Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Corporate Money Wasted on NASCAR

In 1962 I became a fan of stock car racing after seeing the movie, "Thunder in Carolina" in the old Blair Theater in Blairsville, Ga. I followed the NASCAR series until about three years ago, when it no longer resembled anything close to racing. It had become a Madison Ave. parade of no-name drivers with no personality run by corporate sponsors and a sanctioning body that did everything but sanction. In reality it became more like professional "rasslin" every day, with fake caution flags to change the the race outcome and little consistency in rules enforcement, on the rare occasion that rules were enforced.

The big money world of corporate sponsorship has put this racing series on its downward spiral. Corporate sponsors make the decision about who will drive the car that they sponsor. That means that the driver must appeal to the 20 - 35 year old group, the only group, apparently, that matters today. The driver must be "cute" and speak with a generic accent and he/she must be younger than 25 to begin as a rookie. No driver over that age can break into NASCAR anymore and few drivers from the South can make it unless they work on killing their accent. Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Richard Petty, and Junior Johnson could never make it in today's world. God forbid that someone with Johnson's accent and body would even try to break into racing. Tom Wolfe called Johnson "The Last American Hero" and for stock car racing he probably is just that. A recent legends race at Bristol Speedway demonstrated Johnson's continued popularity.

Corporate sponsorships have begun to dry up over the past three or four years, and the pace has accelerated with the deepening depression. With the big three automakers teetering on the brink of disaster there is concern that they may pull their money from NASCAR. In reality, there is little reason for them to remain. The cars no longer resemble anything driven on the street. Aerodynamics, wind tunnels, and NASCAR's weird "car of tomorrow" concept have taken care of that. The only thing stock about a NASCAR racecar is the engine block. The old adage, "win on Sunday, sell cars on Monday" is long out of date.

I have long felt that advertising in NASCAR and probably across the board is largely a huge waste of corporate money. The result of Madison Avenue's big scam of convincing corporations about the value of advertising. In NASCAR there is a company that goes through the film of every race and computes the amount of time a sponsor's car is on the screen. Then some convoluted formula is used to determine the value of that time. The corporate world swallows the scam and dumps more money down the black hole.

Drivers and owners live "high on the hog" off this corporate money. Some rarely win, but if they have a big mouth and can be a good salesman for the sponsor, they continue to rake in the big bucks. Some drivers continue well past their prime, because they are good salesmen, and they can not give up the big money that continues to roll in.

To make matters even worse our tax money is thrown down this black hole of sponsorship. Several cars sport the logos of the various branches of the military service. Remember, we are talking about millions of dollars here. The Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard currently or in the very recent past, have all sponsored teams. At twenty million plus per team, we are talking some large bucks over the course of several years. Presumably, they do this to recruit from the NASCAR faithful, who tend to be the most conservative of sports fans. Typically, Republican candidates are the mascots of NASCAR, and at every opportunity are grand marshals or some other such highly visible position at the race. Therefore, patriotism (actually nationalism) is a major theme of NASCAR events.

Prior to the depression more and more seats were vacant at most races. Long time fans had become tired of selective rules enforcement, the lack of actual racing on the track, and the vacant-eyed stares and monotone voices of the generic drivers. Ticket prices were through the roof (the last race I attended almost ten years ago cost me almost $100 for a ticket), and long time tracks, where actual racing was possible, were slowly dropped from the circuit. Others, like Darlington lost their signature races in favor of new west coast tracks. Japanese automakers were allowed to compete a few years ago and began their usual unlimited spending in an attempt to dominate. NASCAR, the fans said, cared little about its heritage and sold itself for the almighty corporate dollar.

Frankly, I hope that corporate money continues to dry up and the series either dies completely to be replaced by something better or it has to re-invent itself, going back to its roots for revitalization. It is owned by a single family, whose patriarchs have passed on and left it to their spoiled kids, who see it as a toy with which to enrich themselves. They are driving it into the ground, carelessly, with no consideration for their fans. They continue to ask corporate America for more and more money.

Finally, the end is getting closer. The deepening depression has forced corporations to re-evaluate their spending. Maybe soon they will see that they have bought a "pig in a poke" and the only thing they are doing is enriching a few at the expense of many.

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