Saturday, August 16, 2008

NASCAR's Nationwide Series: How Does Saturday Action Get the Best Traction?

The Nationwide Series: Edwards Wins Today in Michigan, Long Term - Many Questions About Series Future Persist

The NASCAR junior circuit, once the Grand Nationals, then the Busch series, has gone through quite a quirky evolution through the years. Since growing out of some older NASCAR series, what became the Nationwide series of today, began racing full time with Anheuser-Busch sponsorship. From 1982-1988, only Ford and GM cars competed, with Fords racing Fairmont and Thunderbird bodies and GM trying different platforms from large compacts to Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass, and Buick Century mid-sized cars. Different engine setups were employed as well. From 1989-2007, the “Saturday Series” was more or less the same as the Sunday Cup cars with a shorter wheelbase, 105” instead of 110”, engines were less powerful, initially V-6’s were used generating a distinctive Busch buzz sound, a higher pitched buzzing sound rather than the throaty roar of V-8 engines. In 1995, the series switched over to V-8’s creating even less distinction between the Saturday and Sunday rides for NASCAR competitors. In 2007, NASCAR began introducing its “Car of Tomorrow” on selected racetracks before going series wide in 2008. The Nationwide Cars continue to run on their old platforms with a Nationwide Car of Tomorrow in development, but the deployment date remains uncertain, perhaps 2010 at the earliest.

The Nationwide series has 35 points earning events with no exhibition races compared to Sprint Cup’s 36 points events, and two exhibitions, the Bud Shootout and Charlotte All-Star event. Twenty six of the Nationwide events are held as the Saturday event at the same track where a Cup race is being held elsewhere. Of the nine remaining, the late July event at O’Reilly Raceway in Indianapolis is held the same weekend as the Brickyard 400. The remaining events are a mixture of newer tracks that haven’t found a date on the Cup series such as Kentucky and Gateway (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), established tracks, Nashville (2 events), Memphis, and the Milwaukee Mile, and an a road course race in Montreal. The Mexico City race will not be held next year. Its date will be reassigned to another facility. In times past, the Busch series had more of a short track orientation maintaining races at the historic Hickory track in North Carolina and also visiting South Boston, Virginia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Another popular event was the Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania. Even NASCAR’s junior circuit was not immune to the lure of bigger markets and more geographic diversity.

In 2007, the Nationwide Series is a sporting event in search of an identity. Clearly, NASCAR’s two other major series, the Truck (in need of a naming sponsor) and Sprint Cup do. The Sprint Cup is the major leagues, the big show, the grand enchilada. The truck series has fewer races tagged on as an introduction to a Cup race. Its drivers consist of a blend of veterans either at the end of their career or who never really broke through at the higher levels and a field of young drivers coming up from ARCA and the regional series as their first step toward bigger and better things. Through the mid-90’s, ironically about the same time the Craftsman Truck Series began, that was pretty much the character of the Busch series though there were more Cup series drivers crossing over to Busch than currently participate in truck events.

Up until the mid-90’s, the Busch series drivers were mostly regulars who competed every week with separate ownership from the Cup series. Some teams were owned by Cup series drivers dabbling in the management side of racing and having a shop from which they could compete on Saturdays in select events. Other ownership groups were not quite rich enough to be prime time players in cup racing. The series also allowed room for quite a number of open spots where occasional competitors from all around the racing planet from small budget operations to participants who primarily fought in other series would attempt to qualify for a handful of races. In the mid-90’s, the big boys started to come to play. Childress and Roush provided full-time entries not just a seat for their regulars when they wanted some of that Saturday money. Racers like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt used to own their Saturday ride, but Dale Earnhardt had bigger things in mind. While focusing his racing energy exclusively on Winston Cup events, he maintained his Busch operation as a dominant force running for the series championship with a pathway to running as regular Sunday drivers. First Steve Park piloted the #3 car on Saturdays becoming the first DEI Cup series driver in the #1 car. Then DEI’s fortunes went wild when Earnhardt the next generation started is show. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won back-to-back championships before graduating to the #8 Budweiser car on Sundays.

