After calling your attention yesterday to a piece at slate.com calling for NASCAR to be “euthanized,” I’ve done a considerable amount of thinking about what its author, Robert Weintraub, had to say.
Let me begin by saying that it’s absolutely valid to point out that I have a considerable stake in NASCAR’s survival. I cover the sport for a newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, that still thinks racing is worth devoting its resources to covering. I host a talk show five mornings each week on Sirius NASCAR Radio. The demise of big-time stock-car racing in this country would not be good news for me professionally.
Having acknowledged that, I contend that doesn’t disqualify me from making a legitimate case against Weintraub’s primary arguments.
If you haven’t read the piece, the brief summary is that Weintraub, who says he is a NASCAR fan, believes that the financial crisis gripping America’s major auto manufacturers makes this “the right time to put the sport out of its misery.”
Citing some of the most familiar refrains of disgruntled long-time fans of NASCAR, he points to declining ticket sales and television ratings, dislike of the Chase format, discontent over changes to the sport and the overall blandness of its drivers as examples of said misery. He even sings the “Dale Earnnhardt Jr. is nothing but an average driver” song that’s sure to strike chords with a broad strain of racing nay-sayers.
What he conveniently ignores, of course, is that far, far more people buy tickets or turn their television sets to NASCAR events now than they did 20 or even 10 years ago. Or that before there was a Chase the same fans who hate it hated the old points system just as purely. Or that there certainly are just as many interesting characters and stories – and, to be frank, considerably fewer criminals – among the 45 or so drivers who regularly compete in NASCAR’s top series as there are on any single NFL, any two Major League Baseball or any three NBA team rosters that contain roughly the same number of people.
But the bigger problem, Weintraub argues, is that in a world where hybrid cars and alternative fuels are to be the next big thing, “it’s hard to see where gas-guzzling, emission-belching stock cars fit in.” In conclusion, he argues that even if the Big Three auto companies survive there’s no way they could justify spending money on an anachronistic diversion such as NASCAR.
It would be easy to be as dismissive of Weintraub’s arguments as he is of all of what NASCAR brings to the millions of fans who still love and follow the sport. That would be wrong. His points about alternative fuels and technology are valid. NASCAR should be leading its fans down roads toward the next generation of the American automobile, not clinging to the industry’s long-abandoned past.
NASCAR certainly had other issues to deal with, serious issues such as increasing its diversity and melding new safety technology with the need for close competition, even before America’s economic crisis hit. Nobody is saying that NASCAR isn’t facing critical issues as that tsunami washes over the sport and the country.
But Weintraub’s central point is not that the sport CAN not be saved. His premise is that it SHOULD not be saved.
Why? Because, he says, “continuing to fund stock-car racing would be a sign that Detroit simply cannot function in the new century.”
The idea that Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota “fund” stock-car racing implies that these companies do that because they consider it either a playground or a charitable enterprise. That premise, of course, ignores both history and reality.
Manufacturers, for one reason or another, have pulled their support of stock-car racing several times in the past. They have returned each time, however, not because they simply missed being in racing or because they had a few spare millions of dollars they decided to blow on a pointless diversion. They’ve returned because racing makes sense for them as a business proposition.
Research by the Sports Business Journal showed that the value of exposure for sponsors in the Cup Series this year, on television alone, was nearly $1.7 billion. Chevrolet got $126 million, with Toyota and Ford each getting better than $73 million. That’s not counting logos on driver or crew uniforms or on the cars’ quarter-panels.
It also doesn’t measure the impact of any at-track displays or other sponsor contact with fans who actually buy tickets to go see the races. And oh, by the way, there are millions of those. Even with the short-term dip in ticket sales, one that could be even more pronounced in 2009, NASCAR events draw huge crowds. Those people come into communities that have race tracks and stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and buy gas. Or they bring in their campers, go to the grocery stores and buy diesel.
Weintraub says NASCAR should suspend operations because, at least partly, it is a diversion. “Once it goes,” he says, “we’ll probably wonder why it ever existed in the first place.”
But if Weintraub had his way those fans wouldn’t be able to do something they love to do. Those communities wouldn't get that revenue. Several thousand people with NASCAR, race teams and various support businesses would be out of work. That’s a lot of leftover misery from what Weintraub would call a mercy killing.
If NASCAR doesn’t get enough things right as it goes forward, Weintraub and the fans who think he’s on to something will get their wish. That’s how business works. If the issue is whether NASCAR is so essential that it should be propped up or bailed out amid a financial crisis, the argument for its demise would be infinitely easier to make.
If the auto makers pull their support completely, NASCAR will either adapt to that new reality or it will die.
Over its history, NASCAR had adapted to its world quite successfully. Even stock-car racing’s harshest critics have to admit that the work and vision of the sport’s leadership has carried it to heights that never could have been imagined when NASCAR was formed in late 1947.
If today’s leaders truly do lack vision or if the work they do and the changes they make loosen the sport from its real foundations, NASCAR’s death will become a matter of fact, not debate. But anybody who believes that death is imminent – or should out of some sense of the greater good be hastened – is far more misguided that anyone who ever has led or ever will lead the sport.