NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Columns
Fifth Place
Greg Engle, Examiner.com

Has NASCAR Lost Its Soul?

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that NASCAR was the new kid on the block, a southern sport looking to gain a foothold on a national stage. Unless a person was in attendance, the only glimpse the outside world had of NASCAR was an occasional segment on ABC and later of course live coverage of the Daytona 500.

As the transformation began from a regional oddity to a national phenomenon NASCAR still had wisps of its past; men who were called King, Fireball, Shorty, Tiny and Buck. They raced with towels in their mouth, cheated the rules to find another mile per hour. They threw each other in the hotel pool after a drunken celebration, cussed like sailors, and occasionally died doing their chosen profession.

They were grateful for the fans, humble to those who wrote the checks and ready to trade fists with the driver who crashed them out of the race. The sport was overseen by men larger than life, ‘Big’ Bill, ‘Cannonball’ Baker and ‘Barky’ Barkhimer. The men who first officiated the sport weren’t afraid to lay down the law, keep drivers from racing if they felt that was the right thing to do for the sport. Drivers trembled in their presence.

All those who made the sport of NASCAR had one common thread; it was all they’d really ever known. Stock car racing was ingrained into their souls, it was all their life.

One of first NASCAR executives I met told me once that “We are really just lucky NASCAR fans. We love this sport and are fortune enough to make our living in it.”

Jim Hunter died in October of 2010 and with him maybe the soul of NASCAR began to die as well.

The growth NASCAR has seen, especially over the last decade, is certainly more than ‘Big’ Bill France could have ever imagined. It’s the most watched sport in America and the darling of corporate America. During this period however, profound changes have been evident. Other than ‘Rowdy’ and ‘Junior’ drivers are only known by their first and last names. All encamp in the infield in million dollar motor homes fortressed and guarded like royalty.

Every driver has a prepared and sanitized repertoire, practiced and sound-bite perfect. Their private lives are as guarded as the gold in Fort Knox and woe be to the driver that says something unbecoming of NASCAR via social media or steps too far out of line; the fines from NASCAR they are aplenty and the retribution swift.

NASCAR has recently announced additions to what is now known as the Integrated Marketing Communication’s office. The IMC was once the place that put out press releases and arranged media opportunities and helped match drivers and sponsors among other things. Now however the IMC has ‘units’, such as Partnership Marketing/Business Solutions and Corporate/ Multimedia Marketing.

Don’t forget Licensing and Automotive; Broadcasting, Digital Media, Entertainment Marketing and Productions; Brand, Consumer and Series Marketing; Green Innovation and Multicultural Affairs, and NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program. There are offices all over the US Latin America and Europe.
The additions to these units both to oversee them and staff them have enough college degrees to start their own Ivy League city. There are now more managers, directors, senior managers and the like than there are drivers on the track. All have extensive experience in matters corporate and consumer; brand building for PepsiCo and Starbucks, a manager for entertainment media outreach for global brands such as Crest and Nike. All have impressive education credentials and resumes, but where is the soul? How many know who Richard Petty was and who Jeff Gordon is?

What NASCAR seems to be doing is building an inflated bureaucracy filled with people who know very little about the actual sport they work in. Sure they can learn it, but have any ever lived it?

NASCAR recently, and proudly, announced that more Fortune 500 companies are involved in NASCAR than in 2008, according to a recent review of brands currently using the sport to drive business. That’s great for the Fortune 500 companies and those who run NASCAR, but will that lower ticket prices for the fan in Tennessee who can’t afford to buy a seat at a track much less pay an overinflated price for a hotel room? Will it help get rid of cookie cutter tracks that could be taken from one venue to the other each week and plopped down, providing very little in the way of real racing? While weeds continue to grow through the pavement at North Wilkesboro, Kansas, another cookie from the pan, gets a second date after adding a casino. There are no more Darlingtons, Bristols, or Indianapolis Raceway Parks, and it doesn’t look like there ever will be.

Last week NASCAR introduced a line of vintage stock car racing clothing. But there needs to be more than a line of clothing; there needs to be less talk about demographic profiles, corporate branding, Fortune 500 companies and the like and more about what made this sport great in the first place.

NASCAR needs to throw someone in the pool every once in awhile, leave the tie in the office and sit in the stands for a race, camp out for a weekend in the infield. Fans that have been there all along and have tried to stay loyal despite the myriad of changes and economic challenges they faced in the last decade need NASCAR’s attention, not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in a corporate suite.

NASCAR has to continue forward, but in doing so it can never forget what it was it came from, it can never lose its soul or forget the people that helped bring it to where it is today.