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The Way It Is/ Johnson's first title and NASCAR's brave new world

by Gordon Kirby
In the end, the right man won this year's NASCAR Nextel Cup championship. Jimmie Johnson was the man to beat most of the year, starting with his victory in the season-opening Daytona 500. He followed that up by finishing second at the California Speedway the next weekend, then won again in Las Vegas two weeks later. Johnson also won at Talladega and the Charlotte All-Star race in May, at Indianapolis in August and Martinsville in October, and finished the year with a flourish scoring one win and four seconds in the last six races.

Johnson, 31, has been the most competitive Cup driver in recent years with twenty-three wins over the last five seasons, seventeen of these victories coming in the last three years. Johnson was runner-up to Matt Kenseth in NASCAR's ‘03 championship, finished second again to Kurt Busch in ‘04, and was fifth in points last year. The former California off-road racer thoroughly deserved his first title this year as Kenseth was the only driver to offer Johnson a yearlong challenge. But when it counted over the final ten races of the Chase for the Cup, Kenseth failed to come through while Johnson was a strong player in almost every race.

Johnson broke into the Cup series in 2001, joining Rick Hendrick's team with the support of Jeff Gordon who has been a co-owner of Johnson's car since his start with Hendrick. Gordon has groomed Johnson to take over as Hendrick's team leader when he retires and Johnson isn't popular with many fans who seem to view him as a Gordon clone, a bit of a technocrat who's too confident in his abilities for some tastes. Those who know Johnson well however have nothing but good things to say about him and with Hendrick and Gordon squarely behind him, Johnson has arrived as one of NASCAR's top drivers and will continue in that role for many years to come.

And of course, Juan Montoya made his Cup debut at Homestead. Montoya qualified twenty-ninth and ran a good race, getting a lost lap back in the middle of the race thanks to NASCAR's ‘lucky dog' rule. But with about twenty laps to go Montoya was wrecked by a disgruntled Ryan Newman who had spun out while racing with Montoya a little earlier. Montoya's car hit the wall hard, bursting into flames as it slithered to a stop, but Juan clambered out, unhurt.

© Nigel Kinrade/Autostock
"I think the #12 tapped me in the back," Montoya said. "I'm not sure which car tapped me but I doesn't matter. The car worked really well today. Everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing did an awesome job for me and we've proved we can run up there. It's going to be hard. Like I said to the guys when I signed with Chip, we're here to do the business but it's not going to be easy. There are great drivers out there and it was awesome racing. I think I've been getting better and better, race by race. It's great. I've just got to keep getting more experience."

Meanwhile, USA Today documented in a front page story last week that NASCAR's record of steady growth stopped this year with race attendances and TV ratings falling for the first time in fifteen years. The newspaper reported that fewer than half this year's Cup races were sell-outs, including both California Speedway events and the IMS's Brickyard 400. Daytona 500 aside, TV ratings were down this year by almost ten percent for most races.

The ratings declines were the sharpest in September, October and November, indicating that The Chase for the Cup hasn't caught the imagination of anyone outside the core market, nor provided a hoped-for answer to the drain on NASCAR's viewership with the arrival of football season. All tracks with Chase races and another race earlier in the regular season drew smaller audiences for their Chase events.

Urban viewership of NASCAR is also down, pulling an average of only 1.8 percent of the market in New York and Los Angeles. Despite two Cup races each year at the California Speedway, the TV audience in LA has dwindled in recent years. In fact, all of the nation's four biggest TV markets--New York, LA, Chicago and Philadelphia--have witnessed declines in NASCAR viewership and rank near the bottom of NASCAR's rating of individual markets.

What's it all about? Many people say the races are too long and that there are too many of them as well. Of course, it's been a long-standing joke about watching the start and finish of your typical Cup race and going out to go shopping, play a game of golf, mow the lawn, or read a book during the race's middle stages. But NASCAR also has the longest season by far in all of sport, running from February through November, and I have no doubt there are too many races for the broader market to bear and that most are too long as well.

There was a time when 500-mile races were special, but now they're the norm. However, any talk about cutting the number or length of races is a waste of time. It won't happen simply because there are too many tracks wanting races and the longer the better as far as advertising revenue and potential on-air sponsor exposure.

But the message is clear. NASCAR's upmarket push has hit a wall and its core rural, blue collar market remains the key to its continued success. The fact is NASCAR is the only remaining all-American, almost exclusively white sport in America today. All other sports--baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, even golf--have become multiethnic while NASCAR remains an almost exclusively white, all-American preserve. There are some foreigners among the engineers and managers, and a few blacks and an increasing number of Hispanics working on teams and driving at the lower levels. But as we often joke, even Canadians are a non-entity in NASCAR!

In fact, the only foreigner ever to win a Cup level NASCAR race was Canadian Earl Ross who was rookie-of-the-year back in 1974 and won a race at Martinsville that year. And of course, there is ‘road racing specialist' Ron Fellows, also from Canada, who regularly races at Watkins Glen and finished second at the Glen this year. Those few faces from the great white north aside, the stars of NASCAR have always been true sons of America and so too is the ever faithful, largely rural, blue collar fan base.

But this very large, very faithful group has been offended and in some cases driven away in recent years by rising ticket and merchandise prices and a general perception that NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation don't care about them and are only out to gouge them for all they can. NASCAR's gamble as it has tried to broaden its market and attract a more diverse mixture of drivers and competitors is that its core fan base will stay with it because so many of them have invested so much of their time and lives in the sport.

