NASCAR: Daytona 500 Dazzles in Race Season Debut

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Restrictor plate racing is an acquired taste. Some do not enjoy it, not all (including some drivers) look forward to it, yet most everyone is willing to pay attention to the last lap to see who will be crowned Daytona 500 Champion. For firsthand experience of this maxim, I observed that my wife, ever the casual fan, sat down to take in the last lap and was cheerily surprised by what she saw.

With a great last lap move to pull out of line from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, committed to the top and chased down teammate Matt Kenseth, brushed off a block and bump, and then wedged between Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. to squeak out the tightest finish — 0.010 seconds — in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.

How often do we get a photo finish where we must slow down the tape to see who won? Bottom line, this Daytona 500 finish will be remembered for years.

No doubt, certain racing purists see sheer boredom in superspeedway cars that have been “restricted” since 1988 from reaching their upper limits at Daytona and Talladega in the interest of safety, where stockers are confined to running in large packs and no one can generate a serious performance advantage over the duration of the race.

Daytona looked like it's old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Daytona looked like it’s old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Yet, Sunday’s Daytona 500 delivered in abundant ways for the start of the NASCAR season:

  • Hamlin wasn’t content to get a top 5 finish and solid points day, but gambled for the win. Hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy has always been a dream of this 35-year-old driver, with Hamlin’s mother Mary Lou tweeting out the essay that Hamlin wrote when he was in 2nd grade, declaring he would win the February 1998 Daytona 500. A dream realized, albeit 18 years later than planned.
  • We had genuine sportsmanship among the drivers at the end. Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t sure who had won when he and Denny Hamlin crossed the start-finish line, but maintained perspective. “I feel like we were in really good position just doing what we did,” Truex acknowledged. “Circumstances didn’t work out quite as well as they should have…I felt like I should have run Denny up the track a little bit. Two years ago I would have been sitting here with a sourpuss on my face. Today was (still) a great day.”
  • The validation of the $400 million DAYTONA Rising project was a crown jewel redevelopment, with all 101,500 stadium seats spoken for in the self-proclaimed World Center of Racing. Some on social media commented that they could see open seats in the aerial shots, but plentiful fans mingled on the interior concourses throughout the race. The new Daytona Rising stadium has captured the spirit that fans now look to attend social events centered around sports, given that tracks most offer something beyond the pure HD experience of watching on one’s home theater.
  • The weather was perfect, with no rain throughout Speedweeks to inflict havoc on scheduled race events.
  • We did not get the typical carnage of the “big one” associated with many superspeedway events, and cars remained on the track and not in the catch fence. Just once, it was a relief to not have to hold our breath after the finish with anticipation as to whether drivers would emerge safely from scattered sheet metal. Gratifyingly, there was no spectacle of jet dryers exploding from impact with an errant race car.
  • Strategy calls were evident throughout the race. Teams struggled with grip on the high banked corners. Handling was at a premium in the draft, as the daytime weather and slick track contributed to cars being tight in the corner. New rubber was at a premium, as teams had to speculate on whether to take two or four tire pit stops.
  • At plate tracks, the top drivers now rise to the top and have demonstrated sharpness and shrewdness at this time of racing. Leaders must showcase the command of the draft and which line is working best, often maintaining their position by taking the air off one lane, then moving to the other, thereby stalling out potential moves by the competition.
  • This year, we saw several of the sport’s top drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and pole sitter Chase Elliott engage in epic slides on their own coming out of Turn 4, showcasing that cars were indeed on the handling edge. Elliott completed 18 laps Sunday before his Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet was taken to the garage with heavy front end damage, the result spin and infield nose-dive.
  • And if you wish to recreate multicultural last lap drama, check out the Fox Deportes Spanish language telecast of the finish. Victorioso is exciting in any language, and this clip will surely leave you smiling. https://twitter.com/FOXDeportes/status/701524567190171649

Plate races are a limited, distinct piece of the NASCAR schedule, but a legacy component of what NASCAR is. Daytona Speedweeks was a stellar start for the season, with fans at least talking about what happened on the track. The NASCAR show now moves forward to the real heart of the season. Bring on the new low downforce race pack for Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

NASCAR: Will Magna Charter Be Holy Grail for the Sport?

Petty  is pleased with NASCAR's new 'Charter' system.

Petty is pleased with NASCAR’s new ‘Charter’ system.

NASCAR’s anticipated charter system has been rolled out, tackling governance, economics, and participation at its premier top level series of professional stock car racing. Certainly, the Charter agreement is a seminal shift in how the sport has been managed. For fans, it may be much ado about nothing, or perhaps not.

During the announcement, no less a luminary than the King Richard Petty called it the second most important day in NASCAR history, second only to the founding of the sport’s sanctioning body back in 1948.

The nine-year life of the 36 available charters (which are fully resalable) runs concurrently with NASCAR’s television-rights deal through 2024. Currently, that $8 billion contract with Fox and NBC shares 65% of the rights money with racetracks, 25% to the competitive teams (who are paid through the race purse), and 10% to NASCAR.

The biggest breakthrough for the 36 teams possessing a charter is a guaranteed spot in the field for every race, starting with the season opening race at Daytona. These privileged teams now have more stability in their business model, which supports their quest to build their long-term brand. At a base level, an annuity revenue stream for 30th place running team participating in all the races has a floor value ranging from $3 to $5 million per year (using the total purse results for Trevor Bayne, 29th in points, and Alex Bowman, 33rd in points, as proxies from last year). That’s cash an owner can now count on.