Deeper into the 1990’s into the new decade, big money and big ownership started to snatch up starting spots in Busch racing where certain drivers and teams were considered “developmental” teams for future Cup series fortunes. Increasingly, for a period of time, one year’s Busch champion would be the top prospect for Rookie of the Year the following year. In recent years, a handful of Sprint Cup drivers have committed to run all events in both series shuttling back and forth by private jet to race in one city on Saturday and another venue on Sunday. At times it became necessary to employ surrogates for qualifying and practice. The last two championships, Kevin Harvick in 2006 and Carl Edwards last year, were won by drivers competing full time in both series. Both drivers were also “Chase” competitors in the Cup series. This year, Cup regular, Clint Bowyer maintains a commanding lead for this year’s championship. Not only have the top spots been dominated by Cup regulars, but the phenomenon of what was called Busch-whacking until the sponsors changed, Cup series drivers seeking fortune on Saturday has taken more and more top spots away from series regulars. Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, David Reutimann, Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all raced competitively in Nationwide events this year, while Bowyer (#1), Edwards (#3), Reutimann (#4) Ragan (#5) not only enjoy top five spots, they also have raced in every event. Kyle Busch has missed three races, but has two wins and 12 top ten finishes in the 7th points position. Only Hendricks-Earnhardt entry, Brad Keselowski in 2nd place is the only regular non-Cup driver in the hunt.

Confused? Yeah!!! What is the Nationwide series all about? The bottom line is having Sprint Cup drivers in the starting grid sells tickets. Fans are attracted to familiar racers who have a good shot at winning. From another perspective, it’s another one of those rich get richer while the rest roll their pennies. Another look at the top five, by owners reveals: Childress, Hendricks, Roush, Michael Waltrip Racing, Roush, all Cup series owners. Fourteen of the top 43 spots in points are owned by Cup series owners or drivers. How does this give owners and drivers with no Sprint Cup connection a shot at the title much less victories in individual events. With Carl Edwards winning today’s event at Michigan, 19 out of 25 events show Cup regulars in victory lane. Four more races were won by Cup owners. More startling, Joe Gibbs racing owns 14 victories between the #20 and #18 cars. Only three races were from Nationwide Series owners, Tad Geschickter, 2 wins, and Todd Braun, 1 win. Of the owners with the most top 10 finishes, nine of the top ten are Cup owners or drivers, Earnhardt Jr. (with Hendricks support) #4 and Delana Harvick #9. From an owners’ standpoint, they’re putting in all that investment only to be 10th in top 10 finishes with only three trips to victory lane?

With the economics of the sport being what it is today, fewer companies willing to invest in a product fewer fans can afford to attend with a lucrative television contract for ESPN to cover all the races, mostly on ESPN2 with a few races on ESPN and ABC, what leeway does NASCAR have to tinker with the series’ format? Manufacturers want top name drivers with big sponsorships to provide maximum exposure for their racing efforts. Fans relate to drivers they know. Track owners, mostly ISC (the France Family) and SMI (Bruton Smith) are looking for the best draw to put fannies in seats. These realities heavily favor the present situation with Cup owners and drivers dominating the field, but at what cost?

Trouble could be on the horizon. Lesser teams struggle to find sponsorship. Events are finding it tougher and tougher to fill out the complete 43 car field. Were NASCAR to reduce the field to a smaller number like the truck series, the situation could only worsen for the Nationwide only drivers who might not make the field. On a weekly basis, money comes from winning and placing high in the standings. At the end of the year, the championship and top ten teams earn the big bucks. Where do sponsors and owners look to get a return for their investment when the top spots are locked down by Sprint Cup Series regulars.

What are the options? As discussed above, limiting Cup teams with the current schedule and format looks dangerous. What’s left? One possibility is to attempt to open up more markets for big NASCAR events. Where are there other tracks that would draw fans and sponsorship where some of the dates parallel to Sprint Cup events could be relocated? Hello Rockingham, North Carolina! It’s doubtful the series would return to small tracks it has abandoned like South Boston or Hickory. The Iowa speedway Rusty Wallace owns is an attractive venue and could replace the Mexico date. Looking at the ARCA series, for instance, there aren’t suitable tracks up to NASCAR standards where ARCA isn’t racing already. Likewise, IRL events don’t offer much hope. The tracks in the United States and Canada that would be suitable for NASCAR have already been put on the schedule unless NASCAR were to consider something bold like a street race. Now that’s a concept! That’s something completely different from anything NASCAR currently does and could help create a unique identity for the Saturday racers. NASCAR could tinker with the race format attempting different ways to stage the race rather than making Nationwide events just shorter versions of the Sprint Cup events.

Regardless, by any measure, the Nationwide Series is the nation’s second most popular form of motorsports second only to Sprint Cup, but it’s not a healthy sport. There too many issues nipping at its heels to assure long term viability. Some will go away once the economy stabilizes. In the meantime, tight dollars and expensive travel expenses makes it harder and harder to attract fans in the stands.

2 comments:

Buddy said...

The NASCAR Nationwide Series: A victim of its own success

Dear RMF, I have been a long time supporter of the NASCAR Nationwide Series. I have watched this series grow from just being a supporter series of the big brother NASCAR Sprint Series to being able to host weekends and draw crowds on their own that makes other racing series jealous. Gone are the days in which this series would race as small tracks like South Boston and Myrtle Beach and too are the small purses paid out at those events.

So, what has fueled the growth in the Series that use to be known as the “Supermarket Series” to become the nation’s second most popular form of motorsports? Marketing? Big name teams and drivers in the series? I don’t think you can point to one thing. However, I do believe that it has become the “Perfect Storm.”

I don’t believe that it the series is sound economically in the long run. I recently heard that a top tier Nationwide team requires the same level of sponsorship dollars as a Sprint Series team to compete. WOW!!! At somewhere around $25 million dollars, that is a lot of money to race in front of 50% fewer fans. While I don’t know the television ratings, I would imagine that the Nationwide Series doesn’t pull in the numbers that the NASCAR Sprint Series does. Even though the sponsors putting up that kind of money are getting drivers like Carol Edwards and Kyle Busch to be their spokespersons instead of Joe Bessey, Buckshot Jones, Jimmy Hensley or Randy Lajoie, at some point, the sponsors are going to realize that they are not getting a bang for their buck.

NASCAR has tried to take some “cost” containment strategies. The implementation of the COT in the Sprint Series was to have a trickledown effect to the Nationwide Series by making running in the junior series less lucrative to the top drivers. However, this has had just the opposite effect. Big name teams and drivers continue to race in the series bring larger sponsors and widening the gap between the have and the have nots.

I don’t have any answers for this double edge sword problem. In all candor, I like seeing the top name drivers driving in the series. However, I can’t see how this series is going to stay financially sound in the long term. With that being said, smarter people than I have been running this sport for longer than I’ve been alive. I trust them to keep this series thriving.

Right Minded Fellow said...

The success of Nationwide consists of three variables: competition, economics, and fan support. From a fan's standpoint whether watching live at the track or cuddled up in front of the television, the "Saturday" series ROCKS!!!

When comparing the competion we witness watching NASCAR, Cup racing is often more a race of attrition where with fewer laps to lock things up, Nationwide is more a race of real competition. Every time, I've attended a Cup event with an accompanying Busch/Nationwide race, I'd see both races. Some of my best memories for the weekend came from the Saturday action.

ESPN banked on there being a steady if not huge audience by signing on to broadcast the entire series. By having all the races on one networks, though a couple events are shown on ABC and ESPN plus that one freakish event where NBA playoffs pushed the race to ESPN Classic and SPEED-TV, those anomalies, not withstanding,having one network putting season long marketing is a big plus especially given their promotion consists of ESPN, ESPN2 and EPSN NEWS which provides fill-in coverage on lots of regional sports nets like MASN. Prior to the big TV deal, fans never knew where to look between ESPN, ESPN2, TNN, TBS, CBS, and possibly others. When Fox entered the picture, they clearly weren't too interested in the Busch package pushing many races to FX. As such, no promotion at all. In the second phase of the coverage, the TNT/NBC marriage found little use for the series either. Now in its second year, the Bristol Blabbers are delivering.

While EPSN/ABC covers CUP racing from the Brickyard to Homestead, NASCAR Now is the daily show during the season covering all things NASCAR. Given ESPN's investment in Nationwide, both series get high impact coverage especially when Nationwide is the only action covered by ESPN up until Indy weekend. How much better can NASCAR hope its Nationwide TV package could be? EPSN is not going to commit the "mothership" when they have NBA playoffs, golf tournaments, IRL, NCAA football and basketball and other big events that come up during the long stretch.