Meanwhile, some teams are beginning to complain about runaway costs. Ray Evernham's factory Dodge team is conspicuous for its lack of major commercial sponsorship and Evernham has talked openly about how he needs to find a billionaire partner if he's to stay in business for the long run. Yet Evernham is expected to run four cars in 2007 and more than fifty cars are expected to try to qualify for the forty-two starting places in most of next year's thirty-six Nextel Cup races.

Then there's the Car of Tomorrow which arrives in 2007. A strictly-defined ‘spec' car that's taller and wider then the existing car, the new Nextel Cup car debuts at the half-mile Bristol bullring in March of ‘07 and will be required wear for sixteen races next year on tracks less than 1.5 miles, plus the two road courses and the fall Talladega race. In 2008, the Car of Tomorrow also runs at the superspeedways and 2-mile tracks. In 2009, it will run everywhere.

NASCAR's leaders believe the chunkier Car of Tomorrow will substantially improve safety and also reduce costs, at least for the smaller teams. Most of the teams worry that it will cost a lot of money to scrap their current fleet of cars to build and develop all-new cars. The CoT probably will be ranked as the biggest change in NASCAR's long history, so it will be interesting to see how the new, identity-free spec car works out. Many people believe the CoT will upset the playing field, making it more difficult for the small teams to compete with the eight or ten large, multi-car teams that dominate the sport. Between the CoT and the glut of new and old drivers and teams trying to make the field these days, many people--champion team owner Rick Hendrick included--believe a big shake-out will take place over the next few years with many smaller teams falling by the wayside.

In search of market growth, NASCAR has put a lot of time and effort in recent years into expanding south and north of the border into Mexico and Canada. In 2005, a second-tier Busch race was inaugurated on the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road circuit in Mexico City and late last summer NASCAR announced it had acquired the Canadian stock car organization called CASCAR. The group has been renamed NASCAR Canada and major Canadian retailer the Canadian Tire Corporation has signed on as sponsor of the new NASCAR series. Also, NASCAR has replaced Champ Car as the second event at le circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal with a Busch race set for August, 2007.

Then of course, there's NASCAR's diversity program which has been devised to attract women and drivers of differing ethnic backgrounds into NASCAR. A well-funded diversity division has been created within NASCAR complete with its own vice-president and marketing budget. For some years a number of women and non-white drivers have begun to work their ways up through NASCAR's lower, grass-roots ranks, but thus far none of these aspirants have arrived on a full-time basis in NASCAR's top Nextel Cup division.

Veteran black driver Bill Lester has raced in the truck series and also made one Cup series start this year, but the diversity program was struggling for credibility until, wonder of wonders, Juan Montoya decided he'd had enough of Formula One and announced he was going to join former CART employer Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team in 2007. Montoya's arrival on the scene over the past month and a half has attracted plenty of new international media coverage to NASCAR and brought legitimacy to its diversity program.

The other big change to NASCAR's long-standing character and identity is the arrival of Toyota. After sweeping a path through off-road racing, IMSA, CART and IRL, Toyota entered NASCAR this year, competing first in the truck series and will make its Nextel Cup debut next year. Among others, Toyota has signed up NASCAR veterans Darrell and Michael Waltrip as team owners and Dale Jarrett as one of their drivers. There's no doubt that more and more drivers and teams will switch to Toyota over the next three to five years as the world's most successful and profitable auto manufacturer settles into NASCAR for the longhaul. Will Toyota end up dominating like they have in every other form of American racing they've tackled?

Another area for concern is the second division Busch series. For many years, more and more people have complained that the series has been ‘Buschwhacked' by the first division Cup drivers and teams who use it as a development and testing series. In recent years, the Cup drivers and teams have seriously taken over the Busch series and this year's Busch championship was no contest with Richard Childress's number one Cup driver Kevin Harvick running away with the title for Childress. Clearly, the Busch series has lost its role as the primary stepping-stone to the top level Cup series and is also losing fan interest both at the track and on TV. Nor have any serious solutions been proposed for the Busch series' problems.

Obviously, NASCAR CEO Brian France has a wholly different range of issues to contend with than his father and grandfather before him. In many instances, it won't be easy navigating, but on the other hand any other sanctioning body in the United States--Champ Car, IRL, ALMS, Grand-Am, etc--would kill to have these problems.

Meantime, in its efforts to re-establish itself, Champ Car last week confirmed a new, five-year TV deal with ABC/ESPN. ESPN has a much bigger reach than Speed and should give Champ Car more overall presence than it has on Speed where it's entirely swamped by NASCAR. The other point is that if reunification between Champ Car and IRL isn't possible, at least the country's two rival open-wheel series will be on the same network. Maybe over time, ABC/ESPN will be able to work some positive influence toward achieving the grand chimera of unification.

Hopefully, the move to ABC/ESPN also will result in a much better TV show. In recent years Champ Car's TV shows have looked and sounded bad with many important passes and events missed or covered only in a cursory manner. Compared to NASCAR and Formula One, the presentation and direction of Champ Car's TV show looks fourth-rate and needs to be drastically improved.

But Champ Car is at least generating some news and interest these days, a small sign of progress, and over the longterm NASCAR's brave new world may create some openings or opportunities for Champ Car to take advantage of. Here's hoping!

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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