Stronger teams may just make for a better product on track, allowing teams to invest more in their performance and their future growth in the sport. With a more secure business model, team owners may have more leverage in locking up sponsors and more willingness to take a chance on up-and-coming driving talent.

Rob Kaufmann, former owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, has several Charters in the process of being sold.

Rob Kaufmann, former owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, has several Charters in the process of being sold.

The revenue stream from purse winnings that is linked to TV rights deal ensures that Charter teams are guaranteed the ability to be on the stage of every race for the next nine years, providing a base annuity return for a Charter franchise.

As a key principal that helped broker this agreement, Rob Kauffman, majority team owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, confirmed his intent to sell two charters now that MWR is out of business. The anticipated buyers include Stewart-Haas Racing for Kurt Busch’s #41 team and Joe Gibbs Racing for Carl Edwards’ #19 team. Kauffman ventured that “If you had to ask me right now, what do I think they’re roughly worth, I would say, single-digit millions, individually.”

At face value, all seems splendid. Like many of NASCAR’s changes, fans may not ultimately care much, unless the law of unintended consequences surfaces. And this is auto racing, inherently unpredictable, where anything that can happen often well.

Play out one possible team scenario for full effect.

Sprint Cup rookie Ryan Blaney, now full-time driver of #21 Ford Fusion for the fabled Wood Brothers racing team, is one of the teams on the outside looking in who will not start the season with a charter-guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. And most all charters this year are spoken for or already have been sold, leaving Ryan Blaney needing to qualify on speed based on the four unsecured spots in the 40-car starting grid.

If Blaney wins a regular season race, thereby qualifying for the Sprint Cup Chase playoff, the Wood Brothers could find themselves in the precarious position of needing to qualify for every Chase race to remain in championship contention. One bad qualifying effort, and they might just be packing up and going home.

As a worst case scenario, picture Ryan Blaney making it all the way to the Homestead Championship finale and suffering a mechanical issue during qualifying such that the #21 team misses the cut and is unable to compete for the Sprint Cup title in the final race of the year. It would be fascinating to see how NASCAR Chairman Brian France would justify that bizarre outcome. For sure, many fans would ridicule that travesty. Perhaps NASCAR will implement some type of provisional qualifying allowance to address such hitches.

So, what is the hidden gem in all of this? It’s called the Team Owner Council, where the Charter teams will have formal input into decisions made by the sanctioning body.

Leave it to Richard Petty to plainly call it out, “It’s sort of like the democrats and republicans, they’ve been doing their thing, we’ve been doing our thing, meeting in the middle a little bit. We’re getting rid of that. We’re all going to be in the middle of the deal now.”

The new agreement also provides Charter teams with new revenue opportunities including a greater interest in digital operations. And that just may be the golden goose for everyone.

Right now, when you check out a race team’s site on-line, there are as many approaches to fan interaction as there are race teams. Some engage with fans, some don’t. Some readily sell team merchandise, some don’t. Some have team highlights and interviews, some don’t.

And that is where the future revenue generation and engagement potential just may be. Major League Baseball is a prime model of successful integration, so much so that MLB Advanced Media is a separate business that partners with other sports leagues (including the PGA, NHL, and WWE) on the management of their digital media rights. Digital technology is huge for leagues. It allows fans to consume events when they want, how they want and with whom they want.

And that may be the blessing in this Charter deal for everyone. If NASCAR learns from the MLB model, thereby capitalizing on emerging tech developments, developing a fully integrated global hub with behind the scenes action, and capturing fans who embrace being at the forefront of these interactive media experiences with deeper access into the sport through sharing the stories of both drivers and teams.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR: Doubtful Charter Franchise Will Entice New Owners

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR's premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR’s premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

Auto racing is an unforgiving passion: If you don’t perform well on the track, you won’t survive over time. Resources are not limitless. It’s an essential lesson in pay for performance and free enterprise at its finest.

Race teams need to have secure marketing partners to fund their operations, and race purse winnings to stay afloat. If a team shutters its race shop, there is not much left to sell to somebody else, given the tailored fabrication equipment, rule-dependent car templates, and the reliance on human talent that heads for the exit. In racing, the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.

Now, NASCAR wants to reinvent that dynamic by establishing what is being referred to as a franchising “charter system”. For an upfront license fee (projected to be several million dollars per full-time car), entitled teams would be guaranteed a spot in each race. As a result, teams unable to secure a charter would be discouraged from participating, given that only a few spots in the show would be earned purely based on qualifying day performance.

Chartered teams also would have a superior ability to sell sponsorship and secure funding. As a result, many see this as a boon for current owners by ensuring they have equity in their race organizations, thereby providing a “guaranteed residual”, or a pay-to-play fee, for anybody to enter the sport.

This development is perplexing, given that a succession planning void looms over the next generation of trailblazers willing to invest capital in NASCAR’s future. At some point, NASCAR will need to replenish the current super team owners at its top Sprint Cup level (i.e., Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, and Joe Gibbs), given these long-time principals have an average age of 70 years.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can't be ignored.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can’t be ignored.

Historically, the auto racing business has been about performance. Better performing teams get more attractive sponsors. Sponsors bring money to pay big-time drivers. Big-time drivers win races and bring purse money to the team. And the virtuous cycle continues. Pay for performance, clean and simple. Strong performing teams survive, and weak ones fade to the sideline. No different than other small businesses.

