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Fiscal reality limits what can be done to NASCAR's schedule

Updated on September 26, 2013
The Camping World Truck series brought NASCAR back to the Rock. Can NASCAR find a way to run the Cup cars there too?
The Camping World Truck series brought NASCAR back to the Rock. Can NASCAR find a way to run the Cup cars there too? | Source
ISC, controlled by NASCAR, owns many of the Sprint Cup series tracks
ISC, controlled by NASCAR, owns many of the Sprint Cup series tracks

One of the most common refrains in trying to improve NASCAR is to make a major overhaul of the series schedule. With the season stretching from February through November, the Sprint Cup is already the longest grind in professional sport. Yet subtracting races isn't a realistic option, no matter how much better a 32 race schedule might be overall. And with two major corporations owning virtually all of the current Cup dates, there is precious little room to shift what's already there without provoking either a stockholder's backlash or legal action. So what is NASCAR to do?

Few would argue that NASCAR can or should add any races to its current schedule. As now constituted, the Sprint Cup has 36 points paying races and 2 exhibition events for a total of 38 race weekends- leaving only a 14 weekend off-season for the teams to prepare for the next year's grind. No other sport comes close to the nine months NASCAR spends at the track. The very length makes it difficult for the sport to capture and maintain attention in a crowded American sports marketplace.

But cutting races outright is equally unappealing. NASCAR just signed a series of contracts with NBC and Fox that will pay the series billions of dollars through the end of 2024. Those networks signed on for live content to fill both network broadcasts and their ancillary sports networks. Removing races from the equation would be tantamount to breach of contract, providing either network the opportunity to re-negotiate a lower annual price. With ESPN and TNT both showing little interest in extending their current deals, NASCAR would be unlikely to get the same kind of per-race payment that their new contracts call for if the networks had a do-over.

Hillenburg (right, with long time NASCAR voice Bob Jenkins) revived racing at Rockingham
Hillenburg (right, with long time NASCAR voice Bob Jenkins) revived racing at Rockingham | Source

So NASCAR's schedule isn't going to contract. There are still a number of tracks not currently on the Sprint Cup schedule that are worthy of a date. From the revived Rockingham under Andy Hillenburg to the Iowa Speedway, the Cup series would benefit greatly by adding some variety to their schedule. Far too many current races are held on the cookie-cutter intermediate tracks that produce aero-dependent cars and poor racing. In fact, the only track added to the schedule since 2001 is yet another of the dreaded courses, Kentucky Speedway. At least that track's weathered surface offers hope of something beyond a 200 lap parade. But it's a far cry from the racing to be had at the 7/8ths mile track in Iowa's cornfield.

The problem is that all of those tracks are independently owned. Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway Corp operate the tracks that host 31 of the current 36 series dates (33 of 36 if you consider Dover an ISC track). Both are publicly traded companies who must answer to shareholders on a quarterly basis. They would stand to lose millions of dollars from the removal of a single Cup date. That loss would cost shareholders money both in real terms and in equity value. NASCAR's France family controls ISC at present but a major loss in share value would undoubtedly weaken that control. The company will benefit from the new TV deal but those benefits have already been factored into its current share price.

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The red white and blue SMI logo is a part of numerous Sprint Cup tracks including Bristol and Sonoma
The red white and blue SMI logo is a part of numerous Sprint Cup tracks including Bristol and Sonoma

SMI, operated by Bruton Smith, has long been an uneasy ally of NASCAR. In fact, Smith once ran a competing stock car series before joining the France family in the NASCAR business. He's proven on more than one occasion that he's willing to use whatever means necessary to protect what he's built over the years. That's why the company willingly spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring tracks such as Rockingham that it had no interest in ever running races at. Instead, those purchases were designed to move Sprint Cup dates to other, more profitable tracks in the SMI empire.

So it would take enormous fiscal concessions from NASCAR and/or ISC to make SMI willing walk away from one of their current Cup. Those are exactly the kinds of concessions that ISC's shareholders are unwilling to accept. The only possible solution would involve an end run on ISC from NASCAR directly. As NASCAR itself is privately held, they are in a position to make concessions to SMI on items such as sanctioning fees and TV rights revenue sharing. But when was the last time anyone saw NASCAR leave money on the table?

Of the remaining five race dates, ISC has a major hand in two of them. Dover Motorsports Inc. is another theoretically independent company that doesn't directly impact NASCAR, ISC, or SMI. But a cursory look at its largest shareholders show that DMI is controlled by the same shareholders as ISC. It's highly unlikely they would sit idly by if NASCAR moved to take away either of the two races at Dover- particularly if the race dates went outside of the family to an independent operator such as Rockingham.

Dr. Mattioli's agreement to take a second NASCAR race decades ago is being honored today
Dr. Mattioli's agreement to take a second NASCAR race decades ago is being honored today

So the series is left essentially with three race weekends. Two are at the tricky triangle in the Poconos, where the Mattioli family's track has hosted two NASCAR races a year for decades. They've been ripe for the picking for years but NASCAR has respected the handshake agreement with the late Dr. Mattioli and kept the races intact. The track itself has responded with major capital investments including a repave. With attendance and race quality rising over the past three years, there's little reason beyond availability to pull a date now.

The last remaining weekend is NASCAR's annual trip to the Brickyard at Indianapolis. Despite poor racing, the Brickyard 400 remains one of the more valued stops on the circuit for sponsors, teams, and drivers. The prestige of running at Indy is something NASCAR is loathe to walk away from. No matter how much improved the racing would be, it's hard to sell replacing the historic Brickyard with another track.

The best option may well be to take a page from the NFL's book and examine the possibility of turning meaningless events into ones that count. The NFL currently plays four pre-season and 16 regular season games but the league office has floated the idea of turning two pre-season games and adding them to the regular schedule.

Jimmie Johnson's 2012 All Star win exposed the flaw in NASCAR's plan to make the race more competitive
Jimmie Johnson's 2012 All Star win exposed the flaw in NASCAR's plan to make the race more competitive | Source
NASCAR doesn't need the Sprint Unlimited to have a successful two weeks in Daytona
NASCAR doesn't need the Sprint Unlimited to have a successful two weeks in Daytona | Source

NASCAR could do something similar with one or both of its exhibition events. The Sprint Unlimited, while long a fixture on the schedule as the Bud Shootout, isn't a major draw. Speedweeks in Daytona would run just fine without it and the date of the schedule could be moved to a track not currently on the docket. The Sprint All Star race, while a decent fan draw, has struggled to provide an on-track product appealing to sponsors and television viewers. Why not take that race date and award it to another track in the area (looking at Rockingham in particular) that can offer fans and viewers something different- and do it in a points-paying race?

Time may well prove to be NASCAR's biggest ally in moving away from the intermediate tracks. Many sprung up in the track-building boom of the 90's and will approach their middle age in the decade ahead. Ownership will face the necessity of spending tens of millions of dollars to keep those tracks viable. With sagging attendance and ratings, will the investment seem worthwhile? Or will SMI and ISC choose to “partner” with other tracks instead? It's already happened in Nashville, where the track opened in 2001 is already forgotten by NASCAR. Could tracks such as Chicago and Fontana follow suit? The dollars and sense that make up NASCAR's current fiscal reality will ultimately tell the tale.

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Should NASCAR turn its exhibition events into points-paying races?

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      6 years ago

      Nobody is thinking of the cost of the tracks. If Nascar did not run 2 races and most of their track they would not be racing in 1st class facility's. The cost to up keep the tracks won't go down and they will have less money to keep them up. The local government won't want to put money up for infrastructure to get fans in and out track. What shareholder in their right mind would vote to spend millions on a track and never see a return on their money.

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      6 years ago

      In order to make room for more diverse tracks on the schedule, nascar needs to limit all tracks to one race per season. If every track had one date, that's allows for 13 other tracks to be added to the schedule (if my math is correct) Going to Kansas, Pocono, Texas etc for a 2nd high speed parade each season, does not get fans excited about the sport.

      I still think Nascar has bigger things to worry about. I don't think we have seen the last of the sponsorship fallout from Richmondgate yet.

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      6 years ago

      Bill from Ga. hit on quite a few valid points re Nascar. So I wont bother with them again. However there are a couple of more that need to be addressed.

      First, you have to question Nascar's, or perhaps more accurately stock car racing as its currently seen, relevance in modern sport. Yes, it still draws big numbers, and hundreds of millions of dollars. However, is the passion still there? In its dwindling numbers of long term fans probably so. In young people almost certainly not. And regardless of how many Facebook and Twitter followers you have is that translating to true fans? If you think so just compare the number who like Nascar on Facebook to the number for Manchester United the English soccer team.

      As for tracks, I believe that Nascar will attempt to buy up additional venues, rather than make meaningful changes in its series. Perhaps the purchase of ALMS by the failing Grand Am series (the France family) is a preview of what is to come.

      Lastly, does anyone else have the feeling that Nascar is one manufacturer, or one more major sponsor's departure away from implosion?

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      Bill from GA 

      6 years ago

      Mike, I can agree that all you say is true. The problem is that unless all of the major players (France family/NASCAR, ISC, Bruton Smith/SMI--in concert with the other elements that make the sport of stock car racing and racing in general viable--manufacturers, sponsors, TV "partners", etc) don't stop stuffing their pockets first, the sport as we know it will soon find itself in a death spiral....and at that point, the fire-sale devolvement of "professional" stock car racing as we have come to know and love it will either result in birth of a new series that replaces NASCAR, the rise of new and (hopefully) enlightened management, and/or a complete collapse of the infrastructure--many of the tracks now occupy prime property that developers (and those in the surrounding communities) would much rather see turned into the next shopping mall or business park, or to some other more eco-friendly use.

      Something has to give--the revenue streams cannot continue to flow in the direction they have since TV coverage has become universal and with the current (3rd generation) management of NASCAR seeming to have a focus on anything but doing some things to indicate there is any seriousness about securing a solid future for the sport--fans in the stands (or lack thereof) is only one of the myriad problems that need to be addressed.

      Cars are too fast for truly GOOD racing, current engines cost too much, making far more power than necessary (and beyond what the mandated tire size can handle without shredding in short order) at engine speeds that are ridiculously high (all further driving operating costs), multi-car teams dominate to the detriment of any team on the outside looking in, and I could go on.

      Lack of diversity of a significant number of venues creates a boredom factor in a world that now is based in short spans of focus and attention (as evidenced by the 3rd generation of NASCAR leadership), and quite unlike today's video games, which can bring a new thrill or challenge at every turn by comparison. I'm not saying NASCAR needs to be able to offer that, however, event formats (shorter will be better), more road courses, thus more action or potential for it, and re-focusing on tracks under one mile all seem (to me) to be worth consideration.

      To achieve that will require concessions at every level, the addition of more road courses (Road America, Road Atlanta, COTA/Austin, etc) and shorter tracks--as you mentioned--including Iowa, Rockingham, perhaps Nashville (never used for Cup--what a shame), and the current schedule WILL need an overhaul to reduce NASCAR's "exposure" to make people WANT to tune in to see something new, different, interesting, rather than "just another boring 1.5 mile" event. Tracks that now have at least one date every year will need to be put into some sort of rotation that does one of several things--a reduced number of total events, an "every other" or "every third" year mix so that ALL current tracks do get a second date (that now have them) at least every other year, or, in some cases, they may be removed from the schedule or limited to one event per year or every other year. Some will remain unchanged, except possibly for the actual date of the event. Addition of other tracks will restore some of the variety that is needed to make the series more interesting and challenging.

      Until NASCAR stops trying to compete with NFL and even college-level football, by having a shorter season (by calendar weeks) the results will be mixed. Running Saturday nights has done great harm to many local tracks, so IF the season is to continue in it's extended format, NASCAR needs to look at racing on other days/nights in some cases once the football season gets going each year.

      There's more to discuss, but let's see where this goes before going further.


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