By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Since we’re approaching the completion of our seventeenth year of this publication on June 1st, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about an aspect of this business that needs immediate attention. As in right now.
Yes, we all know that this is the “new” enlightened car business as practiced here in the Motor City, with the leaner beneficiaries of the “quick rinse” bankruptcies flexing their muscles by churning out SUVs, trucks and crossovers while fueling a super-inflated SAAR. But alas, for every three things that seem new and cutting edge about this business there are about five things that seem more deeply entrenched and recalcitrant as ever.
I have a long list of the absurdities and boneheadedness being practiced in this business right now – from the product to the marketing and everything in between - but today I am going to focus on just one thing: The auto manufacturers infatuation with, and enabling of, all things NASCAR.
Quite simply, the auto manufacturer involvement (Toyota, GM and Ford) with NASCAR has become a glaring embarrassment. Full disclosure? I am considered to be by far the most vehement critic of NASCAR in the world. It’s not even close, in fact. But I have always made a clear distinction between the prodigious talent in the NASCAR garage area – the drivers, technical people and the team owners – for whom I have the utmost respect, and the upper management bumblers led by the third generation of the France family dynasty.
I am not going to regurgitate NASCAR history for you here, but the relationship between NASCAR and its participating manufacturers has been shaky, almost from the start. Once upon a time, the auto manufacturers participated in NASCAR to tout the performance of their products. Now? NASCAR is an image-wrangling platform for the manufacturers that has reached the point of diminishing returns. The stark reality is that there is no connection to the cars on the racetrack and the cars in the showroom, like there once was, “back in the day.”
Why is that, you might ask? Why do the car companies participate if there’s actually little or no connection to the products they sell? One answer is that much of it has to do with inertia on both sides of the aisle, as in, “We’ve always done it this way.” The other is that the manufacturers believe that if they don't participate they wouldn't sell as many trucks. What? Yes. The auto manufacturer involvement in NASCAR has as much to do with branding as anything else, and NASCAR fans buy trucks. A lot of 'em, in fact.
Executives promoted into management positions of manufacturers’ racing programs have usually been associated with those NASCAR programs and seasoned along the way, so the idea of establishing a fundamental shift in a manufacturer’s racing program away from NASCAR is pretty much out of the question. As in incomprehensible. Even though there are other avenues that seem to be growing in importance, like Global Rallycross, to name one.
The reality is that the manufacturers have grown lazy. NASCAR provides the path of least resistance because, after all, NASCAR touts a good game. And it’s a game that few auto executives want to go up against. Why? After NFL football, which is by far the juggernaut among all sports properties here in the U.S., NASCAR can provide the manufacturers, sponsors, TV networks and their associated digital outlets with 36 weeks of in-market activation. And if you’re an executive at a manufacturer put in charge of motorsport involvement, it’s easy to say, “No one has presented me with a clear alternative that produces the same number of eyeballs, so we’re sticking with NASCAR.”
Except that the manufacturers’ relationship with NASCAR is highly skewed in favor of NASCAR. And that is because, after taking the path of least resistance for decades, these manufacturers find it very difficult to extract meaningful changes from NASCAR. So they allow the inertia-tinged relationship to continue unabated.
The last time NASCAR and its participating manufacturers butted heads was when the manufacturers threatened NASCAR with financial cutbacks if they didn’t abandon their silly “Car of Tomorrow.” The “CoT” was a new concept car that NASCAR took great pains in creating. Besides being eminently safer – always a good thing – the car used a common body template (with only decals to indicate the grilles and headlights of the different manufacturers). Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with its hardcore fans, or with two of its manufacturers, who demanded that they make changes back to production-appearing bodies. (I know, because I helped orchestrate the manufacturer pressure to extract those changes behind the scenes.) NASCAR capitulated, eventually, but not before taking all the credit for the new “Gen 6” cars, in typical NASCAR fashion. After all, when it comes to NASCAR, if they didn’t think of the idea, it never existed to begin with.
