THE NASCAR MESS.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018 at 09:17AM
Editor

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. The news that NASCAR CEO Brian France was arrested in Sag Harbor, New York, for DWI and in possession of oxycodone tablets over the weekend couldn’t have come at a more precarious time for the stock car racing organization. 

It’s no secret that NASCAR has been on a precipitous decline for going on eleven years now. Propped up initially by television networks insatiable for content and willing to pay through the nose for the rights to broadcast NASCAR programming during its fleeting heyday (which ended in 2007) and fueled by its chief enablers at the auto manufacturers, NASCAR has suffered a steady erosion of TV ratings, and a notable drop in in-person race attendance has accelerated at an alarming rate. And even the most successful teams are struggling to find sponsors. NASCAR operatives have taken great pains to explain away the decline as part of the general shift in how consumers participate in sports viewing, but who’s kidding whom? NASCAR is on the ropes, and one man is directly responsible: Brian France. 

Brian France has acted like an absentee landlord for a decade, barely involved in the day-to-day running of the organization and only parachuting in for his annual “State of NASCAR” speeches that always proved to be incredibly naïve and painfully out of touch. In his most recent remarks about the sport at the beginning of the season, France came off like a cousin of Alfred E. Neuman with his seemingly endless “What, Me Worry?” refusal to admit that anything was wrong with NASCAR, but he was clearly the only one who failed to see what was going on all around him. 

France has now announced that he is taking a leave of absence, and other commentators are pressing the point that he shouldn’t come back, but here’s the thing, France was never there to begin with and his calculated nonparticipation has already proved to be devastating to his credibility and to NASCAR.

As if to underscore France’s screwup (this was the second DWI incident for him, by the way), NASCAR had one of its brightest days in years over the weekend at Watkins Glen, New York, as Chase Elliott (NASCAR legend Bill Elliott’s son) drove brilliantly to deliver his first win. It should have been the positive talking point that the sport so desperately needed to carry it through the rest of the season. Instead, the organization’s CEO stumbled out of his Lexus and destroyed any shred of positiveness associated with young Elliott’s win. 

What a mess.

To compound matters, it’s no secret that the France family has been taking meetings about the possibility of selling the enterprise and needless to say, France’s bust certainly won’t help those discussions. Not that it matters, because the prime value for NASCAR peaked well over a decade ago and the France family missed their golden opportunity, just like they missed myriad chances over the years to right the ship. And now? Let’s just call NASCAR a diminished business opportunity and leave it at that, although the strong argument for acquiring the racing organization would be to blow it up and start over if it is ever going to see real momentum again.

And where does this leave NASCAR’s chief enablers – the auto manufacturers? Ford, GM and Toyota piss away $250 million+ a year combined in NASCAR for direct payments to teams, driver contracts, and associated promotional events and advertising. These manufacturers have continued to throw money around in NASCAR like drunken sailors, even in the face of the steady and burgeoning decline of the sport. 

To what end? And why? There is no question that there is an incestuous relationship between certain operatives at the manufacturers and the NASCAR establishment, and it stinks to high heaven too. Some of the high-level relationships are so cozy that it’s hard to separate the executives at the car companies from their NASCAR counterparts. So, it’s no wonder that the auto companies rarely put pressure on NASCAR for substantive changes.

It’s no secret that I have been NASCAR’s most outspoken national critic for more than a decade now, but I’ve always made the distinction between the corporate NASCAR, and the drivers, teams and technical people involved in the sport. These are some of the most talented people in all of racing and it’s a flat-out shame that they’ve been saddled with some of the most relentlessly mediocre corporate overlords working in the sport. 

The list of negatives created by these corporate bumblers at NASCAR is lengthy. NASCAR has the worse death march of a schedule in all of sports (and with the NBA and NHL in existence that’s saying something), and its steadfast refusal to even entertain any changes to its calendar has been a tediously recurring joke. On top of too many races, the repetitiveness of the schedule and the double visits to the same tracks each season is almost incomprehensible. Everything about NASCAR is stale, and the stench of sameness hangs over the enterprise like a black cloud. The racing organization’s relentless intransigence and its strict adherence to “we’ve always done it this way,” combined with the most virulent strain of “not invented here” that you’ll ever see, have created a moribund corporate entity in need of a giant kick in the ass. 

With Brian France’s latest and hopefully final episode, the auto manufacturers have some decisions to make. They must finally take the gloves off and get directly involved in the future of NASCAR, because the way these manufacturers have been operating up until now - this "go-along-to-get-along" drill - is simply unacceptable. If the racing entity is to be sold, then the manufactures have to be included in all discussions because without their participation, whatever form NASCAR takes going forward simply wouldn’t be able to get off of the ground. There’s hope that in Jim France, NASCAR’s interim chief - who is everything Brian France isn’t in that he’s politically and racing savvy, sharply aware and decisive in action - NASCAR has a chance to right itself and move forward. But it’s a giant “we’ll see” at this point.

Changes for NASCAR have been long overdue. It’s ironic that Brian France’s giant flameout and permanent exit might just allow him to finally accomplish something good for the family business.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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