Monday, July 30, 2012

The Brickyard: Too Big to Fail?

If you thought there were just as many empty seats as occupied ones at Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway you were right.  With a seating capacity of nearly 260,000 and an estimated attendance of 125,000 (with a portion of those in the infield), you can see why there were so many empty seats. 

That is the smallest crowd ever for the Brickyard race and a remarkable decline from the more than 270,000 fans that turned out for the very first Brickyard race 19 years when it attracted more fans than any other Cup race.  This year Daytona, Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte will all boast bigger crowds.  Heck, Pocono nearly drew that many a couple of weeks ago and it will be interesting to see how many fans show up there this weekend.    

This was supposed to be a turnaround year at the Speedway.  NASCAR pulled out all the stops, staging what it called a “Super Weekend,” holding a Grand Am race on Friday at the track, moving the Nationwide race over from Indianapolis Raceway Park on Saturday and shifting the Cup race to Sunday.  No luck.  Hardly anyone was at the Nationwide race and it served mostly to upset those who enjoyed Friday short tracking at IRP.

So what happened?  Has stock car racing run its course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway much as Formula One did?

It’s easy to point your finger at 2008, when NASCAR was forced to throw a caution flag every 10 laps or so because that’s as long as the Goodyear tires lasted.  I was there.  It was torture.   Attendance plunged by 60,000 in 2009 and another 40,000 in 2010.  That’s 100,000 fans in two years.

No doubt the recession also is to blame.  But while most of the NASCAR tracks have held the line on attendance this year – or are even showing an increase – Indy shed another 10,000 fans.  A couple of more years like this and there won’t be 100,000 at Speedway on race day. 

But the recession and tire fiasco are only half the story.  Let’s face it; the racing has never been all that good at the Speedway.  Even before the Car of Tomorrow arrived on the scene, the field tended to get strung out in single file pretty quickly.  The COT and its aero-sensitivity just added to the problem.  The cars also looked plain weird crab-walking down the long straightaways of Indy than at any other track.  Things have gotten better, but not much.  Jimmie Johnson has won four of the past six years and led 99 or 160 laps on Sunday, including the last 39. 

That’s all in stark contrast to this year’s Indy 500, which featured a record setting number of passes.  Look for attendance at the 500 to be up next year as a result.  Didn’t see anything at the Brickyard that would promote the same sort of confidence for next year’s stock car race.    

So will NASCAR racing continue at the Brickyard?  Absolutely.  It’s the race that’s too big to fail.  Driver’s say only the Daytona 500 is more important.  Its remains a showcase for NASCAR and sponsors. 

Just not for fans.     

Is there anything that can be done to fix it?  There’s talk of adding lights to the Speedway and running the race at night.  Or how about an IndyCar/NASCAR day/night double header?  Run a couple of 250-milers.  That’s one way to give the fans their money’s worth and exceed their expectations.

But if you really want to start drawing fans back, the answer is the same as it is for Bristol or anywhere else.  Put on a better race.  And Tony, I’m not talking about crashing and bashing.  I’m talking about racing.  If you’re not sure what that means, go watch a tape of this year’s IndyCar race.

Monday, July 23, 2012

NASCAR: Chasing The Chase

Kahne Waiting For The Call
Just past the halfway point in the Sprint Cup season and with seven races left until The Chase, it’s a good time to take a look at one of NASCAR’s most competitive fields in years.  Most seem to agree that the Top 10 is all but locked in.

That means Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Boyer and Brad Keselowski are in.  Outside looking in are winners Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

Although he’s currently 11th in points, Carl Edwards may be the odd man out.  A crew chief change last week has the smell of desperation.     Edwards needs a victory to be a contender, but is riding a 52-race winless streak.  So far this season he hasn’t come close. 

Kahne, already with two wins and currently 12th in points, is in the driver’s seat for one of the Wild Card spots.  A newcomer to the Hendrick team this year, he started slowly, but has come on strong.  He’s coming off a win at New Hampshire and headed for Indianapolis where he’s done well in the past, leading much of the event last season.  The Hendrick cars also run well at Indy.  So give Kahne one of the Wild Card spots.  Heck, right now he’s one of the Championship favorites.

The real battle is for the second Wild Card spot and it’s currently between Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano, each with one win each.

You keep waiting for Busch to break out of the pack, but he’s been plagued by inconsistency and engine troubles.  He hasn’t regained his stride since being parked by NASCAR at Texas last year.  But he does have the best driver rating of the group at the seven tracks remaining.  And he is Kyle Busch.  He’s got to be the favorite for the remaining spot.

Then there’s Logano, a winner earlier this year at Pocono.  He’s racing for both a spot in The Chase and next season.  With Kenseth headed for his seat at Joe Gibbs Racing, a spot in The Chase may be the difference between a Sprint Cup ride with somebody like Roger Penske, or a demotion to Nationwide circuit with JGR.  His win at Pocono might seem to give him an edge, but as we’ve seen in the past, a win in the first Pocono race of the year doesn’t necessarily translate into a good run in the second race.

I don’t know what to make of Newman.  He also may be racing for next year, his contract with Stewart-Haas Racing up and one his sponsors – the Army – pulling out.  Of the group, he’d be the biggest surprise to make his way into The Chase.

Of course someone could always pull a Brad Keselowski, who was 23rd after 19 races last year.  He then posted two wins and six top 10 finishes to grab a Wild Card spot.  One possible candidate is Jeff Gordon.  Always strong at Indy, he’s due for a change in fortune.

Finally, I’ve always wondered what would happen if one teammate checked up and allowed another teammate through to win a race in order to qualify for the chase.  It’s never happened before.  But let’s say Denny Hamlin is leading at Richmond.  Kyle Bush is second.   Entirely possible given the past history for the drivers and the team.  Does Hamlin, firmly in The Chase, back off and let Busch win, his two victories for the season moving him into The Chase?  Gordon could be another one benefitting from a teammate’s move.   With all three teammates virtually locked in, would one (or more) of them pull aside and let Gordon through for the win if the situation is right?   

Just wondering.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sound Retreat: The Army Withdraws From NASCAR

The U.S. Army announced last week it is pulling out of its NASCAR sponsorship.  It’s a stinging defeat for NASCAR and its allies – primarily Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) and Ryan Newman – who were outflanked by the forces of Field Marshal Betty McCollum, aka the U.S. Representative from Minnesota.   

The Army has been a sponsor in NASCAR since 2003 and with SHR since its founding in 2009, as one of the primary sponsors of Newman’s car.  The sponsorship, estimated to be about $9 million, was one of several in sports used by the Army as a recruiting tool.

For the past two years, however, McCollum has been waging war against military sports sponsorships for “wasting taxpayer dollars.”  McCollum says the Army alone spent $16 million on professional sports last year.  She put total Pentagon spending on sports sponsorships, including bass fishing and ultimate fighting championships in addition to motorsports, at more than $80 million.

“By ending its sponsorship of NASCAR, the Army made the right move to eliminate a wasteful program and protect taxpayer dollars – which has been my goal all along,” said Congresswoman McCollum in a statement.

It would be easy to dismiss the Army’s withdrawal as “politics,” just as Newman did.  But that would be a mistake.  It should have been even easier for the Army – and especially NASCAR’s vaunted marketing team – to prove the Army’s sponsorship dollars was providing a good return on investment in delivering recruits.  The fact they weren't able to produce the ROI numbers is an indication McCollum may have been on to something.

It’s interesting to note the Army says it will continue its drag racing sponsorships.  That tells me the NHRA is doing a better job attracting younger fans – the Army’s target audience.  And that should be a concern to NASCAR.  Despite everything it’s doing to attract younger fans, NASCAR continues to perform below the national average in drawing fans from the 18-24 age group, especially critical to the Army. 

In fact, the NHRA brags on its website that its fans, “compared to NASCAR fans, are 31% more likely to be ages 18-24 and 28% more likely to be Hispanic.”  Key Army recruiting targets.

Meanwhile the National Guard says it will continue to sponsor Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Makes sense, the Guard skews more towards older demos than the Army and NASCAR performs best in the 35-45 group, a better fit.

The Army’s withdrawal further complicates the Silly Season situation.  Newman’s contract with SHR is up at the end of the year and while he is still expected to re-sign with his friend and boss Tony Stewart, the loss of a third of the No. 39 car’s sponsorship dollars makes it far from a forgone conclusion.  With Danica Patrick expected to go Sprint Cup full time next year, Newman could be the odd man out.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Strike Two on The 'Dinger

This was gonna be AJ Allmendinger’s year.

At least that’s what I thought after his stirring drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona to start the season.  He drove a monster three-hour shift to win the race, turning back the challenge of three-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish in the process. 

He had also signed with Roger Penske Racing to drive a Dodge alongside Brad Keselowski in Sprint Cup.  It was only a one-year deal, but if he performed well, the possibility of a long-term contract with one of the top teams in NASCAR was a possibility.