Throughout my career, I’ve designed and reviewed executive employment agreements. Nowadays, shareholders are clamoring for executives to be paid for their performance on the street. That said, golden parachute payout protections still persist, ensuring that an executive can realize lucrative severance benefits regardless of performance.

Somehow, the new charter license fee strikes me as having the same unfavored aspect, providing a floor level of profit, in spite of whether the team’s performance justifies that value.

Purportedly, NASCAR is trying to get this deal done prior to the start of its season at Daytona International Speedway in mid-February. Draft contracts have been circulated among the teams, as NASCAR Chairman Brian France looks to put his stamp on yet another landmark initiative.

“We don’t have it finished and it’s still moving around a little bit,” France said during January’s preseason media tour. “The time line is sooner rather than later. This is a complicated plan and structure that will require some time to phase in.”

However, NASCAR is not just brokering a deal with team owners. Team owners are haggling among themselves, in that the layers of ownership are diverse: Tenure vs. youth, multi-car vs. single car organizations, full-time vs. part-time, and wealthy vs. meager resources. With the agreement expected to span five years, which matches the contractual time period NASCAR just signed with all of the speedways that host races, it is critical to get this right.

“Like most things, the devil’s in the details,” according to Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, and former principal of now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, who is spearheading the discussion on behalf of the owners.

As such, it is not a surprise that NASCAR and the teams are reviewing what is rumored to be a 100 page contract. Teams have different interests. One thing is a certainty, in that attorneys are getting paid handsomely, as hundreds of billable hours are being racked up in trying to put this deal together.

However, the trickiest obstacle is one of valuation. What should a full-time NASCAR charter be worth? Should it vary by race team status? And here is the rub: race teams do not control the sport’s primary assets; NASCAR does. Unlike stick and ball franchises, race teams are not granted an exclusive license to operate a geographic territory. They do not collect the fan ticket sales at the track; they do not own the tracks’ rights fees. And these teams surely do not regulate the competitive schedule nor negotiate the national TV broadcast rights, as that is handled in Daytona headquarters by the sanctioning body.

So, while the LA Dodgers may have been sold for more than $2 billion, the Guggenheim Baseball Partnership lays claim to the ticket sales, concession fees, and, most importantly, the local TV rights sold to Time Warner Cable that will generate $7 billion in incremental revenue over 25 years. Now that is a source of value that justifies an MLB franchise fee.

Breaking this all down, what NASCAR is attempting to sell through the charter license is equivalent to phantom stock sometimes used by entrepreneurs to provide the illusion of ownership for employees in a start-up. However, phantom stock is just that. You get no voting rights, no control, and no expectation of dividends. In the end, the owners may find that the charter is only worth what NASCAR is willing to buy it back for. Only time will tell if new pioneers are willing to step up and buy an outgoing charter to facilitate the coming ownership succession.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR: Caution Clock Ticking for the Camping World Truck Series

One a series with great promise, the NASCAR Truck Series runs the risk of being artificial.

One a series with great promise, the NASCAR Truck Series runs the risk of being artificial.

NASCAR’s Racing Development and Innovation team, led by EVP Steve O’Donnell, got busy during the off season, having just rolled out an assortment of structural changes for all three race series. During this week’s 2016 media tour kick-off in Charlotte, revolutionary creations from NASCAR’s Innovation labs were conveyed as fully baked with a strong business case; the reality is these concepts are likely being tested in race conditions as clinical trials.

In Chairman Brian France’s State of the Sport address this week, the discoveries came at us with the pace of a “Fast and Furious” chase scene.

The wildest, newfangled device is a “Caution Clock” for the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck (NCWTS) season for all tracks (except Eldora) that is anticipated to energize this development series, which is generally struggling with low crowd counts and unprofitable financial costs, in spite of a generally solid racing product.

The 20-minute Caution Clock will begin when the race leader takes the green flag at the beginning of the race and each restart. Once that clock runs out, an automatic caution is thrown. Should a normal race caution occur (e.g., due to debris or an accident), the Caution Clock will be reset to another 20 minute window.

So, what are possible rewards of this new Caution Clock?

  • If the field gets strung out on a long green flag run at an aero-dependent speedway, the Caution Clock will bunch up the field and close the gap that the lead trucks have established over the field. Finishes like last May’s Kansas Speedway race, with only six trucks on the lead lap, will hopefully be less common
  • The less experienced, start-up truck teams with limited resources will have more opportunity to take big swings on pit lane adjustments if they missed set-ups at the start of the race
  • Elimination of the fictional caution, so often attributed to notable French driver “Jacques Debris”
  • Addition of an extra layer of pit strategy, by deciding to gamble on track position by staying out
  • If all else fails, the foreseeable caution helps fans to time their concession or bathroom break, as well as an opportunity for the younger set to catch up on social media

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The restarts could be very interesting, if not very calculated.

One thing is unquestionable. There will be big drama on restarts. Daniel Hemric, driver of the No. 19 Ford F-150 for Brad Keselowski Racing in 2016, predicts a ramp-up in tension and thrills, noting “As a driver, you look forward to restarts. Over the years, restarts have been the common ground where you have an opportunity to make gains. I think it’s going to be exciting for the fans and definitely add another thing to make the crew chiefs lose sleep at night.”

