Reporting from Indianapolis — What will it take to reverse NASCAR Nation's slump?
Although NASCAR officials have tweaked the format of the Sprint Cup Series and its cars to foster more compelling action this season, stock-car racing's premier circuit still grapples with attendance and television ratings that are losing horsepower.
So as the series arrives in Indiana for one of its crown-jewel events, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, NASCAR is weighing more changes to boost excitement — especially to its "Chase for the Cup" title playoff — in hopes of reversing the declines.
"If we can enhance it in a pretty significant way, we may do that," NASCAR Chairman Brian France recently said of the Chase.
But although the sport's popularity remains impressive, with 90,000 or more fans often attending each race, attendance and ratings continue to sag.
The Brickyard 400 will be the 20th race of the season, and NASCAR estimated that attendance fell in 14 of the first 19 events.
At the Cup series' last race July 10 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., NASCAR estimated attendance at 67,500, down 4% from 70,000 a year earlier. Attendance also fell at Sonoma, Calif. (down 4%), at New Hampshire (off 10%) and at Dover, Del. (down 12%)
The economy's woes have played a big role in the attendance drop, of course, but that shouldn't have a major impact on TV viewership.
Nevertheless, the races shown by Fox and TNT showed an overall decline in year-over-year viewership, according to website Sports Media Watch. For example, Fox's Fontana race telecast suffered a 10% drop in viewership, while TNT's telecasts last month of the Michigan race suffered a 16% drop.
Why the decline? Some gripe that cars are not packed close enough during races for dramatic action, or the races are too long, and that NASCAR's mandated "Car of Tomorrow" chassis eliminated the difference between car models. Other say Jimmie Johnson's four consecutive titles alienate fans and that NASCAR TV broadcasts lack excitement.
NASCAR responded this year with several changes. It encouraged drivers to stay aggressive with a "boys, have at it" policy, introduced double-file restarts that packed the leaders up front on restarts and removed lapped cars, extended overtime finishes, standardized most start times and swapped the cars' rear wings with more traditional spoilers.
All the changes "have enhanced the sport," driver Jeff Burton said recently. "I love the history of our sport, but I think that it's [now] more exciting."
In addition, a series of driver feuds cropped up — between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, and between Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano — that stir more interest among the NASCAR faithful.
The Sprint Cup series holds 36 races a year; the top 12 drivers in points after 26 events compete in the Chase during the final 10 races of the season to determine the series champion. Under NASCAR's TV contract, Fox televised the first 13 races, TNT did six and ESPN/ABC will do the final 17, starting with Sunday's race.
Driver Denny Hamlin, a five-time winner this year, recently said, "I'm not quite sure the sport is down as much as the ratings show," partly because "a lot of people have DVRs now" and record the races for later viewing.
But there's no discounting the financial impact.
International Speedway Corp., which operates 13 tracks including Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, said its ticket revenue in the six months ended May 31 tumbled 19% from a year earlier to $74.2 million. Economic conditions "have not progressed as positively as we'd anticipated," Lesa France Kennedy, ISC's chief executive, told Wall Street analysts.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what changes NASCAR plans for the Chase, which starts Sept. 19 in New Hampshire and includes the Pepsi Max 400 in Fontana on Oct. 10.
So the question is: Whatever else is done with the Chase that leads to a champion in November, will it help sell tickets and lift viewership next spring and summer?