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2011's 13 Tough Questions and the Politically Incorrect Answers

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual

1. What’s to blame for NASCAR’s sagging television ratings and attendance?

A confluence of events. No one action could account for such a dramatic dip in interest, both at the track and on television.
The continued economic downswing certainly has hurt attendance figures, despite track operators slashing ticket prices and promoters pulling out all the stops. Three- and four-night minimums at hotels where rates are already jacked up 100 percent or more continue to keep fans away. Factor in gas or airfare as well as food and drinks and a souvenir for little Timmy, and suddenly the ticket to get in the gate is the least of the expense — particularly for the largely blue-collar diehard who can blow an entire mortgage payment on a three-day getaway to the track.

A continued refusal on the sanctioning body’s part to acknowledge the NFL’s Sunday superiority doesn’t help, either. As ol’ DW stated on the matter, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it. Since NASCAR has shown it has no qualms with shucking tradition, maybe moving away from Sunday afternoons should be considered.

Outside factors aren’t the only issue, though. During NASCAR’s ascension in the public consciousness in the early part of the decade, speedway magnates International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. built monstrous temples for the racing pilgrims, the idea being that 1.5- and 2-mile tracks would not only seat more, but also facilitate both stock cars and open wheel machines. Aerodynamics, and its effects on the fendered set, weren’t considered. What resulted was a shift from beating and banging (a major stock car draw) to aero-sensitive parades. And with the economy (and SMI’s and ISC’s portfolios) a mess, there will be no capital projects to rein in the speedways in favor of popular half- or three-quarter-mile bullrings.

At the same time, a cancerous greed grew from within the sport. The more attention NASCAR garnered, the more it wanted. With that attention came sponsorship and television dollars. Billions of them.

A new generation of driver was molded to attract the funding teams needed to outspend, and thus outperform, the competition. The sanctioning body was no different. It neutered the rough and tumble aspect of the sport — an aspect that drew so many fans initially — to bring in more corporate suits to the garage, the boardroom, and the suites.

Left was a sport that answered to corporate America. Clean. P.C. Friendly. Safe. As is so often the case, NASCAR realized only when it was too late that it had strayed down the wrong path, that it had alienated and disenfranchised its true base.

It’s trying to bring back those unique traits, but as the wise racing scribe Ed Hinton noted last season, “Greed is never retrogressive.”

2. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?

An unequivocal “no.” NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments” continues to drive talk of change to a 10-race playoff format that has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom. In fact, the only change many fans desire is a return to the classic points system — but that’s not going to happen.

Instead, France’s vision hints at an expanded Chase field with points resets throughout the 10-week run that encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle each season.

What France fails to realize is that the 12-driver Chase format, sans points resets, etc., sets the stage for a thrilling playoff drive. But just as in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, regardless of how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it.

Worse, with each tweak to the championship format — the expected change would make three in eight years — the championship (not the champion) loses a bit more legitimacy. After all, how can anyone take a title format seriously when the governing body makes multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor?

There are a few modifications that would be welcome, such as a bonus for the “regular season” champion or more points awarded for race wins. But what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. Great racing trumps a hokey plea for ratings every time.

And speaking of a revamped schedule …

3. What became of Brian France’s promised “impactful changes” to the schedule?

When Brian France suggested last July that the 2011 schedule would “have some pretty impactful changes ... that I think will be good for NASCAR fans,” the prayers of many were thought to be answered. The lumbering 36-race slate of dates was a logistical nightmare that needed some streamlining and common sense injected to re-energize and captivate a fan base that had seemed to tire of the oversaturation of cookie cutter tracks and stale Chase venues.

Instead, NASCAR gave the fans more of the same. The “impactful changes” France spoke of ultimately manifested themselves in an additional race date for Kansas Speedway at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway getting a date to the detriment of Atlanta, while Chicagoland Speedway was awarded the Chase’s first date. No radical realignment to freshen things up and, specifically, to give the Chase its much-needed facelift.

Auto Club Speedway was mercifully put out of its two-date misery so ISC could bring more people to its new casino just outside of the Kansas Speedway track, essentially trading one cookie cutter for another. And make no mistake; Kansas does not present thrilling enough racing to earn a second date without the casino. SMI CEO Bruton Smith bought Kentucky for one reason: to host a Cup date. As a result, a struggling Atlanta lost one stop.

Perhaps the most disappointing decision of all was to award Chicago the first Chase date. This move was made, again, not on the merits of the racing, but to maximize a slumping track’s earnings potential. Imagine kicking off the Chase with the Bristol Night Race. Imagine the hype, the attention, the crossover appeal! Instead, a track with no unique characteristics whatsoever, one that is basically a clone of the aforementioned Kansas Speedway, will host what should be one of the sport’s most important and visible dates.

The common theme this answer shares with most others in this feature is that NASCAR’s final verdict wasn’t made in the best interest of the fans or in the spirit of competitiveness. It was made with the France family’s bank account in mind. Fair enough, you may say — after all, they own the sport. True, but at what point do the short-term objectives cancel out any potential long-term gains?

4. Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up?

Last June, after the worst start of his 12-year career, pit strategy and perfect timing left Stewart with a third-place finish at Pocono. Pumped after just his second top-5 in 14 races, Smoke came to the podium steaming, his usual swagger reminiscent of childhood idol A.J. Foyt.

“I’ve seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today,” he said. “So for anybody that’s looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking, ’cause I can promise I’m going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks. I know you love that.”

But in a year when “Boys, have at it” dominated the headlines, the 39-year-old Stewart packed no punch while others traded barbs in public. Instead, on a return trip to Pocono in August, he served as NASCAR’s protector by lying to reporters about his knowledge of a $50,000 secret fine for driver Ryan Newman, then wagging his finger at the media for negativity.

“Between everyone in this room (media center) and in the garage we have all done our part to try to break this sport down over the last four-five years. When you finally tell someone that the racing is bad enough, long enough, you’re going to convince people that it really is,” he said. “The facts show that the racing is better than it’s ever been. Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included, and we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Looks like making a living is the most important issue for Stewart at the moment, money enough to muzzle his mouth for the time being. Let’s be honest: 2005 Tony would have looked at those comments, searched for 2010 Tony and punched him in the face.

5. Will ESPN bail on NASCAR’s television package?

It was a horrible year for NASCAR on ABC/ESPN, both in the Nielsen ratings and behind the camera. Only one of 17 races had a ratings increase (Bristol, August); average viewership was down by more than a million; and its supposed “crown jewel,” the Chase, had its numbers tank a whopping 21.3 percent over the 10-race playoff. In the middle of it all, longtime producer Neil Goldberg was discharged in October over a “peeping tom” arrest that went national and embarrassed the network.

Clearly, all is not roses at the Worldwide Leader In Sports, which holds the biggest chunk of NASCAR’s behemoth eight-year television contract worth $560 million annually. With sources claiming private unhappiness, budgets deep in the red and the sport’s unwillingness to give a discount (Why should it? The networks were the ones stupid enough to sign it) all eyes now focus on ESPN’s bid for the Olympics. If it wins it, the rights fee could be $500 million per two-year event, a gargantuan price that necessitates budget cuts elsewhere. And with their racing leader on the sidelines for good, losses in the millions on a contract halfway over and no end to the ratings disaster in sight, guess who could be first in line to take the fall?