Track revenue follows two completely different scenarios: the stand alone events and the co-mingled with Sprint Cup events. Some of the stand-alones are hugely popular: Nashville, Memphis and the Milwaukee Mile. Crowds at the co-mingled events are a pretty fickle bunch. Bristol always packs them in. The races out west most conspicuously California are pretty empty affairs. For folks in the Mid-Atlantic area, a leisurely drive to Dover can yield unbelievable racing. With both Richmond events being Saturday night Cup events, that pushes Nationwide to Friday nights where the huge fan bases of Baltimore, Washington, and Norfolk/Tidewater are not convenient to first get to the track in time for the start of the race and then face a long ride home. They've created the same phenomenon by moving Darlington to Friday nights where that track is an easy day trip for Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, but not Friday nights. Another quirk of night racing is moving the upcoming California race on August 30th to a night race, coverage won't begin until 10:00 pm in the East pretty much the same fate baseball fans suffer when their home teams play night baseball on the West Coast.

THE REAL CHALLENGE IS TO OWNERS AND FINDING SPONSORS WHO CAN COMPETE AGAINST THE LIKES OF ROUSH, GIBBS, CHILDRESS, AND HENDRICKS.

Teams like Balana and Kevin Harvick have assembled have promise as they work directly with the owners of their Sunday rides serving to some extent as a research and development team for the big shots. But what about the enterprises like what Brad Daugherty attempted in the past and Terry Bradshaw tried more recently where a star from another sport has much potential to draw sponsor's attention but in turn only have limited success on the track. While Joe Gibbs Racing has 14 of the series 25 victories, just two victories belong to owners not atop the Cup elite. Only five of the top 20 teams leading in top five finishes are not Sprint Cup regulars (either major ownership groups or drivers as owner teams)with only one in the top ten. Oops, then there's Braun racing, with Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin behind the wheel.

Get the picture? There are plenty more statistics that show Nationwide racers are largely a bi-product of the Sunday show, but the crunch gets tighter on the independents. Braun racing is a hybrid working on a Cup model with a three car operation with two cup regulars as their drivers. The teams placing in the top five and ten, are teams with Sprint Cup genetics. In the 25-35 position, there are plenty of teams showing up for the races with not a top ten finish to show for their efforts. The squeeze is on this group not to mention the once-in-awhiles who fill out the rest of the field.

If the Nationwide series is to become truly a full off-shoot of Sprint Cup, where the drivers, owners, and often sponsors are essentially the same, that potentially spells doom for the smaller operations that don't finish in the money at race's end. Granted, there are Sprint Cup owners and occasional Sprint cup drivers participating in the truck series, but the trucks are a much wider field more like the Busch series of the early 1990's.

A GREAT DIVIDE LIES AHEAD IN THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONWIDE SERIES...perhaps every bit as big as when the series standardized on current body styles with 105" wheelbases and V-6 engines. The Nationwide Car of Tomorrow is coming with no date yet determined. The original plan was mid-season next year, but that has been delayed.

Nationwide team owner, Rusty Wallace, has been very outspoken on the financial impact this move will have on team operations. As all teams will be forced to replace or phase in an all new inventory of cars over a short period of time, the impact on the smaller teams will be tremendous where teams like Roush, Hendricks, and Gibbs will deal with it in stride as just another cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, Sprint Cup fans who complain about the long length of the races, many laps of just hanging in there maintaining the pit schedule until a big shoot-out at the end, the Nationwide series generally being 1/2 to 2/3's the Cup events offers all-out intense racing from start to finish. While fans generally agree a much shorter Pocono, for instance, would be a huge benefit, such is the weekly fare for Nationwide.

Still viewers who watch daytime races at the same venue as Sprint Cup races can't help but notice the huge number of empty seats.

Questions, Questions

RMF will continue to look at the Nationwide Series, its challenges, its teams, its drivers, and most of all the racing.

Commentator Buddy's points are well made. Likewise, race fans on a budget or who don't have the patience to spend five hours watching cars driving fast and turning left will find much to love about the Nationwide series.

It's a sport with an identity crisis to be sure, but once the green flag drops, it's racing baby, banging fenders, trading paint, and screeching tires. It's hard to imagine any fan who enjoys Sprint Cup racing won't also find the Nationwide series first class.

Bring on the thunder at Bristol Friday night. They have