However, the big danger is that fans will now deem race outcomes as artificial or manipulated; the arbitrary nature of this Caution Clock disrupts the competitive soul of racing. Instead of the best racer with the fastest truck heading to victory lane, he or she may be left spinning on the infield like a roulette wheel game of chance, after getting dumped on a restart by an overly aggressive competitor.

I strained to rack my brain for another sport that does something similar, and it is hard to find an analog. This mandatory Caution Clock reset would be like the MLB Yankees having an 8-0 lead in the 8th inning against the hapless Phillies, but having their lead reset to 1-0 entering the ninth inning. Perhaps tennis is similar, as Serena Williams can win the first set of the Australian Open 6-0 in games, and that only collects her a 1-0 lead in sets (with the best of 3 sets necessary to close out the match).

Steve O’Donnell must be taking a lot of flak in Twitterverse right now, but he seems to wear it well. Whatever NASCAR pays him to lead this effort is probably not enough. Last week, he tweeted out, “Busy day-appreciate all the feedback-if you are not on board with change, that’s “ok” but ask that you give it a chance and let it play out.”  https://twitter.com/odsteve/status/689600660749168641

In that, O’Donnell is spot on. Fans will surely voice their opinion over the course of the season, and NASCAR will be eavesdropping. O’Donnell’s peculiar countdown clock may be novelty, or it may be a trial balloon, that NASCAR eventually migrates up the food chain to the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series. At least if it flops, fans will overlook it like the halftime stoppage that the CWTS races used briefly during the decade of the 90’s.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: No Excuses For Carl Edwards in 2016

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

At the onset of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Carl Edwards made a dramatic career move after ten full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing to join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) as driver of #19 Toyota Camry in an expanded four car team stable.

Even more striking was Edwards’ brash prediction at the time of the change, as he stepped out (or up, depending on your viewpoint) and made a proclamation that caught everyone’s attention, declaring “I plan on winning ten races and the championship.”

Perhaps Edwards was tempted by the inaugural success that his former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth achieved in 2013 by transferring to JGR, going on to win seven races and finish second in the Sprint Cup Championship in his debut.

Or perhaps Edwards was eager to emulate the domination that Kevin Harvick achieved during 2014 in his initial year with Stewart-Haas Racing by winning the Sprint Cup Championship.

Things don’t always play out as planned, however. In 2015 at JGR, Edwards had a solid season with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 15 top 10’s. Yet, JGR teammate Kyle Busch went on to win the Sprint Cup Championship. Moreover, comparing 2015 with his last season at Roush, Edwards’ 2014 results were virtually identical with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 14 top 10’s.

Edwards has shown that he can “walk the talk” based on past performance. From a career standpoint, he already has an XFINITY Series Championship, and he is probably one of the best wheelmen who has not yet won a Sprint Cup Championship.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we'll see 'Cousin Carl' in a better place.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we’ll see ‘Cousin Carl’ in a better place.

Edwards has finished second twice in the Championship battle during his eleven year career. In 2008, he fell just short to six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, perhaps letting the pressure get to him in the Chase, given Edwards lost the points lead near the end of the season despite collecting nine race victories. In 2011, he was back in the championship mix through the season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he lost in a tiebreaker to three-time champion Tony Stewart.

So, by Carl Edwards’ noble expectations, 2015 might be considered a lackluster debut with JGR. As a result, JGR shuffled two of their Sprint Cup team crew chiefs with Dave Rogers moving from Denny Hamlin’s #11 Toyota to the #19 Toyota of Carl Edwards, and Mike Wheeler becoming Hamlin’s crew chief, having spent a year as crew chief of JGR’s #20 XFINITY Series ride.

No surprise, as neither Denny Hamlin nor Carl Edwards attained the 2015 Championship title that they covet, given their taste of having finishing second in the Chase in previous years. For JGR to make these leadership changes, both Edwards and Hamlin must be convinced that these new crew chief relationships will give them a higher likelihood of securing the title in 2016. 

Something must not have clicked with Edwards’ former crew chief Darian Grubb, as he is the odd man out left to “explore other opportunities”. No doubt the 2015 season did not start the way Edwards and Grubb envisioned, as the #19 team only recorded one top-10 finish through the first eleven races; as well, for a majority of the regular season, Edwards’ team sat outside of the top 15 in the Championship standings.

What is most curious is that “Cousin Carl” has been fairly mum on the crew chief change, deferring to the deep bench strength that JGR possesses in both their Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series programs, along with trusting that Joe Gibbs is best positioned to undertake the proper leadership actions.

But “chemistry” is the most popular word used to describe the relationship between driver and crew chief when performance is there. As Jimmie Johnson has supremely stated, chemistry is the intersection where the magic happens and bonding occurs between driver and crew chief. When there is perceived room for improvement in team chemistry, crew chief changes will occur.

And make no mistake, any Sprint Cup championship caliber driver will have substantial input into any crew chief decision. So, “Cousin Carl” surely conferred and concurred with the crew chief swap. Edwards is a charming pitchman for his sponsors and always strives to be likeable. Fans savor Edwards’ victory celebrations that include his signature backflip and plunges into the grandstands to mingle with fans.

So, regardless of his low profile behavior in the crew chief situation, Edwards surely interviewed Rogers prior to the change to assess what he could bring to the #19 program and make sure they were on the same page.

