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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Knock, knock NASCAR. Who's there? Not enough fans.

To some extent, we got pretty much what we expected at California this weekend. A Hendrick car won (Jimmie Johnson). Another finished in the top-5 (Mark Martin - 4th). Two Roush-Fenway Fords finished in the top-10 (Kenseth - 7th; Biffle - 10th) with one more just outside (Edwards - 13th). There were very few caution flags (6). The biggest surprise (for me, a NASCAR fan) might be three Richard Childress Chevrolets finishing in the top-10.

This is not typically an RCR dominant track, but Harvick had a strong Chevy for the second week in a row. He nearly won the race as he ran down Johnson in the final laps, only to tap the wall with 2 to go. He then had to fight hard to hold off his teammate Jeff Burton for second place. Clint Bowyer also raced well and came home 7th.

That's really all you need to know. It wasn't a supremely entertaining race, and if you fell asleep in a chair or on a couch for part, you didn't miss much as long as you caught the end. Sure there were a few wrecks and the last few laps were intense, but all-in-all, it was kinda dull. This is a problem the sport is facing more often than not lately.

NASCAR races are somewhat a family event. For most tracks (especially the "big ones" that hold 100,000+ fans), tickets aren't extremely expensive, especially when compared to the hundreds people will drop for the NFL's Bears or the NBA's Lakers. Granted, there are teams in the NFL and NBA that are practically giving tickets away, but almost every NASCAR track is affordable for a family or group of friends 3-5 deep. Plus, many NASCAR tracks let fans bring in coolers of drinks and snacks. If you own an RV, it's an all-day tailgating event with beer, brats, and burgers. But the problem for NASCAR isn't even overexposure (I don't think). I believe it's a matter of convenience.

Let's take Chicago for example. Not a NASCAR hotbed, by any stretch, but the 1 weekend of racing held here each year in July is typically a sellout. I've often talked about going, but it's really hard to find a friend in the city who gives a poop. So who is filling the stadium with 75,000 butts? People from all around Illinois is who. They drive up (with or without the aforementioned RV) on a Friday and watch qualifying, practice, and the Nationwide race Friday night. Stay in the camper or a nearby hotel, and watch 4+ hours of racing on Sunday again. For me, I'd rather sit in front of a big HD-TV and get all the angles and instant replays. But even I get bored with races like the one this past week at California. And apparently the fans agree, because that stadium was very barren on Sunday. With 91,000 available seats, that's a lot of potential revenue lost.

My potential solution is to shorten some (not ALL, you racing fanatics) of the races. The Daytona 500 is a historical monument, and there's no reason to shorten NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl. However, a 500-mile or 500-lap (smaller tracks) race almost every week is a bit ridic. Do you think the casual fan is going to miss an extra hour of the same action? I think the casual fan watches to see a wreck, or at least the potential wreck from all the side-by-side racing. If you shorten the race 100 miles or laps, you're going to get a lot more drivers in a hurry to move forward, thus keeping the action and drama as high, or higher.

Also, the actual cars themselves manage only about 4 to 6 miles per gallon when racing at full speed. These are the same engine's in your cars at home (tweaked and tuned for optimal speed, power, and performance obviously). Imagine the kind of mileage you'd get if you drove your car at 9,000 RPMs? I know, the engine would blow after only a few miles (if that), but if you could avoid that with top-of-the-line parts, you figure to get 1/4 of your current mileage. My car gets maybe 25 MPG on a long-highway drive. The conversion isn't exact, but that translates to about 6 MPG at maximum RPMs...pretty close.

Now imaging 40+ racecars driving 100 less miles. Assuming not everyone finishes due to wrecks or other financial burdens, they're still saving 3500 miles per race. Divide that by the 5 MPG average, and that's nearly 700 gallons of fuel. Keep a few historic races like Daytona at the full distance, I'm guessing this strategy saves close to 30,000 gallons of fuel every year (trust my math) for NASCAR's top series. Don't forget most race-weekends include the Sprint Cup Race, Nationwide Race, and Campingworld Trucks Race. Shorten them all by 50-100 miles, and now we're talking 60-75K gallons of fuel. This isn't going to change the world by itself, but that's a significant step for a sport that spit's in Al Gore's face every weekend for 8 months of the year.

The one obvious negative that comes with this strategy is lost advertising. Obviously you can show more commercials during a 4 or 5 hour race than a 3 to 4 hour race. But bear in mind, the fans support their favorite driver by supporting their sponsors. If the fans are falling asleep in the stands or don't even attend the races in the first place, then the sponsors still lose.

Up next, NASCAR does Vegas. This is one of the 1.5 mile "cookie cutter" tracks the sport loves to support. A D-shaped oval with a good banking means high speeds and bone-crunching wrecks. Vegas should bring a better crowd because it's already a tourist destination. Check it out on Fox at 3PM (Eastern) on Sunday if the Vegas weather cooperates...and if you're not too bored and change the channel.

Week 3 Power Rankings [Sprint Cup Points Ranking]:
1. Jimmie Johnson [12] - Once again proves Daytona really means nothing. He dominated the race at California (as he often does) and climbed back into the points picture.
2. Mark Martin [6]- Strong run to finish 4th this week, but didn't look much like a contender to win the race. Still, 4th every week will get you to the Chase, and Mark proved last year that he still knows how to win.
3. Tony Stewart [17] - A solid 9th helps his place in the standings, but fans expected more from Smoke to start 2010. I suspect he comes on strong in the summer, as he usually does.
4. Kevin Harvick [1] - Harvick led the most laps at Daytona and nearly won at Fontana, so he is off to a hot start. If you're in a Fantasy NASCAR league like me, he's probably worth a roster spot every week until he finishes a race poorly and proves otherwise.
5. Clint Bowyer [2] - Similar story as Harvick with strong performances at Daytona and the 8th place finish at Auto Club this week. Richard Childress Racing has really turned it around from last season's disappointments.
6. Kurt Busch [11] - The elder Busch had a good effort at Daytona get rewarded with a mediocre finish. This week a modest performance ended with a strong 6th place at the line. I drop him a spot despite the improvement, mostly because of the inconsistency.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya [23] - Looked good with the 2nd fastest qualifying lap (behind teammate McMurray), but the engine blew about halfway, and JPM went home early (credited with 37th place). Still, he's looked strong in the first two races, but 1.5 mile tracks usually aren't his strong-suit. He finished 31st in this race last year.
8. Carl Edwards [10] - I expected a better run at Fontana this week, a track Edwards has won before and Jack Roush Fords have done well at in the past. Edwards started pretty far back in 31st, but climbed to a top-15 finish. A very average start to the year for Carl.
9. Greg Biffle [3] - A 3rd-place finish at Daytona could have been a fluke, but a solid 10th at California means he could be the leader of the Roush Fenway team again this year. Teammate Kenseth (7th) finished a little better than Biffle, but none of the Fords did quite as well as hoped/expected.
10. Scott Speed [15] - Maybe this is a bit premature, but 10th feels like a good place to stick a Wildcard. For such an inexperienced driver, he held his own at the front of the pack for a few laps at Daytona with some pit strategy. He finally faded to finish 19th, which is fine, but he ran well again this week to cross in 11th place. Let's see if he can keep it up!
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