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I have been slowly watching NASCAR die over the last few years, but today served notice as to just how bad things have gotten. Furniture Row Racing – the team that with driver Martin Truex Jr. won the championship in the highest-level series in the sport last year – will shut its doors at the end of the year.
The story here isn’t just a team shutting down. Truex, his crew chief and most of those employed will end up with other teams and probably be just fine next year. No, the story is WHY they are shutting down, and how the lifeblood of the sport is in serious jeopardy.
I’m not your typical racing fan. I’m not a car guy, was raised in Norfolk – technically in the south but because of the Navy base, we had a lot of Yankee influence – and I just didn’t see the point to 500 or more left turns on a hot summer day.
But the newspaper business introduced me to it. I worked at a place in Roanoke and our racing writer happened to be the son of my physics teacher at Lake Taylor High School. His name was Steve Waid and he not only loved the sport, he was a bit of a rock star on the circuit because of the way he covered it. I became intrigued.
A few years later, I became the sports editor of the newspaper in Martinsville. The owner was a character named Clay Earles and the PR director was one of the best on the planet named Dick Thompson. Clay, Dick and Steve all taught me the sport, introduced me to the right people and in a short period of time, I fell in love with it.
For me it had nothing to do with cars. It was the personalities of the drivers and the cult-like loyalty of the fans. Waid had gotten me a couple of tickets when I was working in Roanoke, so a friend and I headed to Martinsville to see a race live. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car for more than a minute and a couple of good ol’ boys were throwing haymakers at each other as if one had insulted the other’s mother.
“What are they fighting about?” I asked one of the bystanders. Turns out one was a huge fan of Chevy and the other was a Ford man. One could not bide by the other’s brand allegiance, thus it had to be settled the old-fashioned way with fists and bare knuckles.
That, in a nutshell, was NASCAR. Fans loved their drivers and the drivers loved their fans. They’d wait in line for hours to get anything dealing with their favorite driver, and if their guy smoked a particular cigarette, chewed a specific tobacco or drank one brand of beer…well by God, they would too. Car manufacturers helped teams running their cars as much as they could because they believed “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
Sponsors noticed it too and they all wanted to take advantage of that loyalty. The running joke has always been a NASCAR driver could probably work in references to 17 sponsors just while saying the blessing at breakfast, but part of the reason for that was 17 sponsors wanted to be a part of racing. They spent the money, they got the exposure and loyalty from die-hard fans, and it was a good deal for both.
But over the years, NASCAR embarked on a course that drove ticket prices so high many of those grass roots, salt of the earth fans could no longer attend. The sport favored the likes of California and New Hampshire to North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, and some purists wondered if there’d ever come a day they’d regret it.
In the last few years, race tracks like Bristol and Indianapolis, where getting a ticket was next to impossible, suddenly had a lot of fans dressed as empty seats when you watched it on television. The racing wasn’t all that exciting, the tickets were overpriced, and what used to cost a corporation under a million dollars to be a major sponsor was now costing over $10 million.
Which brings me back to why Furniture Row Racing shutting down is such a dark omen for the sport.
Advertising is a bit of a shell game, in that you promise all the things you hope will be delivered up front, you get paid up front, and then you hope everything you promised actually happens. I’ve told many a salesman over the years that selling the ad or sponsorship is the easy part. Then you have to work like crazy to make sure the person who bought the ad got results or you will be a one-hit wonder in the world of business.
In the case of Furniture Row Racing, that’s one big problem. On one hand, the loss of only one sponsor – 5-hour Energy – was such a financial hit that the owner decided it would be cheaper and easier to close everything down. This would imply that the sponsor was putting in a huge chunk of money, maybe well over $10 million, and losing that big an amount of money effectively bankrupted the company.
On the other hand, the bigger issue is that no one wanted to take 5-hour energy’s place. If your sport is delivering value, then someone should want to jump on the opportunity if the lead sponsorship for the defending series champion comes open. For months, reports say, the team went to every business they could to find a replacement.
All said no.
I’m guessing they saw the crowds dwindling, TV ratings are down, fan loyalty isn’t what it was, and decided against it. In short, corporate America said the deal isn’t worth the money to be paid, meaning either you need to get more results, or charge a lot less. Neither of those options happen over night.
So here we are. In the 1980s, NASCAR was the golden goose; everybody wanted a piece of it as the sport delivered with exciting racing, drivers who became folk heroes and fans that would punch each other in the parking lot over the make and model of a piece of machinery.
Now the best team in the sport last season has to shut down because nobody thinks it’s a good business deal to sponsor it.
Sure sounds like the beginning of the end.