Today, there’s a manufacturer council that’s supposed to prevent things from deteriorating into the threat stage, but who’s kidding whom, here? NASCAR steadfastly refuses to change anything unless there’s a proverbial gun to its head.
The latest evidence of that? Last weekend, NASCAR and the entire racing world dodged yet another bullet at Talladega Superspeedway, where blatant, abject stupidity called “restrictor-plate” racing is allowed to continue even though the sport is one incident away from flat-out disaster. A disaster the likes of which could fundamentally alter the sport of racing and manufacturer involvement in racing, forever. (Read Peter’s latest column about the Talladega mess in “Fumes” –WG)
NASCAR has been courting disaster for years with its “restrictor-plate” races, and yet it steadfastly refuses to do anything about it. Their answer is to install more SAFER barriers, put higher catch fences up, promote driver safety and shrug its shoulders. But addressing the actual problem? No frickin’ way.
And that should make the manufacturers very nervous, because if a car ever went flying into the grandstand at Talladega and caused multiple fatalities, you can be sure that every news outlet in the world would take great pains in saying exactly what model that car was. Yet the manufacturers sit by and watch, as NASCAR does nothing about it. What’s wrong with this picture? And why is NASCAR so reluctant to make changes? Because they don’t feel they should be told what to do by anybody, including the manufacturers who help foot their bills. And when the manufacturers act as NASCAR’s chief enablers, and allow the NASCAR brain trust to get away with it, the results are predictable.
This also explains why NASCAR continues to fool with manual floor jacks, five lug nut wheels and gas cans in their pit stops, when the entire racing world has moved on to on-board jacking systems, center locking hubs (with a single lug nut) and dry break refueling systems (with hoses extended from behind the pit wall). This also explains why the technology used in NASCAR continues to be years behind advanced production technology. (NASCAR only adopted fuel injection, a technology common to production cars for 25 years, just a few years ago.)
But NASCAR has its enthusiastic supporters within the halls of Detroit. To paraphrase one executive, "NASCAR is entertainment. There’s really no need to make a big deal about any 'technical transference' – or lack thereof - because it’s irrelevant. So get over it."
That's certainly one way to look at it. But NASCAR exists in a vacuum of its own making, ably abetted by the participating manufacturers who blithely go along with the program. And it begs the question, why? As in, with NASCAR reaching its peak back in 2007, and with diminishing or stagnant television ratings and dwindling in-person attendance since, why do these manufacturers bother, and why are they not much more forceful in extracting fundamental changes from NASCAR?
It’s simply inexcusable.
The ruling France family has been forced to head off any serious attempts by the participating manufacturers at questioning NASCAR's direction of late, but still, there are no fundamental changes on the horizon. There are still too many races (the NASCAR schedule is the most ridiculous in all of sports, and that’s saying something when you have the NBA and NHL in the mix), too many visits to the same tracks in the season, and too many questionable on and off-track decisions - or non-decisions - as the case may be. Add to this the declining ratings and in-person attendance and you have to ask, why are these manufacturers blindly going along with the program without extracting meaningful changes?
If you could get any executive at the car companies involved with their racing programs to respond off the record - and with a modicum of honesty - they’d say that the old “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” catchphrase was obsolete easily 30 years ago. But they’d also stop there because no one really wants to upset the apple cart, or lose their jobs.
It’s no secret that Toyota, GM and Ford cumulatively spend in the neighborhood of $300 million annually in NASCAR. That number includes direct financial support to the teams and drivers, race weekend activation and marketing, other promotions and advertising support. Now, given the profit numbers currently being bandied about by these companies, this financial involvement in NASCAR barely registers. But still, the relationship is dysfunctional at best, because the manufacturers pretty much let NASCAR run roughshod over them, and it’s embarrassing to watch. It’s unconscionable, in fact.
The manufacturers involved have become NASCAR’s chief enablers, and the NASCAR brain trust’s “MO” of “why fix it if it ain’t broke?” has only served the France family’s interests, while the manufacturers are left shuffling their feet and writing bigger and bigger checks.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.