makes F1 appear aloof and creates stagnancy. F1 executives’ archaic and rigid approach to motor racing management leaves fans constantly on the outside looking in.

The current 'Chase system' was tweaked –only top ten before the chase commenced can challenge-so that the title was alive until the end of the season.

Sure, to myself and F1 fans alike it may be seen to be eroding sporting parity somewhat, but it does create a more alluring spectacle for fans -the excitement of the 2008 F1 finale is evidence of such. More importantly it is a novel concept that displays ownership initiative.

Recent NASCAR initiatives in the face of falling attendances, demonstrate its hands on approach with the fans.

They have sought their advice and at their request they have lowered ticket prices, introduced double file restarts and have implemented consistent race start times.

What have we been given in F1 recently? Night races, bland new circuits replacing older more historic ones and now the coup de grace – races without refuelling.

These provisions are not guided by what fans call for but what Ecclestone tells us is best.

Such a dictatorial, arrogant approach doesn’t appeal to current fans and doesn’t make the sport a greater spectacle.

It is too bad fans like me are devoted followers- if Bernie changed his ways millions might too.

Lesson 4: Expenditure should keep the sporting spectacle as main priority

Current fiscal difficulties in F1 are often advanced as a defence for rejecting proposals. F1 remains stuck in a rut whereby teams frivolous spending means money evaporates.

I mean, do we really need such expensive and ridiculously opulent motor homes? Gratuitous, time consuming testing and many inconsequential technological advances?

Such is the current financial expenditure it remains a major hindrance to prospective new teams. The financial climate in F1 is so volatile that we regularly see Manufacturers enter and withdraw within a few years.

If teams were more judicious in their usage of finances perhaps entry into Formula One would not seem do daunting.

We can only imagine what the France family could do with the large resources F1 has at its disposal.

When watching a NASCAR race you will witness large number of entrants with some teams only bearing one representative car, others four.

Perhaps if F1 didn’t have such a rigid structure then teams with a smaller budget could overcome the financial burden by just putting resources into one car.

Surely it’s not sacrilegious to suggest that a team could field only one car, is it?

Also, more cars would mean a meritocratically driven qualifying session. Whereby only the top twenty something qualify for the race.

The new style of qualifying is a plus factor in modern F1 and is one undeniable success. But adding a merit for qualifying would crush the current apathetic trend of arranging everyone who turns up.

NASCAR’s 40 races allow scope for altering the format, including the introduction of the Sprint Series. I don’t advocate that F1 should adopt such a protracted schedule but perhaps a re-introduction of non-championship races like in 1950-60’s would be beneficial.

As unlikely as this may seem due to the formulaic approach of drivers, team bosses and F1 officials perhaps even they would agree that it would offer the opportunity to grow the sport in new markets and add a more visible off-season.

I remain an unashamed and passionate Formula One fan, I no doubt will remain so until the day I die.

In recent years however I have also embraced NASCAR. It remains symbolic of what American fans need in motor-sport – sporting parity, pure racing and unadulterated speed.

I enjoy both for what they are and agree that it is futile attempting to infuse NASCAR mentalities into F1.

Taking away the innovation and elite engineering process would mean it would not be Formula One.

However, that does not mean F1 cannot learn and adapt, using NASCAR’s blueprint as its teacher.

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