Instead of being the Year of the Dragon, I suggested 2012 could be the “Year of the Dinger.”

Everything changed Saturday afternoon, when just 90 minutes before the running of the Firecracker 400, NASCAR announced it was suspending Allmendinger for failing a random urine drug test conducted the week before at Kentucky.  He’s asked for his “B” sample to be tested as is his right, but Ryan Braun aside, it’s not very often such finding are reversed.    If the “B” sample also is found to be positive, Allmendinger will be suspended indefinitely and must take part in NASCAR’s drug rehab program before he can start racing again.

It will take “approximately” five days to get the results of the second test (seems like a long time) and Penske Racing has already announced Sam Hornish will again drive the No. 22 this weekend in New Hampshire so the team can properly prepare for the race.

Allmendinger has always been a bit of loose cannon.   Colorful, charismatic and with tremendous potential, but a loose cannon.   He came up through the CART ranks during the civil war with the IRL, winning six of 10 races and the Barber Dodge Series championship in 2002.  The next year he moved up to Toyota Atlantic, winning seven of 12 and another championship.   He moved up again to champ cars the following season and while it took three years, he won five times, three in a row in 2006.

Late in the year, however, he ran a couple of Craftsman Series truck races and the next season moved to Sprint Cup with the new Red Bull Toyota team, who figured he was the perfect driver to represent the brand.  It was a major blow to open wheel racing, at the time on a scale of losing Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart to NASCAR and on a par with Danica Patrick’s defection. 

The first year in NASCAR he was known as AJ Wallbanger, for obvious reasons.  As he hit fewer walls, he became The Dinger, in part because he was, well, kinda out there.

Five years later we're still waiting for Dinger’s breakout year in NASCAR.  He had one win with Red Bull in an All-Star preliminary event before he was cut loose for Scott Speed.  He went to Richard Petty Motorsports and again seemed ready to win, before leaving this year for Penske Racing.  After starting the season with such promise, 2012 has to be considered a disappointment.   He’s not in the top 20 in points and has only one top five finish.   Meanwhile, teammate Keselowski has three wins and is in the top 10.  Still, before Saturday’s suspension, the Penske team had indicated – at least publicly – it would like to have Allmendinger back next season.   Despite those pronouncements, it seemed like a long shot. 

It’s an even longer shot now. 

It’s doubtful that Penske, who put up with a lot of guff from Kurt Busch because Busch had a lot of talent, is likely to give Allmendinger the same leeway.  

And that will be too bad. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Silly Season Gets Serious

Kenseth looks like the cat that ate the canary and started
Silly Season in earnest
 NASCAR’s silly season got serious last week with Matt Kenseth’s announcement he is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season.  Jack Roush said Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., will take the seat in the No. 17 Ford.

The worst kept secret in motorsports at the moment is that Kenseth is going to Joe Gibbs Racing.  With JGR extending the contract of Denny Hamlin over the weekend and Kyle Busch already signed to a long-term deal, that leaves Joey Logano as the odd man out.   Joe Gibbs says re-signing Logano, who has been associated with the team since he was 15, is now their top priority.  But that’s not gonna happen unless a new sponsor can be found.  And given today’s economic realities, there aren’t many companies with a spare $15-$20 million in its marketing budget looking to go racing.

That leaves Logano looking for a job and there aren’t many help wanted signs out.  Martin Truex, Jr., is up for renewal at Michael Waltrip Racing, but it seems likely he will stay there.    MWR says it would like to run a fourth team, but again, that requires sponsors and even if one was lined up, Brian Vickers is probably first in line for any opening on the team. Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray are both up for renewal, but more than likely they’ll return to their teams.  

Roger Penske Racing’s new Ford program might be a good fit.  Penske signed AJ Allmendinger to a one-year deal to replace Kurt Busch at the start of the season.  While Allmendinger hasn’t been a disaster and the team says it wants him back, he hasn’t exactly made himself a must re-hire either.  Logano might be a good fit there.  If nothing opens up on the Cup side, you’ve got to believe he could land one of JGR Nationwide rides where he’s had plenty of success, while picking up occasional Cup starts. 

Then there’s all sorts of talk abut the new Dodge program.  Rumors persist that IndyCar’s Michael Andretti will buy Penske’s NASCAR engine program and run a two-car Dodge team next year.  The rumors also say one of the drivers will come over from IndyCar.  That still leaves one opening and you would expect that someone would come from the NASCAR ranks. 

Joey Logano?  Why not.