From Edwards’ perspective, he must be convinced that this change in team leadership will spur the #19 team to great things in 2016.

As a confidence boost, NASCAR heads into 2016 with new low downforce aero rules, and Edwards has been an enthusiastic proponent of this rules package. In 2015, Edwards won the Southern 500 at Darlington, where the new package was being tested. He even lobbied to have the low downforce package adopted early for the 2015 Chase playoff, but NASCAR did not wish to change its rules mid-season.

Edwards’ patience is wearing thin, having previously remarked that he is eleven years into his career having yet to win the Sprint Cup title. At JGR, Edwards believes he is learning how to take advantage of the vast JGR resources. Now, if he can hit on the new downforce rules and forge a tight bond with his new crew chief, Edwards just might finally pocket that Sprint Cup title in 2016.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

IndyCar and NASCAR: Don’t Tamper With Motorsport Traditions

Bristol: “The Last Great Colosseum”

Bristol: “The Last Great Colosseum”

The Holiday season is a wonderful time for celebration and reflection, and traditions are the magical slice of our culture that sustain our most important memories, restore our faith in values, and reconnect our paths with those closest to us.

Looking towards the 2016 NASCAR and IndyCar racing season, I pondered the most memorable 2015 track lessons on how tampering with our Motorsport traditions can alter the foundation of a race track’s folklore and jeopardize its viability, or ensure its future success.

IndyCar’s Vortex in Southern California

As a study in contrast, consider the ocean breezes and desert gusts that the Verizon IndyCar series has experienced in Southern California.

As a cornerstone of the Verizon IndyCar series, The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, running 41 years strong, consists of a pilgrimage of 175,000 fans to downtown Long Beach for this annual seaside festival. Each year, I engage with thoroughly satisfied fans from all over the US, as well as internationally, who often vow to return the following year.

Considered the city’s biggest event, the Long Beach Grand Prix showcases races from multiple series, including the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race for charity and the IndyCar series race. This event is intricately connected to the beach scene of SoCal. Tradition is evident everywhere, yet freshened around the edges with new twists, such as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks being added as a supporting event in 2015. Basically, this race showcases great racing in a fun environment for spectators of all ages.

Yet, as an epic Motorsports failure lacking tradition, we only need to look to Fontana, an hour drive east of Long Beach. For 2016, the Auto Club (California) Speedway will not be on the Verizon IndyCar series schedule, after having hosted 14 IndyCar races since its opening in 1997.

Moving Darlington from Labor Day was 'The Big Mistake".

Moving Darlington from Labor Day was ‘The Big Mistake”.

On paper, Auto Club Speedway should be a stellar track for IndyCar with low banking and long straightaways. Open-wheel cars have set a pair of world records (including fastest qualifying lap by Gil de Ferran at 241.248 mph and fastest average race speed by Sam Hornish Jr. at 207.151 mph) at the two-mile superspeedway.

This year’s Fontana race was one of the best in memory, with 81 lead changes among 14 drivers, along with Graham Rahal winning the hotly contested race in a shootout finish.

Yet, the Fontana IndyCar race failed to establish any sense of tradition, a direct result of the date having been bounced around for four consecutive years. IndyCar offered up no favors, moving the race to August in 2014 and June in 2015, arguably the hottest times of the year in the valley east of Los Angeles. The June race was assuredly the smallest crowd ever in IndyCar’s history at the track.

IndyCar explored several alternatives to retain the Auto Club event as part of its 2016 schedule, including the track’s request to host the season finale. However, the race had lost its identity among the crowded SoCal entertainment scene.

Consequently, the Auto Club Speedway’s solitary major series in 2016 will now be the NASCAR weekend in March. NASCAR, having fine-tuned it schedule with a west coast swing during the more ambient March time frame, has generated three consecutive Auto Club Speedway sell-outs amid a consistent positioning in the series rotation.

Darlington Resurrection

The lesson is not just relevant to IndyCar. NASCAR also has experienced the trauma of messing with traditions, as evidenced by two unforgettable examples.

In 2003, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina was moved from the mainstay Labor Day weekend it had embraced since 1950. For the diehard NASCAR nation, the Southern 500, which had served as a dynamic link to the sport’s rough and hard-hitting early years, virtually died that day. Instead, the Labor Day date was transferred to the Auto Club Speedway, which couldn’t be further from the sport’s southern roots.

After 12 dismal years shifting around the date, the Southern 500 finally returned to Labor Day weekend in 2015, with a retro motif that included 32 race teams running throwback paint schemes, an in-person celebration of 14 NASCAR Hall of Fame legends, and many other classic touches (such as a pre-race concert by Grand Funk Railroad), delighting fans of all ages who were buzzing about the event.

No surprise, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback theme returns in 2016. Chimes track President Chip Wile, “Labor Day weekend has great historical significance for Darlington Raceway. It fits nicely with our Tradition Continues platform as we enter year two of this successful multi-year celebration of the history and heritage of our sport.”

It’s Bristol, Baby

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1961, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee holds exceptional lore on the NASCAR schedule because of its distinctive features, including extraordinarily steep banking, an all concrete race surface, and stadium-like seating (affectionately described as “The Last Great Colosseum”).

Back in 2007, Bruton Smith (longtime founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Bristol Motor Speedway), always willing to experiment in a bold way, chose to repave the track by creating progressive banking so that the one-groove race line could be expanded to allow for more side-by-side racing. However, fans, historically drawn to Bristol by its unique short-track tightness of the circuit and continuous contact between cars, stepped away in droves.

