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Who will buy NASCAR, now that it’s For Sale (maybe)

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald
The news that NASCAR might be for sale is shocking, but also not unexpected. The signs have been around for some time now.
Just turn on the television any Sunday afternoon and look at how few people are in the grandstands for a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race, like the one in the photograph above. Once upon a time, you couldn’t get a seat at a NASCAR Cup race but those days are gone, probably forever.

And why is that?

1. In the last three or four years, NASCAR has suffered what IndyCar went through in the last 20 years: the retirement of household-name, charismatic drivers. When A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti retired, and to a lesser degree Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock. IndyCar’s popularity took a nosedive.

NASCAR has now lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win any more. Kevin Harvick, who does, has as much personality as a trout. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch have never caught on the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Bill Elliott once did.

Once upon a time, NASCAR racing pitted Ford against Dodge and Chevy. Then, for safety reasons, the league developed cars that are essentially the same, so the marketers switched the focus to the drivers. There were white hats, like Gordon, and black hats, like Stewart. It worked for awhile but it’s not working any more.
Some people would argue that Kyle Busch is a black hat. No, he’s not; he’s a spoiled brat. Earnhardt was The Intimidator and Stewart was Smoke. They were true black hats – real tough hombres.

2. Back in the day, automakers involved in NASCAR all sponsored NASCAR Booster Clubs. If you worked at the Ford truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., for example, you could join the Booster Club and get a jacket and hat, a monthly magazine and, most important, be able to purchase tickets to NASCAR Cup races at a significant discount. And you also got extra vacation in case of rainouts.

Yes, if you belonged to a Booster Club and had purchased tickets to a race at, say, Dover, and it was rained out, you could trigger a NASCAR day and stay for the restart on Monday, not having to worry about taking extra vacation or being in trouble for missing work.

This explains why, back then, a Monday restart would take place in front of a full grandstand.

The recession in the years leading up to the 2009 bailout put an end to the Booster Clubs. A lot of those empty seats you see when you turn on the TV now would once upon a time have been sold to autoworkers at a discount. Not anymore, boy.

3. A big attraction for potential sponsors of NASCAR Cup cars was the business-to-business relationships they were promised. For instance, if UPS signed on to sponsor Dale Jarrett’s car, a part of the deal was that UPS would be the “go-to” courier and shipping company for all the NASCAR Cup teams. In short, UPS would have a monopoly within NASCAR. Best Western Hotels pushed Domino’s Pizza, all because of their NASCAR connections. And so-on.

Yes, the recession put a damper on a lot of those deals but the monopolies broke down because, as sponsorship in general started to dry up, race teams would often have no choice but to sign up companies in competition with the monopolies that operated within NASCAR. That’s when the B2B model started to break down.

4. In 1981, NASCAR went uptown. It moved its season-end awards banquet from Daytona Beach to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the heart of New York City. The drivers, mechanics and sponsors got all gussied up in tuxedos and evening gowns and everybody, particularly the crew members, had their fingernails checked for dirt before being allowed into the ballroom (I made that last bit up).

The reason for this was two-fold: Madison Avenue had discovered NASCAR and was pouring tons of money into the sport. And NASCAR, in its wisdom, figured that if Fortune 500 companies were going to invest in the sport of stock car racing, it should reciprocate by handing out the hardware in Manhattan.

This went on until 2008. By then, two things had happened. 1, the recession meant many companies were cutting back on spending and stock car racing took a big hit. The result was that thousands of people lost their jobs by layoff. 2, while the drivers and media could clean up nicely, the people who made NASCAR stock car racing what it became, the fans, could not. The demographics of a white-collar F1 or IndyCar fan stand out like a sore thumb when compared to the blue-collar crowd that loved Dale Earnhardt Sr. Madison Avenue advertisers wanted white collar and NASCAR couldn’t deliver. And instead of trying to raise its game by reaching out to attract some of the F1 and IndyCar fans, NASCAR went down market by leaving New York for the costume jewelry paradise known as Las Vegas and although it could never be said that it encouraged it, certainly looked the other way when fisticuffs (occasionally) and all-out brawls (frequently) broke out on national television, just like in the good old days of early NASCAR.

Going back to its roots, for NASCAR, was a dumb decision and alienated many of the up-market sponsors that had been hanging around. It’s unlikely that the stock car sport will ever get them back.

5. The day I turned 16 years old, I got my driver’s licence. A day after that, I got my first car. That’s the way it was. My oldest son is like that and he even used to come racing with me when I was trying to be Mario Andretti back in the 1980s.

My youngest son, who’s 21, couldn’t care less about cars. If you ask him to name his favourite car, he’ll say, “I like the red one.” He doesn’t have his driver’s licence and has no plans to get one. And auto racing leaves him cold.

He is not alone. And although – in Toronto, at least – car dealerships are popping up all over, particularly along the Queensway in south Etobicoke, the long-term projections are for fewer and fewer people to be buying cars and the launching of fleets of cars by the automakers is just one of the results.

So, if you have disinterest in the sport of auto racing now, and fewer and fewer people buying cars in future, things do not look all that bright for auto racing going forward. It does not look like a good time to try to sell a sanctioning body, even including a dozen or so speedways. In the short term, auto racing is going to keep going down and who knows if it will ever recover?

6. Finally, the France family’s refusal to even consider a business model other than roundy-round racing 34 times a year has finally come home to roost. I have been known to shoot from the lip, as has the wonderful but now-retired Toronto Sun sportswriter Dean McNulty as well as ex-Globe & Mail columnist Jeff Pappone. We – and there have been many others – have said for years that NASCAR races have to be shorter, there have to be fewer of them and they have to break out of the oval mold and add some road-course races and – shudder – some street races in order to save the business.

Whether, after they find out that there are no buyers, NASCAR will make the necessary changes is questionable. I mean, every newspaper in North America, if not the world, has known for at least 20 years that their business model isn’t working and they would have to change but they have been unable to do so. Ergo, why would anyone expect the France family to ever see the light?

So it will be very interesting to watch what happens.

– Will Bruton Smith take a shot? Unlikely. He’s 91. Twenty years ago, maybe. But not now.
– Will Roger Penske? Also unlikely. Penske is 81 but you’d  think he’s 50. He is also a shrewd businessman. He knows NASCAR is losing money and that’s why they have feelers out to sell. But Penske doesn’t buy money losers. Penske is only interested in companies that make money.
– Liberty Media. Hmmm. They own Formula One. Would they take a gamble on NASCAR? You never know.
– Bernie Ecclestone. Don’t laugh, He has the money. Is he bitter that he`s now persona non grata in F1 circles? Would he buy NASCAR to thwart F1’s expansion in North America? Run a few street races and some more road races in places F1 covets? I would take this bet.
– Hulman-George Family. Unlikely. They are open-wheel people and stock car racing is a different dog. But like Liberty, you never know.

My prediction: if Ecclestone doesn’t buy NASCAR, the Frances will start to do what learned people have been telling them to do for years: change the sport of stock car racing. What worked in the 1940s no longer works in 2018.
Fewer races, shorter races, road races, street races. Otherwise, as Dandy Don was want to say: Turn out the lights, the party’s over.