Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Word NASCAR Does Not Want to Hear: CONTRACTION

More and more seats covered with tarps, major race teams reducing in size, fewer quality rookies banging on the door attempting to push their way into the spotlight, sponsors fewer and harder to find, racing fields filled out with teams not even equipped to complete the race, NASCAR is in a state of contraction. While the competition and the highest level is as intense as ever as drivers like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon race for championship honors, to say that there are 35 fully prepared teams deserving of being locked in on the basis of owner points is a real stretch and looking at how many rides just showed up, made an appearance, and were nowhere to be found got progressively worse as the season continued, often showing as many as seven teams “starting and parking.”

Thirty three cars start the Indianapolis 500 and there is always competition to make the field. While there is no question NASCAR is a far healthier sport than IRL, NASCAR needs to accept the current situation, cut its losses and position the sport to be ready for growth when conditions are favorable once again, but some of that favorability will be how much NASCAR improves itself. Prior to 1998, not all contests featured 43 starters. The notion of “start and park” was unthinkable as every team was looking for every advantage to make the field and push for being locked in.

On the track and in the stands, NASCAR’s world is shrinking and it’s time to respond boldly. Since 2007, attendance has plummeted and numerous race tracks have reduced their seating capacity including Atlanta (which also was cut back to one race), Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California (which has also been cut to one race), and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chicago land Speedway, Darlington, Homestead, Kansas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, and Watkins Glen. Fifteen out of twenty five of the current facilities are reduced with Michigan reducing its seating by over 25%. There’s not a hotter ticket in NASCAR than Bristol Motor Speedway, but its Spring, 2010 race broke an astounding 55 consecutive sold out streak. Seeing an increasing amount of seating area covered by tarpaulins at Dover’s Monster Mile, a track that is fed by Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC surely must raise an accountant’s green shade.

In 2007, the last year before the recession hit hard, there was no such thing as “start and park,” however, a phenomenon which started off as, “Oh we’re sorry, hang in there Joe, has become a money making scheme thanks to what Nemechek turned into a scam initially feeding off the goodwill of NASCAR in 2009. Joe was a good family, a family guy. He even had U.S. Army sponsorship for awhile and his mom would be the person with the pit crew holding the stop watch and clipboard. He lost his brother, John, to a racing accident in the early days of the truck series at Homestead, Florida. Nemechek was a hugely successful Busch (Nationwide) series driver, but never got it all put together at the senior level squeezing out four wins but ten poles earning the nickname “Front Row Joe.”

Starting the 2009 season, Nemechek didn’t have a ride being dismissed by the Furniture Row operation. Courageously, or so it would seem, he decided to be an owner/driver immediately connecting him with another one of the absolute good guys in NASCAR history, Alan Kulwicki, who won the 1992 championship on a low budget. Tides of good will were his to be had wishing a fellow who had more than paid his dues over a long career. However, the season had barely started, and something happened quite regularly, by the first pit stop, where was Joe. “Front Row” Joe was nowhere to be found on the track having pulled into the garage opting out of the race, but still collecting the purse for whatever finishing position he’d  gain earning at least a cool $20,000 a race for not competing. If that were at the expense of a driver who failed to qualify but had every intention of competing, how much of a good guy, was “nice guy” Joe now.

Soon the phenomenon started to snowball. Phil Parsons and Brian Humphreys, miserable failures as owners in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series would find some starving driver, throw him in the car to do the same and entering the 2010 season, “Start and Park” became a regular feature on race day with anywhere from four to seven drivers calling it quits at most events on the schedule. Showing up and not competing has been very good for some scabs who’ve learned how to make lots of money by not racing. Imagine a football team that walks off the field after the first change of possession or a baseball team that bolts after the first half inning – instruct the first three batters to strike out, and go home. That’s what is earning a lot of money for teams who “start and park.” The only caveat is that cars are not cheap nor is transportation; however, purse money is not a team’s sole source of income; however, how many people would really want a Michael McDowell t-shirt?

The following owners earned more than one million dollars on “start and park” races. We’ve attempted to back out those races were they could argue they competed.

Owner/Car #/Drivers/Earnings

Andrea Nemechek, #87 (Joe Nemechek) -- $2,456,583.00

Phil Parsons, #60 (Michael McDowell, Todd Bodine, Josh Wise) -- $2,391,688.00

Tommy McMillan, #46 (Erik Darnell, J.J. Yeley, Scott Speed) $1,722,883.00

Michael Hillman, #68 (Dave Blaney, Landon Cassill, Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine) $1,549,476.00

Robby Gordon, #7 (Robby Gordon, Reed Sorenson, Scott Wimmer) $1,304,231.00

Timothy McSweeney, #30 (David Stremme) $1,067,310.00

Bob Jenkins*,   #55 (J.J. Yeley, Jeff Green, Travis Kvapil) $1,051,588.00

*not to be confused with Bob Jenkins, former ESPN NASCAR host/announcer; currently with NBC Sports for IRL Racing.

Just how pernicious is this practice that “nice guy” Joe has turned into a minor industry? Consider the owners listed above earned a whopping $11,543,759.00. Not only that, this scam now infects the top 35 as the #13 Bob Germain car backed out of at least three races while earning a position in the valuable top 35 in owners points guaranteeing entry into the first five races of 2012. With the contraction of fully sponsored teams which include: one entry from Roush/Fenway, car #6; one from Richard Childress, car #33; and the shut down of Red Bull Racing, cars #4, 83; the prospect of teams with no intention to compete but only to freeload off of the sport could extend into the top 35 if fledgling teams do not succeed in the 2012 season.

Forty eight cars (including those which have quit races frequently in 2011) attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500 sending five cars home; however, as the season progresses, there will seldom be many races with perhaps no more than one car in excess of the 43 to fill out the field, but as slight as entries were last year, fully sponsored cars intending to complete the race were bumped by teams that pulled off and quit.

Can anyone call this sporting?

It’s a hideous joke showing a sport that has not come to terms with its contraction.  There simply are not enough fully sponsored entries to assure a full field of competitive rides, and further, some teams that will genuinely attempt to compete for greater glory are tremendously under funded. Given in excess of 11 million dollars was wasted on do-nothing, no compete race entries, certainly fattening up the purse for real race entries might improve the quality of competition and make full-fledged, fully committed race teams struggling to take on the stellar teams.

We cannot drive home the point enough that the Indianapolis 500 only starts 33 cars in its field and it is the nation’s most prestigious race outside of NASCAR.

So what’s realistic?  A sport in decline must work aggressively to push forward. All aspects of NASCAR racing needs to be polished up and unproductive pursuits must be eliminated. We’ve identified a multi-million dollar scam that is directly decreasing the quality of competition while probably not enough spread across 36 racing dates, assuming a crowd of 60,000, that would yield only a five dollar ticket cost reduction, it is significant money that can be devoted to propping up other aspects of the sport.

Taking the case of the Indy field, ten cars fewer than Sprint Cup, NASCAR has two non-points events with much smaller starting fields, the Bud Shootout the week prior to the Daytona 500 and the Sprint All-Star Race in May the week before the Coke 600. The only fans’ misgivings over the smaller field would be if his or her favorite driver did not meet the entry requirements – though there is some excitement to reverse that when one’s favorite driver wins a pole and qualifies for the Bud Shootout or wins a race and qualifies for an automatic all-star bid. Perhaps the concept of 35 automatic entries has outlived its usefulness and there should be more motivation to have to qualify to make the field. Regardless, from every angle examined, the 53 car field is no longer sustainable and must be reduced. The start and park concept cannot be tolerated.

We’ll examine additional issues NASCAR must deal with in this age of contraction and report its progress to resolve them. Clearly when one looks at the completion of the 2011 season where the championship was not determined until the last lap of the race and the competition was so close it required a tie-breaker for Tony Stewart to overcome Carl Edwards against the backdrop of many awesome challenges, the dawn of the 2012 season certainly could seem one that confirms the Charles Dickens’ paradox, “These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.”

Stepping up with that which brings in more sponsorship support, more quality drivers fighting to enter the ranks of the elite, and more fans attending races and watching on television is the responsibility of NASCAR’s management, its race teams, and broadcasters to address aggressively as we await one of the most energy charged seasons in recent history. More story lines that bring great interest like Danica Patrick’s entry into Sprint Cup and achieving goals like winning the Nationwide Poll are certainly positive signs.


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