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Monday, December 14, 2015

2015

The more I think about 2015, the more I think it was mainly a year setting up the big -- in some cases, monumental -- issues and stories of 2016.

When Jeff Gordon announced last January that this past Sprint Cup season would be his last, I thought that would be the No. 1 motorsports story of the year. It turned out to be No. 2.

From a viewpoint accounting for the business and politics of racing, as well as competition, the most important development of 2015 was the fundamental change of philosophy in NASCAR. I think it was significantly under-reported, perhaps because one had to put together all the pieces to grasp what was happening. 

Think about it: When drivers refused to race Talladega in 1969 due to safety concerns, Big Bill France rounded-up replacements and non-Cup spec cars and put on the show. Do you remember, in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's death, Jimmy Spencer's and Todd Bodine's call for a driver safety committee was completely ignored by everyone except the media trying to "keep the story going" as they say. Now, there is a formal driver council, which meets with NASCAR's top brass. And it was the drivers who had huge input into the 2016 "low downforce" rules. (Of course, if that package doesn't improve the quality of racing -- defined by CEO Brian France as more side-by-side action and "Wow" moment finishes -- the finger of blame will be pointed at the drivers.) 

Remember when NASCAR's response to the creation of the Race Team Alliance was that the owners' group would have to communicate with the sanctioning body via lawyers? While NASCAR hasn't publicly wrapped its arms around the RTA,  serious discussions have and are taking place to create some sort of franchise system to add much-needed value to the teams. 

The sanction abandoned its long practice of granting racetracks one-year deals and so the regular hosts now have five-year contracts, a bid to provide stability and date equity.

Kyle Busch's leg and foot injuries in Daytona's Saturday Xfinity race brought a quick response from NASCAR and its tracks in adding SAFER barriers and temporary tire walls. We need to see this re-energized safety initiative continue in the New Year. And I hope there's money to keep researching and developing more and better safety systems. 

Some PR spinner advised Brian France a few years ago to refer to competitors and other constituency groups within the series as "stakeholders," an attempt to make the business sound more sophisticated and inclusive. Well, in 2015, is was actually happening for REAL. I talked about this with Mike Helton, whose title was changed to vice chairman before last season (look for COO Brent Dewar to get the president title), and in essence we both said the times demand this more welcoming approach. 

This NASCAR isn't your father's or grandfather's NASCAR. The change of course ordered by the Daytona Beach Powers-That-Be was profound. I say again, it was under-reported, but it was huge and will play out even more in 2016.

Despite all the hype about the redesigned car that made its debut season-before-last, you know, the one that looks more like the street versions, I find it incredibly disappointing that with all the time and manufacturer mutual cooperation that went into it, that this car hasn't produced far-better competition from an entertainment standpoint. Thus we had the spectacle of multiple mid-season aero changes. I wrote and said many months ago that given Brian France's mandate for a better show, watch for people changes, and we saw that with competition VP Robin Pemberton's exit. If Brian isn't happier with the product in 2016, you can bet more staffers will be invited to depart from their NASCAR employment.

One big improvement I'm hoping for in the New Year is actually not something new, but rather a return to something old. The guy who convinced Brian France to steer away from the basics of good and professional one-on-one relationships with the media, and created the Integrated Marketing Communications model, left for a non-motorsports job. Congratulations. Now let's get back to actually TALKING to media and providing the essentials such as a print version of the media guide.

Gordon's decision to stop after a transformational and consequential career (I'd like to meet whoever doesn't vote for him as a first ballot Hall of Famer) sets up a couple more fascinating 2016 stories. Much heralded Chase Elliott will take over the now iconic No. 24 and will be under an intense garage area, media and fan microscope. Will he win a race and make the Chase? Meanwhile, up in the Fox TV booth, Gordon will team with Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip. How DW adapts, and if Joy is successful in directing traffic to ensure Gordon gets plenty of airtime to have his say, is something I'm anxious to see and hear.

Speaking of Elliott, the other youngster to follow in '16 is Erik Jones, widely touted to be NASCAR's Next Big Thing. Champion team owner Joe Gibbs keeps saying he has a plan to get Jones into the Cup series, and you gotta believe Toyota isn't going to let Jones get away the way Ford did with Jeff Gordon.

NASCAR keeps saying it's committed to a great "fan experience" and that puts the spotlight right on Daytona International Speedway and it's $400 million "re-imagining" that makes it more stadium than racetrack. Will the risk this investment represents pay off?

The economists and financial analysts I listen to keep saying the U.S. economy is overdo for another recession amidst the continued sluggish recovery from the crash of 2008. If that happens, watch out, and not just at Daytona. Sprint will be in its final season as the Cup series sponsor and word is NASCAR wants a 10-year, $1 billion commitment from a new partner. The timing simply might not be right for that. I wonder if Brian France and Co. would be willing to go sponsor-less for a year or two until the "right" deal comes along?

One thing is certain, and that's the end of the great Beer Wars and bragging rights among the oil companies. In the early 1980s, when I was CART's communications director, we had car sponsorship by six different brewers. In the last few weeks came news of the planned merger that would put Budweiser and Miller under the same corporate umbrella. It had already been decided to take the flagship Bud name off Kevin Harvick's Chevy for the second-tier and less prestigious Busch brand. 

And while race promoters and fans continue to cheer much cheaper gasoline, the collapse in oil prices might well eventually impact racing sponsorships. There is cost-cutting aplenty in the oil industry. If you are a Roger Penske, whose two major sponsors are a beer and an oil, well . . . 
Xfinity, Truck, NHRA, sports car and IndyCar teams already are thinly sponsored. The national and world economies are a source of great anxiety within the racing industry heading into 2016.

Elsewhere, NHRA will have a new TV package with Fox Sports and a transition to mostly live final-round telecasts. Let's see if shorter turnaround times for the crews will result in mechanical failures or setup mistakes and, thus, worse racing entertainment. It's a negative that Mike Dunn, racing's best TV analyst, will no longer fill that role. And we offer a respectful salute to Gary Gerould, a great pro and nice man, who has retired from pit road reporting.

Peter Clifford will get his chance at a first full-season as NHRA president following Tom Compton's unexplained departure. On paper, Clifford has made what look like positive moves in recent months, but the true test will be how it all plays out on-and-off the track.

The only real good thing I can see in the still struggling United SportsCar series is the Ford GT factory effort. This should generate a good bit of additional news coverage for the road racing tour. To what effect?

Finally, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 should be the year's most important event and story. The venerable Speedway is undergoing a remodeling, although not at all near the scale of Daytona. If this doesn't result in a return to sold-out status, and if there isn't a significant increase in national news coverage, we'll have even more cause to worry about the longer-term future of the race and the IndyCar series.


Finally, and as always, I thank all of you, the loyal readers, for using some of your valuable time to consume the information presented in this spec of cyberspace. 

[ please come back for a very special blog Friday, January 22, 2016 . . . ]