After a steady decline in fan turnout and a drop in ratings due to the lack of bumping and close-quarters racing, Smith polled the fans in 2012 on what changes should be made to the track. Fans spoke loud and clear with a demand to “give us the old Bristol back, please”, which led to a diamond regrinding of the track surface.

In the August 2015 night race, Bristol showcased a noticeably improved fan turnout and a nail-biting finish, with Joey Logano’s victory margin of .22 seconds barely holding up, as Kevin Harvick pursued Logano relentlessly over the final 30 laps.

Now on the upswing, the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway has pivoted its formula in order to restore tradition to a race that had lost its luster, by listening to the fans and taking action, exemplifying why Bruton Smith will be enshrined as a 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee on January 22nd.

So heading into 2016, raise your glass and toast your most essential motorsports tradition, whether it is Monaco, Martinsville, or Indianapolis. And remember, tradition is like good health, never to be taken for granted, so get out there and catch a race in 2016.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson Looks to 2016 Breakout Year

2015 wasn't the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.

2015 wasn’t the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.

Celebrated as the 2014 NASCAR Sunoco Rookie of the Year and poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Kyle Larson was expected to be the sports next protégé, with many expecting him to capture his first NASCAR Cup win during his 2015 sophomore season.

So lofty were the 2015 expectations for Larson as driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS that Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR), “guaranteed” that both of his team’s two drivers would make the Chase in 2015.

“I’ve never guaranteed anybody anything in all the years I’ve been in racing, but I guarantee both of these guys will be in the Chase,” Sabates declared.

Well, only one driver did, and so the hammer fell at the #42 team with a crew chief change, as Chris Heroy departed CGR for a crew chief job at Richard Petty Motorsports with the newly reconstituted #9 Ford ride with driver Brian Scott.

Instead, the crew chief gambit of musical chairs during the NASCAR off season continued with Chad Johnston, formerly Tony Stewart’s crew chief, being named as the new CGR crew chief for Larson and the #42 Target team.

Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.

Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.

The tale of the tape was evident in comparing Larson on-track performance between 2014 and 2015:

  • In 2014, Larson had eight top 5’s and seventeen top 10’s, displaying remarkable prowess and improvement over the season
  • In 2015, Larson was a picture of inconsistency with only two top 5’s and ten top 10’s. Moreover, what really stands out in 2015 is the differential between qualifying (a season average starting position of 13th), compared to a disappointing average finish of 19th. No doubt that the Target Ganassi Racing team failed to improve the car during the course of the race
  • More revealing, for the 35 races that Larson competed in during 2015, he finished shabbier on 23 of those tracks as compared to 2014. That is a stunner, given that Larson was returning to these tracks for a second or third time after his rookie year

Reflects Larson, “As much as I’m going to miss (Heroy), I support it. You have to make some kind of change, I guess, if you haven’t won…I think a change has to come.”

Whether owing to not keeping up with the track or executing poorly on pit stops, the crew chief ends up being held accountable for such weak results. And a well-known sponsor like Target is looking for a sizeable marketing payoff on their partnership with Larson, in which they often double down sponsorship on combo weekends when Larson races in both the XFINITY Series and Cup events.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent, and Johnston is eager to get to work with him and build a foundation of success. Often, Larson seems to be the initial driver to hit upon the high line and showcase the fastest way around the track during race weekend. However, running nearest to the wall is also the easiest way to put the car into the fence on one’s own. As head coach, ideally Johnston can find the right balance by ensuring that Larson takes care of his equipment over the course of the race and not make novice slipups that seemed more evident during 2015.

Nonetheless, the NASCAR Cup Series is a highly pressurized environment where crew chiefs must cope with the persistent mindset of “What have you done for me lately?

For 2016, it’s the right time for Larson to deliver on the grand expectations of both fans and his sponsors. Larson already has three career wins in the XFINITY Series. During the last laps of the 2015 Homestead-Miami Sprint Cup finale, Larson was in contention for the win until a late race caution relegated him to a 5th place finish. For 2016, snatching his first Sprint Cup victory would be an enormous confidence shot in the arm for both Larson and Johnston.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR Pursuit of 2017 Title Sponsor To Ring In New Year

Jimmie Johnson has proven great value to the Lowes brands.

Jimmie Johnson has proven great value to the Lowes brands.

Impossible to ignore, NASCAR has continually tinkered with every aspect of the product over the last several years, using the sport as a real-time innovation laboratory. With an eye toward enhancing competition, improving safety, reducing costs, and increasing product relevance, NASCAR has enacted countless changes, including the upcoming 2016 low-downforce aero package and the digital dashboard to bring fans more directly into the cockpit experience.

As fans, we’ve found enlightenment in the modern-day Chase playoff, the PRO camera officiating technology that offers expanded content for followers to consume, the ultimate Trackside Souvenir Superstore now managed by Fanatics, and the Drive for Diversity development program to attract minority and female athletes to the sport, just to name a few prominent NASCAR-backed initiatives.

Change has become an imperative. Your entertainment choices are everywhere, and audiences are fragmenting as the avenues for content consumption expand. Pandora, SiriusXM, NetFlix, Amazon PrimeVideo, Hulu, and a growing array of traditional television channels (HGTV, anyone?). All prime-time sports are competing for eyeballs, and standing still on your laurels is no longer acceptable.

