More noodling at NASCAR: the chase to the race and the Car of Tomorrow

NASCAR has created a situation that is struggling to correct. The fiddling around with the point system was one thing, but the concept of the “chase to the race” or the race chase, or whatever the catch phrase, is has become a yawner. I, for one, never was able to grasp the “chase” concept as it related to the races themselves or the teams and drivers. However, if you look at it from a marketing standpoint, in that it was trying to sell itself as a sort of “play off” situation to dress itself in the suit of a major sporting event, then well, maybe it is like that effort.

Then, in a mistaken belief that “if you build it, they will come,” someone got NASCAR to believe that the chase concept would generate more revenue and appeal to a larger audience. Translated, that means more money, TV ad time, associated licensing agreements for NASCAR labeled endorsement deals, and labeling of all things sold with NASCAR on it.

The 2004 chase was interesting because everyone was trying to sort it all out, while managing the point system, which is a leftover from the Winston program that got NASCAR from the moonshining drivers on its county-fair racing roots (Bill France, the eventual hijacker of the stock car racing circuits, hated that image of moonshiners, even though he would not have survived without them) to the big time of the Daytona and Talladega race tracks — that action knocking out most races on dirt or of less than 200 miles.

I can't blame NASCAR for wanting to create some excitement. The old time concept of rooting for your favorite driver because he is driving your favorite make of car has long gone by the wayside. Without a program you can't tell one NASCAR race car from another. Even the commentators don't identify the cars by brand any more. It is the “Tide” car or the “Lowe's” car or the “Home Depot” car. I did note that of all the drivers, Tony Stewart made sure that you knew he was driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS., every time he spoke on camera!

“The Car Of Tomorrow” is also ginning itself up as the answer to a lot of things that, really, no one has been asking. The COT is little more than a “formula” vehicle that NASCAR has been quietly, but resolutely, pushing for many years. In the past, they sold the idea off as “parity.” Now, in a reincarnation of the line, it is being presented as an issue of "safety."  Now if that doesn't work, perhaps they can foist it off onto the switch from leaded gasoline to straight ethanol fuel. I guess Sunoco, like Pure, found that the cost of paying to be the supplier didn't equate to the benefits received from its efforts in profitability. Although that is a surmise on my part without a source.

If it wasn't for the participation of the various manufacturers, NASCAR could have had its formula vehicle a few years back, when it consistently wrote rules barring Chrysler from participation in a form of punishment for Chrysler's 1965 boycott. It shows that “formula” is akin to “parity” only when it pertains to what NASCAR says it is.

For many years after Chrysler stopped its racing program, thereby putting its most famous ChryCo operator,  Richard Petty, out in the cold, NASCAR wrote rules to allow the “KING” to continue to race his older model Dodge Chargers. It was a razor's edge for France. Would you really want to knock out the most popular, recognizable, winningest driver based upon the car that he drove? Lee Petty, the family sire, was an ardent NASCAR supporter when France came into the 1940 era. France paid Lee Petty a lot of earnest money just to show up at a NASCAR event. In return, Lee promoted NASCAR enthusiastically. France was confronted, time and again in the 1940 era, with fans that only came to races to "see Lee win!" Attendance would drop if Lee Petty wasn't there at a race. In Lee's case, however, he was not part of the moonshining situation. His support hinged on the fair application of "rules" as well as the guarantee of being paid from the purse. France made certain that whatever he said he was going to pay out for winning, he never failed to pay. Even if it meant borrowing from his moonshiner acquaintances when he was short.

When the 1978 model Dodge Magnum materialized, it really failed to be a good racer. The Petty team was on their own. Midyear, at the Michigan event, they switched a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Chrysler was long gone, falling into complete disarray in the late 1970s. Efforts at getting back to racing, involving those operators who continued to try to compete with ChryCo based vehicles, such as the Chrysler LeBaron car, were consistently barred by NASCAR, even in the face of a decent ARCA model that was extremely competitive.  

It took a lot of ante up money to get Dodge back on the track in 1999, much going to NASCAR for licensing among many other items. Rumors, growing with ever widening scope and increasing frequency point, to Dodge as being the “major” car set to pull  out. With the fate of Chrysler group now up in the air after the infamous revelation of the DCX plan “X”, it has given the rumors longer legs. So now, NASCAR, in an effort to outdo major sporting  events, such as the World Series or the Super Bowl, invented the Chase.

2005 wasn't that big a deal, with Champion Tony Stewart leading the points, and he should have won anyway. 2006 was a bit more exciting only because the concept of being in the “chase” has been torn up by the same Tony Stewart, blowing the chasers away with his wins from a position whereby he couldn't get the championship in 2006 because he didn't make the points for the last 10 races. However, it is the TV networks themselves that are reporting the situation within the chase concept. NASCAR charged them an awful large amount of money, and then further restricted everything by requiring that NASCAR approve and retain ownership of all aired pieces. In fact, the latest tally shows that among the various TV networks, NASCAR has pocketed $4.7 billion for licensing in 2007. 

It does have appearances however, that are akin to it falling into a fad. It is fading, leveling off, in fact, losing TV market share. Could be compared to the Texas Hold'em thing. The ten 2006 chase races has garnered about a 4.1 TV rating share, which is significantly lower than the 4.7 share in 2005. That was a little bit higher than the 4.6 share in the first year of the chase in 2004, which is lower than the last 10 races of the 2003 season when there was no chase. Currently, the big Networks are reporting a drop from 8.6 share to a 5.3 share. OUCH! While the cable networks are down 15% at 4.1.

What does it all mean? The chase was meant to raise excitement like the buildup to the playoffs in the NFL, but even the Super Bowl doesn't do all that well for those folks whose team isn't playing. Trying to make NASCAR seem like a major sporting event doesn't work to the point where you could compare it to the World Series. So, even with NASCAR that came up with the “new” tinkered with race chase, chase race, playoff against each other, or whatever it has become, unless they impart with some way to spread the “parity” deal across the point system, making everyone equal in competition even unto the last race of the season, like it sort of used to do, the chase is a yawn, and the NFL has nothing to worry about. Professional wrestling however, MIGHT have something to think about….!

This has paled with the “scandalous” cheating stories of 2007, where the media has gone chasing after itself, like a wired up puppy trying to grab its own tail. Well respected Michael Waltrip was the poor owner/driver that seemed to be the onus of the effort to catch, someone, anyone, for cheating. Standing to lose the most in all that was Toyota, a Japanese based car manufacturer, diligently trying to be all American.  Cheating? In NASCAR? Are you SERIOUS? Aw, come on! Part, parcel, ingrained, never to be removed, heritage from the roots situation.

The difference is that Bill France tried everything in his power to rewrite stock car racing history. Way too much credit is given to him. A whole bunch of history, completely incorrect, shows the year "1948" as the formation of NASCAR.  In the early 1930s, stock cars were struggling to rise above being anything but warmed over junked out 1930s V-8 Fords, usually tossed around on some farmer's dirt field on a boring Sunday afternoon.

France diligently, passionately, determinedly, sought to hide the undeniable truth. Most of that junk, with a couple of exceptions, came from moonshiners. Those roots were the ones that brought NASCAR out of obscurity. Moonshiners built cars that could race with power and speed. The best "trippers" back then, bought Ford V-8 models, to the horror of Henry Ford. Somewhat. He did build an assembly plant in downtown Atlanta, after all.

Moonshiners made stock car racing. In the beginning Bill France needed them to get things going. Even going so far as to borrow money from one of the richest moonshiners in the business at various times to cover the costs of paying the drivers. In the meantime, using all his shrewd manipulative skills, he slowly wrested NASCAR into his grasp. No, he did not invent NASCAR. There was a registered name of an outfit in Atlanta Georgia that was the real birthplace of stock car speed, and NASCAR. That existed some 15 years before France garnered the namesake unto himself.  If anyone knows Mr. Raymond Parks, who is now 92, still alive, doing well, that goes to his office every day in Atlanta, then they know who really made NASCAR. Mr. Parks, I hope you get some credit for what you went through.

NASCAR at Allpar

Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "

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