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April-09-2007,
NASCAR: If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It...By Hartley Henderson

Over the years we have seen numerous companies and organizations that have a good thing going try to improve it with "small adjustments." Of course more times than not, those fixes are detrimental and loyal customers start to turn away. The prevailing school of thought is that one must improve to grow, but often the product is simply a good product and doesn't need improvement and the changes just cause confusion. Consequently, the old saying "If it ain't broke don't fix it", first uttered by Bert Lance, is appropriate.

If there is one organization that should adhere to that philosophy, it's NASCAR. Since the mid 1990s NASCAR has been on the upswing and is noted as the fastest growing spectator sport. A product that was once associated with the American south and bootleggers has grown into a billion dollar corporation, beloved by people from around the world from all walks of life. The simplicity of the product, i.e. souped up family sedans, combined with sponsorships everyone including children can identify with, has resulted in the success that is NASCAR. Unlike Formula One and other open wheel series which tend to cater to more of an upscale group, NASCAR still holds its redneck roots. Visit any NASCAR track the weekend a race is being held and you'll note fans camped out in their RVs drinking beer and cooking sausages starting at 6 in the morning, while other fans are buying souvenirs at the hundreds of team trailers parked in the infield.

It also should be noted though that NASCAR's popularity also coincided with the start of NASCAR betting. In the late 1990s, Las Vegas sportsbooks started offering lines on NASCAR races and online sportsbooks followed suit. While not likely the predominant reason for the growth, there can be no doubt that it was a contributing factor. Bettors love the fact that in any race up to 20 cars have a real chance of winning. While Kyle Petty or Ken Schrader will never win a race again, any cars owned by the likes of Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Childress Racing and a handful of other teams will always be in contention. Consequently, unlike with F1 where only a few cars can realistically win, NASCAR often produces winners with odds of 30/1 or more. As well, bettors love the fact that the schedule is predictable. In Nextel Cup racing, the norm for Sunday races has always been that teams practice on Friday morning, qualify Friday afternoon, have final practice on Saturday and race on Sunday. Similarly, for Saturday, Busch series races teams practiced on Friday morning, qualified Friday afternoon, had final practice after Nextel Cup qualifying and raced Saturday. This makes it easier for bettors to handicap races as they have learned what is important in predicting winners. Two years ago, however, NASCAR decided to change the schedule, and for many races now, Nextel Cup cars practice on Friday, qualify Saturday and race Sunday. For Busch series, they practice Friday, qualify Saturday and then race around an hour or two after qualifying has ended. The new format causes headaches for fans and bettors alike. The format leaves less time for betting (particularly in the Busch series), and for Nextel Cup racing when they use this new format, the qualifying order often has more importance for determining the line-up than does the car itself. A car qualifying at 11 am will generally be faster than one going out at 12:30 pm when the track is hottest. As a result, betting and viewing interest in qualifying wanes greatly when they use the Saturday qualifying schedule.

Another area where NASCAR has caused more harm than good is with its website. In the past the website was clean, easy to navigate and any race results, updates, etc. were right there in clear view. Now the company has decided to turn Nascar.com into more of a pay site, and to view any updates, results, etc. one must subscribe to trackpass. As well, the morass of icons, fantasy games, online stores and other advertisements has made the site almost impossible to navigate. If one is simply looking for results or NASCAR news, it's almost better to go to Jayski.com, RacingOne.com or ESPN.com where the sites aren't clogged with irrelevant material. In an independent poll conducted at the end of last year, people gave the thumbs down to Nascar.com's new look. It should be no surprise, therefore, that ESPN this week bought Jayski.com. It's too bad NASCAR didn't listen to Bert Lance's quote for their website.

However, as much as the qualifying rules and the website have been a negative for NASCAR, they don't hold a candle to NASCAR's newest effort - the Car of Tomorrow. NASCAR has run the car in 2 Nextel Cup races so far this year, and will attempt a handful more. In 2008, they plan to run half the schedule with the new cars, and in 2009 they will go full time with the Car of Tomorrow. The purpose of introducing the car, according to NASCAR spokespeople, was threefold: to improve safety, to reduce costs and to even out the competition. The car, which sits much higher than the old stock car was designed on more of a truck platform and was said to withstand impact better than the old model. Based on comments from drivers after the first two races, it accomplished none of those things. Because teams have so few chassis that can actually run on this platform, crew chiefs actually stated that drivers should concern themselves more with not wrecking than with with winning the race. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. stated after the first race at Bristol: "The focus of the whole race was just to get home - get it in the bag. You're so conscious of getting wrecked that it wears you out." In fact even the winner of that race, Kyle Busch, stated in an interview following his victory: "it sucked."

More importantly from a fan's perspective, the races were terrible. Bristol and Martinsville, which are considered by many to be the most exciting tracks on the NASCAR circuit due to the short track strategies that take place as well as the inevitable bumping and jostling for position, produced races which were just dull. After the Martinsville race, NASCAR put up a poll on its website to see what fans thought of the races and the two most common comments were: "boring" and "a disaster." The cars are so big that it killed any three wide racing, and more importantly made it virtually impossible to pass. Furthermore, driver bumping that was a normal part of short track racing in the past, and which generally had little effect on the cars, instead resulted in cars retiring. David Gilliland at Bristol sustained a small bump which in the old series would have just resulted in a bit of door and fender damage (and in the past cars still won if the damage was minor). But with the new Car of Tomorrow, Gilliland's car practically disintegrated after getting spun out. Consequently, the result of all this was two races of follow the leader. So essentially, with the new cars NASCAR has turned itself into an Americanized version of F1 racing which has never been popular in the United States. And as for evening out the competition, the races were dominated by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress racing, same as with the old stock cars. So even there the new cars failed to make a difference.

NASCAR is still popular in North America and has the opportunity to change back to the way it was. TV viewership of NASCAR racing is down a bit the last 2 years and these "improvements" initiated by NASCAR will only cause more viewers and bettors to tune out. And if they continue to tweak the cars, the rules and other areas that fans have become used to, NASCAR could find itself in the same situation as IRL and CART racing where few people have much interest any more. Sometimes the phrase: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", should be posted on boardroom walls.

04-09-2007
Hartley Hederson
MajorWager.com
henderson@majorwager.com



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