Yet through all the noise, NASCAR remains a compelling sports platform for investment with broad appeal to reach a dedicated mainstream audience. Right now, NASCAR’s experiments are yielding some early payoffs, showcased by the ability of fans to directly connect with drivers (both virtual and real) at the just-concluded NASCAR’s Champions Weeks in Las Vegas, where many events were sold out and available via simulcast.

Sprints sponsorship of NASCAR's Cup Series ends after the 2016 season.

Sprints sponsorship of NASCAR’s Cup Series ends after the 2016 season.

During its Vegas entourage, NASCAR publicized that a record number of fans consumed NASCAR through digital and social media during the 2015 season. NASCAR amassed 4.1 billion (that billions with a “B”) social media impressions, 1.1 billion page views (up more than 20 percent from 2014), and a 34 percent annual increase in its mobile audience. In addition, driver merchandise sales at tracks increased more than 20 percent since the Fanatics Trackside Superstore launched in July.

Perhaps that staggering television package for NASCAR broadcast rights, the jaw-dropping $8.2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC and Fox, is not such a bad investment by those two networks after all.

Brands are much more than just sponsors in NASCAR. They become partners. Often, the brand becomes the mascot of the team (Smithfield’s Fueled by Bacon campaign, anyone?). That can be a lot of page views and media impressions for companies savvy enough to invest wisely in winning teams.

Take Lowe’s Companies, the home improvement chain of almost 1,800 stores, which announced in September that it had extended its current 15-year relationship with Hendricks Motorsports through the end of 2017, to run concurrently alongside the contract extension of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as driver of the #48 Chevrolet.

So should we really be surprised that Lowe’s would renew with Jimmie Johnson? This is a driver who is currently 8th on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup win tally, on a quest to win seven championships, placing him alongside two of the sport’s largest icons in Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

If Johnson were to achieve that pinnacle, the value for Lowe’s would live on indefinitely, even after Johnson retires from racing. Imagine the value for an iconic Corporate brand that is able to write themselves alongside Johnson into the history books. Certainly, Lowe’s already has a compelling long-term investment with Johnson and is “In It to Win It”.

Accordingly, the second half of 2015 provided a decent bounty of partner renewals and new commitments; the most notable including:

  • M&Ms’ partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing and 2016 Sprint Cup Champion Kyle Busch was extended to a tenth season, with a three year contract renewal.
  • Quicken Loans teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) driver Kasey Kahne as a primary sponsor for three races, and as an associate sponsor for the remainder. Moreover, Farmers Insurance already committed to keep sponsoring Kahne for an additional three years.
  • Monster Energy will step up to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Kurt Busch.
  • Kroger Company’s renewal of its relationship for multiple years with JTG Daugherty Racing, thereby affording the team the ability to extend driver AJ Allmendinger’s contract through 2020.
  • Nature’s Bakery joined SHR to become the primary multi-year sponsor of driver Danica Patrick.
  • NAPA AUTO PARTS stepping up as the majority sponsor of HMS rookie driver Chase Elliott and his #24 Chevrolet team through 2018.

Will the streaming services become part of NASCAR's future?

Will the streaming services become part of NASCAR’s future?

Accelerating rekindled interest in NASCAR sponsorship is the tighter glue that connects fans with drivers on digital platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and streaming apps such as NBC Live Extra and Fox Sports Go.

Social media extends the brands of these driver celebrities and their sponsors, as fans can scratch their innate curiosity regarding their heroes’ hobbies, families, and personal interests beyond the sport.

Collaboration between NASCAR, team owners, drivers, and the broadcast partners is helping ensure that the sport and its stakeholders are generally rowing in the same direction, allowing the teams to better serve sponsors and do a better job of marketing the entire sport.

These fundamental changes and ability to leverage social media may just be the magic elixir in NASCAR’s search for a new title sponsor for its premier Cup series.

“If you haven’t been around NASCAR in the last two or three years, you really haven’t been around NASCAR,” proclaims Brent Dewar, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. “It’s really allowing us an opportunity to talk to a wide group, whether it’s blue-chip domestic companies, to internationals, to regional companies – and we have a great story to tell. We hope to find a partner that will deliver equally the strength that we’ve gotten from Sprint.”

Let’s see what NASCAR can continue to ring in for the New Year, as the lifeblood of American motorsports is depending on NASCAR to forge a path forward for other road-racing series to follow.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR: 2015 Is Done, Is 2016 The Year For NASCAR Excellence?

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup season is over and done. Did it rise to level of excellence, no. Did it rise to level of acceptance, yes. The television ratings were down again, but not in a dramatic way, the hemorrhaging has stopped and it’s down to a trickle. That’s actually progress.

2016 will start without Jeff Gordon who gave us the modern era of top notch drivers and competition. That’s a shame, but that’s progress. We move on.

What will 2016 look like given the path laid out for the competitors to win a championship? The first thing that comes to mind is that the teams will become more savvy with how to run their in-season strategy coupled with a flow through plan for getting through each level to the final race.

The Low Down-Force cars should be a learning and driving experience for the competitors as it will more clearly define who are the real wheelmen. It may give those on lesser teams a greater chance to show their skill as aero won’t be a crutch that the teams can lean on.

