CHARLOTTE — When NASCAR ignites its 2013 racing season at Daytona International Speedway next month, Dan Pierce and a group of friends will get together to watch the race, as they have every year since 1995.
But Pierce, a UNC Asheville professor and NASCAR historian, worries some of the magic might be gone from the track. He said he and his friends spend less time with motorsports than they used to.
“I don’t sense the passion about it anymore,” said Pierce, who became a fan after “a conversion experience” at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1994.
NASCAR is hoping to reverse some of those troubles and woo back fans this year. Drivers are getting new cars that look more like stock cars, so fans will be able to tell a Ford from a Toyota. The sport inked a new, $2.4 billion, eight-year television deal with FOX, a 36 percent increase over the previous deal.
And executives hope an improving economy will help fans who often drive hours and stay for a weekend or longer at racetracks.
“Going into 2013, we feel we have the strongest sponsor base we ever had. We are in a much better position this year than we have in the last several years,” said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. His company will field three Cup teams and two Nationwide teams in 2013.
“We had nine sponsor partners up for renewal and we’re extremely pleased all nine are back with Roush Fenway going into 2013,” he said.
Pierce lists a litany of fans’ gripes: Cars look uniform, drivers lack a “rough around the edges” appearance and races aren’t exciting. The economy hasn’t helped, with both unemployment and gas prices still high.
The problems Pierce sees have shown up in unfilled sponsorships for big-name drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., falling race attendance and television ratings, and pinched financial results at some major track companies.
Television ratings for NASCAR slipped in 2012, falling to their lowest level in five years, according to reports. And in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, ratings fell 25 percent.
Hendrick Motorsports confirmed this week it still has unsold sponsorships in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season on the No. 88 Chevrolet, driven by NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We’ve got a lot of good opportunities and the way we’re positioned, our car is covered until the end of the summer,” team owner Rick Hendrick said on Day 3 of the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’m looking for the right deal, not any deal.”
Charlotte-based Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns tracks including Charlotte Motor Speedway, reported in its most recent quarter that ticket revenue fell from $51.6 million in the prior year to $36.2 million.
Finding a way
Newmark, of Roush Fenway Racing, said the pressure has made teams adapt. “We had to take a hard look at ourselves a few years ago when the economy fell and there weren’t sponsors lined up,” he said.
Now, the company works more with sponsors to make the most of their money, instead of just putting names on cars.
Pierce said he thinks many of the steps NASCAR is taking will help motorsports thrive again, though it may take a while.
“It’s going to be a long time probably before they get back to where they were in the early 2000s,” Pierce said. “But that was pretty heady territory there.”