I read a post the other day over at Autoextremist (a fantastic automotive blog) about the optimism surrounding the introduction of the Gen 6 car even in the face of continuing struggles for NASCAR, and it got me thinking about the recent evolution of our race cars. In the post, Mr. De Lorenzo talks about NASCAR’s unwillingness to change, and brings up the argument about races being too long and there being too many cookie cutter tracks. I agree that we probably have too many similar tracks, but I think he is incorrect in what he calls NASCAR’s “head-in-sand approach.” The Gen 6 car’s adoption is a perfect example of NASCAR’s ability to change, and their quest for a stronger sport.
As we’ve discussed ad nauseum over the years here at TNI, the reasons behind NASCAR’s fall are many. The sharp decline in the economy has played probably the largest role, but I also think the introduction of the COT did serious damage. Even though Cup cars haven’t been anything close to approaching a stock looking car for at least two decades, the COT erased what little was left of brand differentiation. But, in NASCAR’s defense, the COT made a lot of sense when it was brought about.
Put into use for the 2008 season, the two biggest reasons for the creation of the COT were improved driver safety (brought about mostly by Dale Earnhardt’s death), and a leveling of the competitive playing field. On both counts, the COT was successful. The COT put the drivers in a much safer position inside the cars (see video here for proof), and the competitiveness of the races was dramatically improved.
But where NASCAR had hoped to satisfy the fans’ want for better racing, the use of a common template to do so destroyed any brand recognition outside of emblems and headlight decals. NASCAR seriously underestimated the importance to both the fans and the manufacturers of how the cars actually looked.
I think at this point in our exploration of the car evolution it’s key to remember that NASCAR is a reactionary body, as are most similar entities. Problems are addressed as they arise. The COT was in no way a proactive move, which brings us to this season’s introduction of the Gen 6 cars.
Now that NASCAR has figured out ways to keep drivers safer (car improvements, HANS devices, SAFER barriers, etc.), and improve the quality of the racing, both of which are fundamental to NASCAR’s future health, they see and are addressing the next set of issues: aesthetics.
In the new world of corporate involvement in sports, everything has become about three letters: R.O.I. It’s not good enough anymore for companies to just have their logos displayed everywhere. They want real results, and they want to be able to measure those results. Executives must have empirical data to show stakeholders that spending big money on sports actually helps business. For the manufacturers in NASCAR, this means a return to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Having race cars look much closer to their stock counterparts will aid in this effort.
NASCAR is also hoping that having much more attractive race cars will bring back some of those fans that have walked away from the sport over the last few years. Now they can say the drivers are safer, the racing is as good as it’s ever been, and look how great the cars look!
Whether or not the Gen 6 cars will have a real positive effect on the sport remains to be seen. But I think it’s unfair to say that NASCAR isn’t trying to make improvements. Are they probably too reactive? Yes. At the end of the day though, NASCAR wants whatever will make the fans happy and keep them engaged. Because lots of engaged fans means more money for all involved.