NASCAR chairman optimistic during sluggish economy
The Chase standings are tighter than ever. Television ratings are up and attendance has been robust at the first four races in NASCAR's version of a playoff.
Things are certainly rosy on the track, even if that's not entirely the case off it.
Several teams are contemplating layoffs during a down economy, when sponsorship has become harder to secure. The latest example came just this week, when Turner Motorsports released Nationwide Series championship contender Reed Sorenson and advised employees it might downsize at the end of the season, after sponsor Dollar General announced it would not return in 2012.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said Sunday he's not oblivious to teams' financial concerns, but he remains optimistic the economy will not cause long-term problems for the sport.
''I've always said I'm not an economist,'' France said, ''but I know what you know, and it's very difficult out there for companies, and people in general, and that has an impact on us.''
France said the one positive that comes from teams downsizing is it creates opportunities for other teams contemplating a move to NASCAR's top tier.
''We'll see in the offseason teams thinking about moving up that didn't want to because there wasn't availability or they couldn't make an event,'' France said. ''I hope everybody comes back, I hope everybody gets what they need to compete, but if the economy is difficult, it does allow opportunities for others. I guess that's the only silver lining to it.''
France also confirmed negotiations have begun with Sprint to remain the title sponsor of NASCAR's top tier. Sprint is in the eighth year of a 10-year, $750 million contract.
The struggling wireless carrier, based in suburban Kansas City, posted its 15th consecutive quarterly loss in July. The nation's third-largest carrier also reported more contract customers defected to rivals AT&T and Verizon than some analysts had expected.
''It's a program that's worked well for them and we're in a time where we're having those kinds of discussions about extending the relationship,'' France said. ''My hope is that we will.''
France addressed several other issues Sunday at Kansas Speedway:
-The points system, which was streamlined this season, has created tighter standings that are easier for fans to understand. Bonus points are still awarded, but otherwise each spot on the track roughly equates to a point. Only 19 points separated the top nine drivers coming to Kansas.
''I'm not sure we could be anymore pleased with how the Chase is unfolding, and frankly, how the season is unfolding, the level of competition, the closeness of the Chase,'' France said.
''Our hope always is that we come down to the finale at South Florida, at Homestead, and we have as many drivers really in the thick of it as possible. That's the goal, that's what we hope.''
-Television ratings have been on the rise after a couple of years of stagnation, particularly in younger demographics, a key to the sport's continued growth.
France said much of that is tied to the tight Chase standings.
''You'll see this in the various playoffs and championships in all kinds of sports, it comes down to storylines and matchups,'' he said. ''When you have more of that, good storylines and great racing in our case, you should do better, and we are doing better.''
-France said he isn't concerned that paving projects at Phoenix this year and Kansas in 2013 will dramatically alter the competition. Drivers had mixed reactions after testing at Phoenix earlier this week, and many said Friday they would prefer the Kansas surface be left alone.
''The kind of asphalt they lay down, even sometimes changing the configuration a little bit like they did in Phoenix, it's all designed to provide more side-by-side racing,'' France said.