April 16, 2008
By racing in a vacuum, NASCAR's sphere of influence begins to wane.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I stirred up a hornet's nest a while ago when I suggested that one of the Detroit Three would be pulling out of NASCAR - and sooner rather than later - as Toyota's influx of money and influence wormed its way into the NASCAR arena. I was even vilified by certain members of the media - who are blatantly bought and paid for by NASCAR, by the way - for suggesting such an outrageous thing. And that was just fine with me because after all they were simply protecting their own self interests, which was perfectly understandable. But by directing their outrage via attacks on me rather than facing the reality of the situation, they clearly exposed themselves - to all who would gave the issue more than even a nanosecond of consideration - for what they really were: Nicely paid shills who weren't close enough to the story to have any real credibility on the subject.
So, what has transpired in the racing world since I first reported the possibility of a Detroit automaker pulling out of NASCAR? For one thing, the fact that NASCAR has peaked is obvious to everyone except the NASCAR apologists embedded in the media and others who are on the NASCAR dole in some way, shape or form. Television ratings are down dramatically, empty seats are visible on every broadcast, and the suits on Madison Avenue and in corporate America are more than just taking notice, they're planning their marketing and advertising budgets for the 2009-2010-2011 time frame right now, and the old adage "Let's put our money in NASCAR, it's a slam-dunk no-brainer!" has been replaced by "What are we getting out of NASCAR again exactly?"
Don't think that's true? Well, I've been in more than a few meetings where those actual discussions have taken place.
The NASCAR line in all of this is that the nation's tanking economy is to blame and that even the vaunted NASCAR marketing/money-making machine is not immune from what's going on in the country as a whole. And that would make for a nice sound bite except for the fact that the NASCAR slide in ratings and attendance started happening at least eighteen months ago - long before the housing and credit crisis became topic No. 1 in Washington. How NASCAR wants to "spin" their lagging fortunes is certainly up to them, but suffice to say for the people who really matter - the ones making the decisions on where and how serious corporate marketing money is allocated - it's about having a much more realistic view of what's going on, and it will not be to NASCAR's advantage to say the least once these people put NASCAR under the microscope.
What else? How about the environmental movement and the onset of $4.00-$5.00 per gallon gasoline prices that have seriously impacted the auto manufacturers' future product planning scenarios? I can tell you right now that decisions are being made in Detroit and at other automakers around the world that will drastically affect what we'll be driving starting as soon as three years from right now. And some of those plans are going to be a real shock for people who have fairly entrenched notions as to what we should be able to drive in this country. Saying it will not be pretty is an understatement, I can assure you. And thinking this societal shift won't affect future motorsport programs is wishful thinking, at best, too.
Into this swirling maelstrom of turmoil comes the reality that as of right now auto manufacturers around the world are having to make fundamental decisions on their future motorsport programs based on the harsh financial realities that they're facing. And for your typical Detroit manufacturer NASCAR is not looking very good at the moment. Beyond the declining TV ratings and empty seats is the realization that the NASCAR "product" direction has moved away from the manufacturers in a very big way. Not only do the "stock" cars have no visual connection to the manufacturers whatsoever (other than the decals indicating headlights, taillights, grille openings and the model name of the car emblazoned on the front), they're identical to each other, which is causing more than a little consternation at the manufacturers, as in, "What's in it for us?" And because of Toyota's involvement, the cost to run up-front in NASCAR is growing exponentially, too, which is making matters worse by putting even more pressure on company racing budgets.
But by far the biggest factor right now for these manufacturers in crafting the future direction of their motorsports programs? It is how to make their racing endeavors relevant to the kind of research and development efforts going on within their respective companies. And this is where the wheels come off the traditional argument that pushes for a continuation of a racing program that's heavily skewed to NASCAR, because it is well known that in terms of the technology used, NASCAR is the direct opposite of "relevant" motorsport, and it's becoming harder and harder for motorsports managers in Detroit to justify focusing their efforts there. And it's even harder still for manufacturer marketing honchos to approve grossly inflated NASCAR budgets when the reality of the situation is that "NASCAR Nation" is contracting at a prodigious rate.
And now, because of all of these factors there's a growing chorus in the corridors of the Detroit manufacturers that revolves around the word "Why?" As in why are we involved? And to go along with that, the next question inevitably becomes: If we are going to be involved, how is NASCAR relevant to the overall direction of our engineering philosophy and our R&D resource allocation?
Today, as manufacturers grapple with developing overall vehicle operating efficiency, advanced powertrain technologies and aerodynamic advancements for their future product programs in an economic environment that's fraught with peril, the concept of racing in a vacuum - which describes NASCAR's "yester-tech" brand of racing to a "T" - couldn't be more irrelevant and out of touch.
Which is why in the next 18-24 months, you're going to see two of the three Detroit manufacturers start to officially (and unofficially) "redistribute" their racing budgets away from NASCAR and into racing programs that have a direct connection to the R&D they're conducting right now. And yes, one of those two manufacturers could very well decide that pulling out of NASCAR altogether is a viable option.
What does this mean for racing?
It means that "relevant" racing programs like the American Le Mans Series - and particularly the next-generation "EVO" rules package slated to begin in 2010 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which will replace the current LMP1 class as the top classification) - will become a crucial component for global automobile manufacturers' motorsport programs going forward. As a matter of fact, with its rules package refocused around overall efficiency (while embracing alternative fuels and technologies), Le Mans is shaping up to be the preeminent battleground for the world's manufacturers beginning in 2010, with at least seven manufacturers now actively engaged in developing cars to run under the "EVO" classification for the overall win.
And where does all of this leave NASCAR?
It leaves NASCAR in search of a future direction, which is more than a little problematic considering Brian France and his brain trust have demonstrated convincingly and repeatedly that forward thinking isn't one of their strong suits. As a matter of fact, it isn't even one of the arrows in their quiver to put a finer point on it.
As an alarming erosion of their manufacturer support begins to gain momentum in the boardrooms of the auto manufacturers, and their automatic "buy-in" by corporate America begins to wane, and in lieu of actually coming up with a new vision for their series, NASCAR is faced with the very real possibility that it will be a one manufacturer series (guess who?) by 2011.
But then again, as long as somebody continues to foot the bill for the France family circus, being irrelevant and out of touch won't matter to them one bit. It certainly hasn't mattered up to this point at any rate.
And besides, I'm sure that the idea of a "Toyota Cup" suits them just fine.
Publisher's Note: In our continuing series celebrating the "Golden Era" of American racing history, here is another image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
Indianapolis, 1963. Dan Gurney prepares to take to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his mid-engined Lotus "Powered by Ford" as Jim Clark (right) and Colin Chapman (leaning on rear tire) look on.
Edited by DOF_Renault_BMW, 16 April 2008 - 12:50 PM.