NASCAR Feels Economic Woes

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NASCAR, which zoomed into prominence on the American sports map over the last two decades, may have to hit the brakes. The economy has forced many NASCAR fans to stay home from pricey races, and a host of rules changes have alienated a portion of the die-hard fan base. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Ryan McGee of ESPN: The Magazine about what's ailing NASCAR, and his prescription for a cure.

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

Now, a few hours after the last cyclist crossed the finish line at the Tour de France, a race with a little more horsepower got cranking on this side of the Atlantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUTO RACE)

CORNISH: That's today's Brickyard 400, one of the premier NASCAR races of the year. Jamie McMurray got his first ever win at the Brickyard, but the bigger news was off the track: No sellout crowd this year at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where there were plenty of empty seats.

It seems plummeting attendance, sliding TV ratings, and a sponsorship crunch have NASCAR worried. The circuit's president, Brian France, said as much before the race. He promised impactful changes in next season's schedule and hinted that NASCAR may retune the way it crowns a champion.

ESPN: The Magazine. He says NASCAR's economic problems aren't unique.

RYAN MCGEE: We really are seeing it across the board in a lot of major league sports. It's not just a NASCAR problem. But in NASCAR, it's a big of a unique problem because there was no major league sport that experienced the kind of double-digit, breakneck growth that stock car racing did really for almost 20 years.

When they look in the grandstands and they see empty seats at racetracks that quite frankly always sold out, and that includes Daytona, then I think a lot of people will suddenly - I don't want to say panic, but certainly some concerns at it.

CORNISH: And some of this, as you said, could be attributed to the economic collapse, you know, in terms of ticket sales and people being able to take their families out. But that doesn't necessarily account for the decline, say, in television viewers. Those numbers are down too.

And I've read that some of it could be in reaction to various rule changes that NASCAR has made.

MCGEE: There has been a lot of rule changes, you know, primarily with the cars themselves. You know, about five years ago, NASCAR introduced what they called then the car of tomorrow. Now they just call it the COT. We joke now it's the car of today.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGEE: But the car wasn't - it didn't look like what we had before. And in racing, there's kind of a dirty word called spec. You know, when you talk about a spec series, and that means set specifications where everybody has to run the exact same car.

And I think a lot of NASCAR fans kind of missed the innovation. They kind of missed the pushing the rules and, for lack of a better word, the cheating, you know, that went on. It was this kind of cat-and-mouse game between the mechanics, the crew chiefs, the teams and then the people from NASCAR that policed the cars technically. So I think...

CORNISH: Right, because half the fun is seeing souped-up, hot cars...

MCGEE: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: ...doing things your car can't do.

MCGEE: And part of the lore of the old days of NASCAR - talking about the '50s and the '60s and the '70s - is when these teams would kind of push it technologically. And they might show up with something on a car that nobody had thought about.

And I think that the fans miss that. And honestly, the NASCAR officials and the crew chiefs themselves miss that a lot more than I think that the league officials probably speculated or realized.

CORNISH: Aren't there also a lot of differences between the way, I guess, what you would call stick-and-ball - football, baseball - type sports make money and the way that NASCAR team owners and drivers do that affect the sport as well?

MCGEE: Yeah, absolutely. In racing, it's all based on sponsorship dollars. You know, if you're a Fortune 500 company, it was nothing to throw $10 million at a NASCAR team because, quite frankly, for a large company, that's not a lot of the marketing budget.

But these days, that's a lot of jobs that you potentially could have kept in the building. And so it's hard to justify spending that kind of money to sponsor race teams. And as a result, the teams have got pretty creative as far as tracking down sponsorship dollars.

CORNISH: So is the sport really in trouble or is this just a speed bump?

MCGEE: It's a speed bump. I mean, I think the sport is fine. You know, there's a lot of money in a lot of pockets right now. Where we really see the struggle isn't so much with, like, the top half of the Sprint Cup Series, which is the big leagues, but where we really see it is in the Nationwide Series and in the Camping World Truck Series, and that's kind of like AAA baseball or AA baseball. Those are the teams that have really struggled.

And we talk about trickle-down economics. Well, in NASCAR, it's kind of trickle-up. You know, when those lower teams and lower levels do well, and they bring up young drivers, and they bring in, you know, kind of first time sponsors, that money and that talent moves up to the cup series.

So I think we're going to have a little bit of a drought for a little while, but I think we'll all survive. The sport will be fine. It's just - Richard Childress, the great NASCAR team owner, always tells me, this is just an adjustment that we probably needed to make anyway. It's just been forced on us.

CORNISH: Ryan McGee writes about NASCAR for ESPN: The Magazine.

Thanks, Ryan.

MCGEE: Thank you.

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