NASCAR trying to lure younger fans as sport ages

By allowing children in the garage and younger teens behind the

wheel, it’s clear NASCAR wants a youth movement.

Television executives do, too.

NASCAR has aged considerably the last decade, with stars such as

Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart –

and their faithful fans – growing grayer every year. The result has

been a steady decline in the highly coveted 18-to-34 TV

demographic.

Now, the sport is trying desperately to get it back.

”We need to appeal to the younger market,” team owner Rick

Hendrick said. ”I know that’s where we need to go. We need to

attract the young people.”

Only 10 of 43 drivers in Sunday’s Daytona 500 are under the age

of 30 – and there’s little star power in that group beyond Kyle

Busch and Joey Logano.

Just three of those 10 are younger than 25. Of those three, only

the 20-year-old Logano has a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup

Series.

Officials would like to see that change.

NASCAR has taken several steps to appeal to younger fans in an

effort to offset an aging audience that comes at the same time TV

ratings and attendance are shrinking.

The sport believes it has figured out how to better promote its

current crop of youngsters.

NASCAR tweaked a rule that should help emphasize up-and-coming

drivers in the second-tier Nationwide Series. Officials forced

drivers to pick a series in which to run for a championship, an

effort to take the focus away from Cup regulars pulling double duty

in the Nationwide Series and possibly creating more opportunities

for budding stars.

It’s also eager to give younger fans access to those stars,

allowing children in the garage on race days for the first time.

Although only adults with approved credentials can bring kids in

before races, the policy could be expanded to the general public

down the road.

NASCAR also is lowering the age limit for competitors in its

regional touring series from 16 to 15, hoping the change will

increase opportunities for drivers to gain experience and prepare

for the top racing series. That decision could speed up Chase

Elliott’s development.

Elliott, the son of 1988 Cup champion and fan favorite Bill

Elliott, has signed a developmental contract with Hendrick

Motorsports. Chase Elliott won 13 late-model races last year and

had 37 top-10 finishes in 40 starts.

”That kid has done a fantastic job,” the elder Elliott said.

”I don’t know what goes on in that little head of his, but he

figures it out.”

Still, landing sponsorship deals will be key.

Although many promising young drivers were able to land

financial backing when NASCAR was at its peak a few years ago,

companies have been reluctant to partner with unproven drivers in

the wake of the economic downturn.

”Sometimes that chance is worth taking and can pay off big,”

said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who paired with DuPont as

a 22-year-old rookie in 1993. ”Car owners should stay motivated

(to sign young drivers) because the payoff can be really, really

big, from a sponsor’s standpoint and from a team standpoint.”

Sponsors have enjoyed recent success with Logano and Kyle Busch,

and television executives believe the same could be on tap for

Trevor Bayne, James Buescher and Ricky Carmichael.

”These young, new people are exactly what can appeal to that

young audience and grow it,” said Rich Feinberg, vice president

for motorsports for ESPN and ABC. ”The ratings and the research

show a decline into the 18-to-34 category. NASCAR is no different

than any other sports entity. That’s what everybody is looking

for.”

Feinberg has worked on the X-Games since 1994 and knows how a

young audience can boost attendance and ratings and attract

sponsors.

He’s keeping an eye on Travis Pastrana, the X-Games star who is

planning to make his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series in July.

The 27-year-old Pastrana has a cult-like following and plenty of

full-time sponsors but at best is several years away from a Sprint

Cup ride.

Although everyone agrees fresh-faced drivers would be the

fastest and most efficient way to attract a younger audience –

think NASCAR finding its version of Justin Bieber – it also could

happen through a few off-track endeavors.

Online simulation games such as iRacing and a growing number of

fantasy racing leagues are expected to entice the next generation.

With four-hour races and a 36-race season than spans 10 months,

keeping their attention might be an even bigger challenge.

Hendrick pointed to NASCAR’s recent research and study of

audience trends as signs the sanctioning body is committed to

attracting younger audiences.

”This social media is something we’ve got to really look at and

find a way to tie some of the gadgets they bring to the track into

what we’re doing,” Hendrick said. ”So NASCAR’s looking at how we

can bring that to the racetrack and how can we get technology

input, whether you walk in with the iPhone and you want to listen

(to the race) or you want to do things through your telephone or

whatever. I’m not the best in that area, but I know that’s where we

need to go.”

It comes with hurdles, though.

Turner Sports owns online video rights to NASCAR content. And

because Turner also runs NASCAR.com, the company has declined to

provide multimedia content outside its website.

So NASCAR’s hands are tied in many regards.

”If you look at that (young) demographic, that’s what they’re

interested in today,” said Gordon, whose Daytona 500 car is

sponsored by AARP. ”They’ve got their iPhones and they’re into

apps and it’s kind of a computer age, and I think we’ve kind of

left technology behind in a way that’s hurt us a little bit.”

Despite all the concern and changes, at least one prominent NASCAR

driver cautions against overreacting.

”I think NASCAR is what it is,” Carl Edwards said. ”It’s auto

racing. It’s 500-mile races. It’s complex. It’s tough sometimes to

understand. I think that’s OK. No one is going to compete with some

of things that are available to kids right now.

”Kids can experience things through Facebook and video games

and all sorts of things online. It’s OK that NASCAR is different.

We don’t have to go try to be everything to everyone.”