MORRIS: NASCAR changes sparking interest

rmorris@thestate.comMarch 29, 2014 

Cars round the track during the 64th annual Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

FIVE RACES DO not make a NASCAR season. Nonetheless, the opening five races of the 2014 season have provided a solid indication to NASCAR officials that its sweeping rules changes are a smashing success.

That is what Mike Helton says. Helton, president of NASCAR, spoke this past Thursday at the University of South Carolina as part of the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management’s executive lecture series.

“The first five races have told us that’s going in the right direction,” Helton says, speaking specifically about modifications to the cars that have made for more competitive races. His comment could have covered the gamut of changes that seem to have already pleased NASCAR officials, drivers and fans.

There is little doubting that the numerous changes to NASCAR this season are the result of sliding television ratings and declining attendance at tracks over the past decade. For the early part of the past 10 years NASCAR, like most every other sport, is facing the same problems, pinning sagging numbers on the nation’s faltering economy.

Every major sport – from the NFL to college football to NASCAR – began to realize that fans were finding it more and more difficult to stash away the remote control and fight traffic to see a live event. The harsh reality is that sports these days is much more enjoyable while sitting on the couch.

That helped explain why admissions revenue for publicly traded race track companies fell by 42 percent over a nine-year period beginning in 2005, according to The Sporting News. But it did not explain why the same publication reported NASCAR’s TV ratings fell 47 percent in the same period.

So, when NASCAR signed a 10-year, $8.2 billion TV contract in 2013 with NBC and Fox, officials began to figure ways to make the sport more appealing and exciting – both in person and on TV.

To make the live event more fan-friendly, NASCAR is attempting to catch up with technology. New video boards have been installed at race tracks in Charlotte and Texas that are roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Daytona International Speedway is undergoing a $400 million facelift to include free Wi-Fi service.

Race qualifying long has been a yawner of an experience for NASCAR. Throughout its history, single cars sprinted twice around a track to determine the fastest laps. (If fans have to be told what they saw was really fast and really good, it does not qualify as high-end entertainment).

“It started with fans saying, ‘Gosh, I wish you could make qualifying more exciting,’ ” Helton says. “The bigger voice in all that was the garage itself saying, ‘I wish we could do something more exciting for qualifying instead of just going out there by myself.’ ”

NASCAR changed to knockout qualifying this season. The rules are much more complicated in determining the lineup for a Sprint Cup race, but now all cars are on the track at one time, and there is actual racing during qualifying.

The most visible and intriguing change made for this season involves the season-ending 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

“The concept of it was to not necessarily change the Chase as much as it was reemphasize winning races,” Helton says. “Points are still very important and need to be part of our sport. But winning still should be paramount.

“So, the conversations were around how do you advance winning? Or, how do you create a culture where drivers want to win races?”

Frankly, fans had grown weary of hearing their favorite driver talk of how pleased he was to finish fifth in a race while maintaining his points standing. That was when accumulated points throughout the season produced the top 12 qualifiers for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Now, winning one of the first 26 races virtually guarantees a driver of participating in the Chase. The number of championship drivers in contention for the Sprint Cup championship will decrease every three Chase races, from 16 to start, 12 after Chase race No. 3, eight after Chase race No. 6, and four after Chase race No. 9. A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Chase round.

The format change amounts to an elimination tournament.

“It just so happened that the Chase format gave us the ability to come up with something that immediately, at the opening of the season, puts an emphasis on winning,” Helton says. “I think we’ve seen that the first five weekends.”

Of course, five races does not make a NASCAR season. Yet there is every reason to believe NASCAR is finding ways to reenergize its sport and create more fan interest.

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