Crash and burn for NASCAR

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Back in 2002 at my first Daytona 500 as a sports writer, Bill France Jr. -- then in the throes of fighting an ultimately fatal cancer -- saddled up to me in the infield media centre at Daytona International Speedway, introduced himself, and said: "So you're the new guy from Canada."

Nine years later with NASCAR under the control of Brian France -- Bill Jr.'s son -- it's a far different story.

To be blunt, Brian France wouldn't recognize me if he backed over me with a truck.

And to many in the NASCAR nation that is what is at root of a slight, but noticeable, decline in television ratings and even more dramatic decline in bums in the seats at the dozens of mammoth race tracks that dot the United States from coast to coast.

Fans, who fork over the more than $1,000 US a weekend it takes for a family of three to witness NASCAR's stars and their cars, are saying they, too, have noticed a disconnect between them and the sport.

Now, those rumblings are coming from many within the sport and are reaching the France family -- who have run NASCAR as a tightly held fiefdom for more than 50 years.

Where once NASCAR was able to deflect any and all criticism by pointing to its meteoric growth from a regional anomaly to the second most popular professional sporting outfit behind the National Football League, the bad press is starting to stick.

A stunning example of how Brian France has become a target came this week when The Sporting News -- now based in NASCAR's Charlotte, N.C. backyard -- ran a feature-length piece taking a strip off of France for his supposed behind-the-scenes approach to management.

Michael Smith, a senior writer at the highly respected Street & Smith's Business Journal, who authored the piece, dogged the third generation NASCAR boss this past off-season and came back feeling that there were definite signs that France lacked the commitment his father and grandfather had before him for the family business.

And in a time when the U.S. is in the grips of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, stakeholders in NASCAR are starting to demand a more visible presence from headquarters.

The talking heads of the big networks, who back in the day were counted on to act as cheerleaders for the sport, now are often leaders in taking on NASCAR's failings head on -- and remember these are the folks who spent almost a billion dollars on NASCAR over the past decade.

France no longer can dictate positive coverage from his broadcast partners.

In fact, Rich Feinberg, vice-president of motorsports coverage for ESPN, said that his network is not about to hide the warts its reporters may find in their daily coverage of NASCAR.

"Our philosophy is that our job, and quite candidly, our obligation is to serve our fans," Feinberg said. "What we always discuss in our meetings and on phone calls is that to fulfil that obligation, we need to be honest. We need to be honest with ourselves and our viewers.

"And like all sporting competitions, sometimes it's a great game, and sometimes it's a lacklustre game.

DIVERSE OPINION

"And all we try to do is give them (announcers) the freedom to offer their opinion, offer that opinion with responsibility, with details behind what they're thinking, and make sure that we, throughout the presentation, offer diverse opinions -- and then we let the fans decide."

France fights back that his leadership style is geared to guiding NASCAR through today's economic tough environment and come out the other side none the worse for wear.

"Clearly there is an ebb and flow, sometimes you can do too much, and that's unsettling to people," France said.

"And then there's times when there are things right in front of you that everybody feels very strongly about."

About any disconnect between him and the sport, France bristles at such a suggestion.

"I personally have met with every driver, every team owner, every track operator, and we will be meeting with all of our television partners, as well," he said.

"We have been doing that for several years and we are going to continue that.

"And the goal is to make very, very good racing -- better."

Let's hope it isn't a case of too little, too late.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos