A New Year, but same as it ever was for NASCAR

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Brian France’s annual “State of the Sport” address to the media last week in Charlotte wasn’t newsworthy in the traditional sense - instead, it was more of a reaffirmation of the NASCAR status quo. Not that I really expected anything less from Brian France, frankly. After all, “inertia” and “business as usual” are two concepts so ingrained in his psyche that even the worst economic crisis this country has faced in seven decades isn’t enough to derail his “plan” for NASCAR, or should I say his lack of one.

France pointed out that his organization is being responsive to the nation’s economic crisis by banning testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks (a largely meaningless edict for the fully-funded teams who have been busying themselves testing at various other tracks across the country anyway), ordering a company-wide hiring freeze, and even hiring a “Managing Director for Green Innovation” in an effort to make the sport appear more environmentally friendly. NASCAR is also getting more aggressive by having its marketing arm beating the bushes for sponsors for its teams, realizing (albeit at least two years too late) that the very lifeblood of NASCAR - sponsorships from corporate America - are drying up and blowing away at a prodigious rate.

“We’re trying to do more with less. That’s the difficult part of this economy,” France told the assembled media at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Charlotte. “It’s internal, but we’ve instituted some things that we’re trying to be responsible with our financial issues.”

The only semi-newsworthy occurrence was that France finally did acknowledge publicly to the media that 2008 was a difficult season after months of displaying a “What, me Worry?” nonchalance in the face of empty grandstands, declining TV ratings and standing by as three of its four participating manufacturers teetered toward bankruptcy. But in the face of these burgeoning storm clouds, France also displayed confidence that NASCAR can survive the economic downturn, even though the reasons for his optimism were hard to quantify. “It was a very difficult year, but we’re not alone,” France told the media. “The entire country is going through it, even the world, is going through a very difficult economy. We will get through it. This is a fixture in American culture - this sport. We have seen tough times before. We’re actually optimistic about ’09 for a lot of reasons.”

Fixture of American culture? Hmm, I would say that’s a real stretch given the iconic American institutions falling by the wayside almost weekly in this country. Optimistic? That’s a vivid indication of just how France’s “vision” and the concept of reality rarely intersect on any given day.

What should have France done last week? He should have seized the opportunity to introduce a flurry of changes that would not only help NASCAR survive in these trying economic times but maybe even thrive two or three years down the road. Switching to “pony” cars for Sprint Cup for instance, or cutting the number of races, consolidating the race weekend schedules, eliminating duplicate visits to certain tracks, lowering the ticket prices, switching to cellulosic ethanol, etc., etc., etc.

But alas, nothing, nada, no way, no how.

Brian France clearly doesn’t get it, on any number of levels. Tone deaf doesn’t even begin to describe his blatantly inadequate concept of “leadership” in the face of daunting and unprecedented challenges facing racing in general, and his brand of racing in particular. Leaders don’t let a challenging situation dictate to them, rather they try to seize the opportunity to manage change in the face of adversity.

Yes, NASCAR may “get through it” as France says, but rather than being proactive and helping shape and define the future of the sport, France has chosen to stay the course and see what happens.

As we like to say around here, Not Good.


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