Bank of America 500, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC

NASCAR aiming for younger, more diverse fans, quicker finishes

rrothacker@charlotteobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

When racing’s attendance and TV ratings fell in recent years, NASCAR officials knew they needed a change.

After decades of growth under the iron rule of founder Bill France Sr. and his son Bill France Jr. – both enshrined in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame – current Chairman Brian France pushed his organization to listen more to the people who were the backbone of the sport.

Working with the team owners, drivers, tracks and sponsors, NASCAR came up with an “Industry Action Plan” that aims to help the sport rebound from the economic downturn and changing consumer habits that have affected all sports.

The goal? Inject more youth and diversity into a fan base that is mostly white and aging by ramping up digital and social media offerings, consider changes to the cars to make the racing more exciting, and even contemplate more radical moves.

At its highest level, the racing organization sanctions 36 races and two special events a year, including Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It will spend tens of millions of dollars on the five-year plan, which started in 2011 and is expected to evolve over time.

“NASCAR in the past operated obviously very well and had explosive growth,” Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps said in an interview this week at NASCAR’s facility in Concord. “But as things have changed in the economy and in how young people use their leisure time and in how they consume sports and entertainment, we have had to change as well.”

To be sure, NASCAR still has its dictatorial moments. Last month, officials levied a record $300,000 fine against Michael Waltrip Racing for attempting to manipulate the outcome of a race, a move that Brian France said was necessary to protect the integrity of the sport. The incident also led auto parts retailer NAPA to end a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with the team.

And earlier this year, NASCAR fined driver Denny Hamlin $25,000 for comments perceived as critical of the sport’s new cars, stirring criticism that the sport was stifling free speech.

But drivers and team owners say they appreciate the efforts by NASCAR to be more open to their new ideas.

“Even if you don’t agree with them,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, “you know what they’re thinking.”

Fighting the trend

NASCAR, started in 1947 by the France family, is stock car racing’s governing body. The family-owned private company, which organizes and polices the races for teams, tracks and drivers, is based in Daytona Beach, Fla., but has significant operations in the Charlotte area, where the first-ever NASCAR race was held in 1949.

The sport’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the recession dealt the sport a major hit, and it is still recovering.

Ratings for Sprint Cup races – the premier NASCAR series – have remained flat over the past three years, but they are down by nearly 10 to 20 percent from five years ago, depending on the race and the network it is broadcast on. Still, key races can still draw up to 8 million viewers, and the sport recently signed a 10-year, $8.2 billion television deal with NBC and Fox.

NASCAR also mirrors many other sports with drops in attendance. Admission revenues reported by Speedway Motorsports, the company that owns Charlotte Motor Speedway, were down 38 percent in 2012 from 2008. The numbers in the quarter ending June 30, 2013, were down 12 percent from a year ago.

Daytona International Speedway and other tracks owned by International Speedway Corp. have seen a similar trend. Admission revenues were nearly flat from a year ago in the quarter ended in August, and it was still down significantly from five years ago.

Both publicly owned companies have seen a drop in profitability from five years ago.

NASCAR, though, is fighting back.

To help attract younger fans, the sport has spruced up its website and mobile apps after building a media and entertainment hub in Charlotte.

It has worked to bring pop culture figures to races and land spots for drivers in television shows popular with a younger generation. NASCAR is also trying to meet the next generation’s interests by getting deeper into video games and digital device offerings.

“We have to be where they are,” Phelps said.

High-tech cars, new fans

One challenge with younger fans, Phelps said, is that the love affair with cars does not come as naturally as it did with previous generations.

“Kids today view the automobile ... as a way to get from Point A to Point B,” he said.

Driver Jeff Burton disagrees that kids aren’t as interested in cars. Burton said he drove a new Chevrolet Camaro to pick up his children at school recently, and kids were “all over it.”

“We don’t have a hot-rod culture where they’re taking out the engine on a wrecked Corvette and putting it in a four-door sedan,” Burton said. “But kids today still love cars and driving. The cars are just more technologically advanced.”

To feed the interest, Burton said, NASCAR should showcase the sophistication of the cars, including high-tech equipment used to design and build the vehicles that race each weekend. In the past, the sport kept that low-key, lest one team seem to have an advantage over another, Burton said. But today most operations are teeming with top-notch equipment, he said.

Research by NASCAR shows one demographic still in love with cars is Hispanics. That’s why the sport launched a Spanish-language version of NASCAR.com and brought a NASCAR Toyota Mexico Series race to Phoenix this year.

Hispanic viewership of races broadcast on Fox was up 30 percent compared with last year, officials said.

Karen Walker, 51, who attended pole night Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is the kind of fan NASCAR would like to see more of at the track. Of a mixed racial background, she wears memorabilia to work, encourages her kids to embrace the sport and is quick to strike up a conversation about her favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

She encourages fans to come to the race track to best experience the sport, and she discounts any decline in attendance or ratings.

“It’s the economy,” she said. “People are feeling financial pressure. As things improve, I think things will improve for the sport.”

Dennis Deninger, a former ESPN executive who teaches sports communications at Syracuse University, said NASCAR could attract even more diverse fans if it had more drivers of color.

“The one thing that would broaden the popularity immediately would be if there were an African-American driver,” Deninger said. “The race for diversity has been on for several years now and there is some up-and-coming talent.

“The impact on NASCAR could be the same as the impact that Jackie Robinson’s arriving at the Brooklyn Dodgers had (in 1947.) Suddenly the people in the stands were of different colors once they had a player to root for.”

‘Never good enough’

Beyond trying to bring in new fans, NASCAR is also working to improve the racing product. A 15,000-member fan council that rates each race for NASCAR has given this year’s events an average of 7.9 on a scale of 10, up from 7.7 a year ago.

But officials say they want to do better.

NASCAR is working with tracks to make improvements in the fan experience. That list includes everything from better signage to improved technology such as Wi-Fi connectivity. The sport also has increased marketing for the 10 “Chase for the Cup” races that make up the season-ending playoff.

Also under consideration are more dramatic moves, such as shortening races and changing formats.

“Might we see additional changes for ’14?” Phelps said. “I think it’s absolutely on the table. Whether it happens or not, I’m not sure.”

Gibbs, the team president, said race length is a difficult balancing act.

“I have four boys,” he said. “They are not going to watch something for three and a half hours. But we also have fans who say, ‘I want my four hours of racing.’”

Fans have also said they want fewer uniform cars that look more like the street versions sold at dealerships.

There is also the most obvious way to improve fan enjoyment – more competitive racing and closer finishes.

NASCAR this year introduced a “Generation 6” car, with vehicles that look more like the factory models. And Monday, teams and drivers will test new aerodynamics at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with a goal of tighter racing and more passing on the track.

Burton, who will drive the No. 31 car in Saturday’s Bank of America 500, will participate in the test.

“It’s good for us to look at how we can get better,” he said. “Some people might see that as a weakness that we need to make improvements. My opinion is it’s never good enough.

“We need to always be trying to get better.”

Staff writers Mark Washburn and Jeff Siner contributed.

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Twitter: Rick Rothacker

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