France sees increased interest in NASCAR

NASCAR Chairman Brian France seems pleased with the current state of the sport and painted a rosy picture on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

France says that the current level of competition, the change in “streamlining and simplifying” the points system and adding the wild-card element to the Chase for the Sprint Cup have raised “drama” and boosted interest this season and, in turn, improved television ratings.

“The increase is primarily coming, frankly, right where we would really want it to be, which is the younger demo, up I think 20-something percent, has consistently been up 20-something percent,” France said. “I think in major sports today, you’re going to see this in the various playoffs and championships that will be decided in all kinds of sports, it gets down to storylines and matchups is that last 10 percent, 15 percent, whatever it’s going to be, and when you have more of that, good storylines and great racing in our case, you should do better. And we are doing better.

“We’ve just got to keep building on that and hope that the racing and the storylines continue to do what they have done.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding NASCAR’s title sponsor Sprint in the Cup series, France said negotiations were going well to extend the relationship beyond 2013. Sprint Nextel Corp.’s stock dropped 20 percent on Friday and closed at $2.41 per share.

“The relationship is very good,” France said. “It’s a program that’s worked extremely well for them. They would, I think, tell you that. We’re in a time when we’re having those kind of discussions about extending the relationship. My hope is that we will. That’s always a goal when we have a really good incumbent sponsor who’s done such a good job. You obviously want to extend the relationship if you can.”

While competition and excitement at the Sprint Cup level is at an all-time high, questions remain as to whether Red Bull Racing will run next year or if Richard Childress Racing or Roush Fenway Racing will lose a team.

As for the feeder tours, the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series have struggled, particularly in the financial realm. Some organizations, such as Kevin Harvick Inc., have already informed employees that they won’t be racing next season. Others, including Turner Motorsports, have indicated they will be downsizing their current rosters or shutting down teams completely. But France doesn’t seem to believe there will be any long-term repercussions.

“Look, I’ve always said I’m not an economist, but I know what you know, and it’s very, very difficult out there for companies and for people in the general economy,” France said. “That has impact on us, and it will continue to have some impact on us.

“One of the things that does happen when availability comes forward in terms of if a team or two doesn’t elect to compete next year, we often see in the offseason teams that were thinking about moving up but did not want to because there wasn’t availability, they couldn’t make the event, couldn’t make the top 35 or whatever else, you’ll see where those five or six teams don’t necessarily turn out to be five or six teams.

“I hope everybody comes back and everybody gets what they need to compete. But if the economy is difficult, it does allow opportunities for others, and that’s, I guess, the only silver lining in it.”

Although rumors persist regarding the future of the Truck series, particularly with some of the top teams struggling to secure sponsorship, France says it’s still “very viable” and “a franchise for the SPEED Channel."

“It’s their highest rated programming every week, depending on what venue,” France said. “It does fairly well. But yeah, there’s no question that that series and every motor support series in the country has got some impact, and some greater than others.”

NASCAR has attempted to lower the costs in the Truck series, where the purses barely cover travel expenses and salaries. France adds that’s become a “core principle” at the NASCAR Research and Development Center.

“We’ve done unprecedented things in the last two or three years to take cost out of the system for those team owners and the drivers, for that matter,” France said. “But limiting crew members and doing all kinds of things on the regulatory side that have proven a great deal of cost savings, it’s a lot cheaper to operate a Truck team than it was three years ago.

“There’s a group of people that are looking at safety, performance and cost all the time, You don’t see them, you don’t need to see them, they’re not going to come to the events very often, but that’s what they’re trying to do. And we’re trying things out in the touring divisions frequently that we don’t talk a lot about, but we do, to see what can work and what can’t, and obviously the conditions are different. But that’s all good.”

One idea germinating in the garage to cut costs is consolidating the schedule and decreasing the travel distances from the sport’s core base in North Carolina, as in the case with Rockingham Speedway hosting the Truck series next year. But there’s also the need for fresh markets in order to expose the sport to new fans.

“Rockingham is interesting with all that heritage, so we’ll have to see how that all plays out,” France said. “And there’s a new facility on the horizon if you believe what is being written about, which is down in Texas with a big road course. We have some road racing product that might be possible, too. So yeah, we’ll take a look at that for sure.”
 

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