Don’t get me wrong, every team will take the low down-force cars and try to wring every bit of aero out of them that they can, not to mention the mechanical grip and integration of all of these into a cohesive chassis.

Don't be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

Don’t be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

We shouldn’t expect a miraculous change in the drivers we know are highly skilled such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson. Kurt Busch and many others. They are what they are, great drivers and inveterate competitors.

As for the Chase format, it’s time to quit worrying that it seems false, it isn’t. It belongs to NASCAR, they make the rules and you can either play by them or go elsewhere. It’s up to the teams to decide if they want to compete.

I see it as no different than the NFL. The very best team doesn’t always get to the Super Bowl.

We have to realize that in the grand scheme of the sport we call auro racing, NASCAR is still the 800 lb, gorilla in the United States and will remain so for the foreseeable future. IndyCar has raised it’s game, to be sure, but it isn’t going regain the luster it once had.

NASCAR will still be America’s choice for motorsports and 2016 seems to great promise in it’s ability to deliver a very competitive and exciting product.

We may be past the days of 100,00 people in the stands, but that’s a sign of the times. People want their leisure activity on-demand and they have many choices. NASCAR will have to continue it’s digital battle to capture new fans and retain the ones they currently enjoy.

Expect to see the usual suspects fighting it out, but expect to see a more entertaining battle.

Lewis Hamilton: NASCAR Dream Is A Compelling Fantasy

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale'.

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale’.

Even for the avid fans that only track with NASCAR, Lewis Hamilton is a recognized star. At the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Race that concluded the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamilton made a cameo drop-in with cameras shadowing him throughout the garage.

Having already sewn-up his third Formula One World Championship, Lewis Hamilton prepared for the final race of the F1 season in Abu Dhabi race by spending the off-weekend stateside in Miami in order to support Jeff Gordon’s quest for a fifth NASCAR Championship, which fell short in his final career race.

Most notably at Homestead, Hamilton signaled his aspirations to perhaps follow in Gordon’s footsteps someday when he stated, “It was a really cool event; I hope I get to do one (race) one day.” According to Gordon, Hamilton was filled with questions about NASCAR.

For Hamilton, he would surely have to get past the little matter of a pay cut, which he probably could afford given his career earnings already. Reportedly, the 30-year-old Hamilton earns approximately $42 million dollars per year under his just renewed three-year deal with Mercedes AMG Petronas, which is multiples higher than a NASCAR star typically makes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

However, Hamilton has continued to drop suggestive nuggets. Earlier in August, London’s Daily Mirror also reported that Hamilton hinted that he wouldn’t rule out eventually trying his hand at NASCAR in an actual event.

Moreover, in a June 2011 Mobil 1 promotional event, Hamilton got a little sampler of NASCAR when he swapped rides with three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart for a day at Watkins Glen International.

Hamilton jumped behind the wheel of a NASCAR stocker weighing more than two times as much as his F1 car. Hamilton fondly recalls that “Tony was an excellent teacher and I quickly found a good rhythm. Those cars are raw and powerful! They are fantastic fun to drive.”

At the same time, Hamilton might even enjoy escaping the politics of the pre-determined team marching orders that seem more obvious among F1 teams than within NASCAR mega-teams.

This prototype for an F1 driver transition has already been tested. Back in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya (at the time, F1 driver for Williams BMW) and Jeff Gordon traded places, taking turns driving speed demonstration laps around the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as another Mobil 1 promotion in advance of the Brickyard 400.

Fast forward three years later to 2006, and Juan Pablo Montoya left F1 for a NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in a relationship that spanned eight seasons. Alas, Montoya had a mostly up-and-down NASCAR career, and was not able to capitalize on early breakthroughs such as his win at Sonoma in 2007.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

NASCAR certainly wants to be taken serious on the international stage. Illustratively, this week Toyota is pulling out all the stops in celebrating its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship earned by Kyle Busch, with Toyota Racing’s President and General Manager David Wilson calling it “Toyota’s singular greatest achievement in motorsports.”

And Hamilton is undoubtedly a global celebrity, as well as an avid fan of American culture. Hamilton would have no trouble finding a sponsor to back a one-off NASCAR ride given the longer duration of the NASCAR season, or even a complete changeover should he decide he has accomplished everything he has sought in F1.

Yet some NASCAR narrow-minded loyalists have already taken to social media to critique such a possibility. The challenges fall into two buckets: Either Hamilton would not have success in NASCAR (pointing at other open wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, or the brief NASCAR truck tenure of Kimi Raikkonen during his F1 sabbatical); or that Hamilton would not culturally “fit”, because his has too much bling, too much attitude, and too much reliance on F1’s superior technology.

However, all sports are competing for eyeballs and the almighty entertainment dollar. And entertainment is nothing more than a business that requires investment and return. Having an F1 champion, worldwide superstar, and dynamic celebrity take his shot at NASCAR can only serve to expand the pie and draw more eyeballs to the sport, if only for the curiosity factor. Occasionally, NASCAR fans complain that certain drivers are “too vanilla.” While I don’t agree with such assessments, there can be no doubt that a star like Hamilton trying his hand at NASCAR certainly wouldn’t be vanilla.

And the cross-pollination and racing exchange would only broaden motorsports’ overall exposure, while breaking down the parochial stereotypes surrounding NASCAR as a sport full of “moonshiners”.

Hamilton to NASCAR? My retort is: “Now that would be some quintessential racing, so boys, have at it!”

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

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