Editor's Note: Peter is taking a break from "Fumes" this week, so we're running his much-read column from last week for those who missed it. We do have brief coverage of last weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond in "The Line". Peter will return next week. -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Now that the dust has settled after NASCAR's "throwback" weekend, what did we, or better yet the powers that be at NASCAR, learn? Well, it depends on your frame of reference. If you're part of the brain trust in Daytona Beach and Charlotte, it was yet another successful and shrewd marketing effort by the "stock car" racing organization, something that NASCAR has excelled at - albeit intermittently - over the years.
If, on the other hand, you're part of the NASCAR faithful, the enthusiasts who reveled in NASCAR's formative years and who have gotten the impression that in NASCAR's quest to become a national force in sports marketing they have walked away from their roots, it should be a giant wakeup call to the "stock car" racing organization.
But then again, after all of the collective hand-wringing when it comes to NASCAR, this is the heart of the matter as it pertains to the future of NASCAR, isn't it? The very essence of its existence, as in, how does a sanctioning body embrace its checkered but oh-so-authentic past, while projecting itself into the future? For a while there, NASCAR seemed gifted with the golden touch, as "NASCAR Nation" actually became a thing in this country, at least for a while. The authentic, booze-running roots of its formative years were conveniently left behind while NASCAR chased the glitz and glamor of a new day, while the thought of becoming the second most popular sport in the U.S. after the NFL become the overriding mantra of the organization.
To that end, new, cookie-cutter 1.5-mile race tracks in new markets sprouted up like tumbleweeds across the U.S., with all of the hoped-for possibilities attached to them. The notion of NASCAR "suits" actually became a thing, too, as marketing, business-to-business schmoozing, TV contracts and heady sponsorship deals became the rule of the day.
But it all came with a hefty price.
The hard-core faithful were left behind in NASCAR's headlong rush to become the darling of the corporate advertising-media complex. Classic tracks were abandoned, traditional dates were arbitrarily moved around, and the focus of the sanctioning body revolved around the "deal." The result? NASCAR's popularity peaked and the "new" NASCAR that was created to project NASCAR successfully into the future was oddly detached from reality. The deals and the tracks and the TV contracts didn't match NASCAR's sliding fortunes, and to make matters worse, the hard-core NASCAR faithful were left out in the cold, feeling like whatever it was that they liked about NASCAR to begin with was lost in the shuffle. Everything about NASCAR had been homogenized, sanitized and "packaged" for someone else.
That NASCAR embraced the "throwback" weekend at Darlington is commendable. And the fact that most everyone went out of their way to make it special was wonderful to behold as well. But what NASCAR takes away from it will be crucial. For instance, if NASCAR looks upon it as a nice little well-executed marketing diversion that would be a huge mistake.
What should NASCAR take away from Darlington?
- Tradition is paramount. That means old-school tracks and dates should be sacrosanct. Walk away from this ideal and you lose your soul and your hard-core fan base.
- It's about the cars and competition, and the talented drivers wheeling them. Every step should be taken to focus on that. Make sure that the cars look like badass hot-rod versions of their street counterparts as much as possible. Is it any surprise that the most popular car at Darlington last weekend was the David Pearson/Wood Brothers Mercury? And the low-downforce setup should be mandatory going forward. And the fact that it's not being incorporated at the appropriate tracks in the final ten races this season is depressing and a complete travesty. And there's no excuse for it either. That, more than anything else, suggests that too much of the "bad" NASCAR is still alive and well.
- Less is more. Repeat after me, less is more. This goes against every fiber in the collective NASCAR management mindset, but it's long past time for them to deal with this burgeoning reality. Fewer, higher quality race weekends - meaning a concerted effort to compact the NASCAR schedule - must be undertaken. Don't let the fat TV contracts mislead you, because the television networks are whores for content, which means they're saddled with an insatiable desire to buy whatever NASCAR is selling in order to fill their schedules. But that doesn't mean it's good - take the empty grandstands at 98 percent of the Xfinity races, for instance - or right. Reasonable, thoughtful people in the NASCAR garage - and there are plenty of them, I might add - know that the oversaturation of NASCAR is a genuine concern.
If Darlington accomplishes anything, it should have taught NASCAR that its race weekends need to be be treated as events, and that is extremely difficult to do when there are too many of them, or, if fans are willing to wait six weeks, the circus will be back again.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Daytona Beach, Florida, 1957. Driver Jean Howard finished third in class in the two-way Flying Mile Run with an average speed of 116.204 mph during the NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona Beach Speed Weeks. Watch a video here and here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD