Why the "Nationwide" series is NASCAR’s future
What should NASCAR do with the old Busch Series, now sponsored by Nationwide Insurance?
Something different. Something very different than the Busch Series.
Though television is what brings the bucks into NASCAR, it’s the ticket sales that make money for the race tracks. For that reason, since that first CBS broadcast of the Daytona 500 in 1979, television broadcasts of NASCAR races have always been afterthoughts. The race is not designed for television. Television covers it. But, in-car cameras and other embellishments notwithstanding, television covers racing about the same way it did in 1979.
The Nationwide Series is NASCAR’s chance to do something differently. The Nationwide/Busch Series has lost any reason for being, and exists in its current form only to add to the profits of the Bruton Smiths of the world, men and companies owning race tracks that already run Cup races. For the competitors, it’s simply more cookie-cutter races for the Cup stars.
What the Nationwide Series should be is racing made – from its conception - to be watched by those who are not attending the race, those who are watching on television, on the internet, or through podcasts. It is this audience that is the reason Nationwide is paying to sponsor the series. It is this audience that brings the sponsors to the competitors. It is this audience that is the real audience, the one that can provide an audience of millions or people every week.
Granted, this requires a different mind-set at NASCAR. It is, however, a change in thinking that is overdue – for two reasons:
First, as currently presented, the Nationwide Series dilutes the appeal of the Sprint Cup Series. The cars look the same, the drivers mostly are the same (at least at the front), and the tracks are the same. This saturation detracts from the appeal of both series.
Second, NASCAR’s explosive growth is over. It now needs a way to keep the Cup Series interesting and appealing to the public. To do that, NASCAR needs a laboratory in which it can experiment with the best way to entertain its audience, so that it can create new concepts and try new ideas, transferring the ones that work to the senior series.
This change in approach, however, must be fundamental. It is not simply a change in how the race is presented. It is a change in defining itself and its product.
The first priority must be creating and presenting something that is interesting to the television, internet, and other forms of non-attending audience.
For example, instead of figuring out how to televise a race, figure out what would be the ideal race to televise. if you want to present an entertaining television program, do you present a short-track or a mile and a quarter? Do you do heat races? Do you reconfigure the rules so that spinning out another car gets both drivers sent to the back of the pack?
If this is beginning to sound a bit like a suggestion that the Nationwide Series ought to be more like local short-track racing, perhaps that’s because local short track racing is entertaining. With the exception of the Daytona 500, it’s the short track Cup races for which tickets are sold out decades in advance. It’s the Michigan International Speedway clones that have empty seats on race day. It’s the short-track races that get the largest television audiences, too.
But, there’s more.
Maybe, just maybe, NASCAR should push the technology a bit further: stream pre-race coverage of each individual driver and team on the internet or make it available as a podcast, so that the viewer can follow his or her driver’s story before and after the race, from one race to the next. Find ways, like blogs, for drivers and team members to be accessible to television audiences.
Of course, to be truly entertaining, the Nationwide Series needs to have an identity, one distinct from the Cup Series. To get that, it needs to be run at race tracks that don’t hold Cup races. That simultaneously solves three problems: it gets rid of the Cup drivers dominating the junior series, it attracts teams and sponsors to the junior series, and it provides a reason for fans to watch.
The test tube is Milwaukee’s State Fair Park, the one mile flat-as-a-pancake and wide-as-a-platter track that hosts both Busch and Craftsman races. It’s great racing, easy to televise, easy to watch, and always entertaining. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as the bridge between local short-track racing and the NASCAR Cup big leagues.
So, maybe the Nationwide Series should regress, not evolve. It should regress to the short tracks, away from the Cup tracks. Run them at places like Milwaukee’s State Fair Park. Run at Darlington. Bring back Junior Johnson’s home track at Wilkesboro. Take the races to smaller facilities, where they are easier to see, to watch, and to present – and bring the basic core friendliness of short-track racing into the fan’s home, making the fan a part of the race regardless of his or her distance from it.
The point, however, is not to suggest a blueprint, merely a different way of approaching the problem.
NASCAR’s asking price for sponsorship of the former Busch series was $30 million. Nationwide paid was $13 million, after a number of big name companies said ‘no.’ Sears just bailed on the “Craftsman” truck series. Those who believe that NASCAR’s best investment would be buying Brian an NFL franchise and letting Lisa France Kennedy take over are probably right.
NASCAR can keep the Nationwide Series what it’s been. It can continue to be Cup Light. Or, NASCAR can take a risk and decide to get wild, go crazy, and really try to reinvent the product.
Of course, in the end, that’s not a real risk. It may be taking a chance, but not a risk.
The only real risk is not taking the chance.