Last week I went to a Q & A at Infineon Raceway and what I saw were the reasons that NASCAR is so successful, and some reasons why NASCAR should be concerned about the future. First the good.
Jimmie Johnson and his wife came to the Raceway to spend time with fans that had bought tickets to a special section set aside for his fans. The tickets were basically a half price offer, and as an incentive the ticket included the Q & A. The Raceway and NASCAR both realized that their fans were in a tough financial environment and that to sell out, they needed to help the fans to be able to afford the tickets, so they stepped up and reached out to the fan. The fans responded, there were over 600 fans in the stands on a Thursday afternoon, at high noon, to spend time and hear Jimmie speak. The fans came from as far as way as Yakima Washington to spend a half hour with Jimmie. We all set on a sunny hillside and were close enough to reach out and touch one of the stars of the sport. What other professional athlete from any other sport would be this accessible? Do baseball or football or basketball stars sit in the stands and talk with the fans? Not that I’ve seen. Jimmie stood for pictures with fans and signed memorabilia that fans brought. Again, rare for this to happen, other than in a staged event where the fans pay to play. The drivers and the tracks realize where the money comes from and they are working to keep the fans involved and feeling valued.
A couple of things that were said during the Q & A made me concerned for the future of NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson is a multi millionaire and looks the part, clean cut, well dressed and polished. He was also there to pick the wine that would be served to the winner, WINE at NASCAR? Budweiser must have had a fit. One fan asked a question regarding training that Jimmie had gone through in getting to the top of NASCAR, and he explained that he had been taken classes in public speaking and sponsor relations and worked with PR people to be a better spokesman for the sport. Hardcore NASCAR fans like their heroes to be authentic, down home guys. Does anyone think that Richard Petty, David Pearson, or Dale Earnhardt went through PR Boot Camp before they became the stars of the sport? I know that Tony Stewart has PR people, but apparently he doesn’t do well at listening. Kyle Bush doesn’t censor his comments when he gets out of the car. NASCAR seems to have a rough and tumble history and the fans still have that expectation of their drivers. The gentrification of NASCAR is starting to bother many of the fans of the sport. The drivers are losing their connections with the fans, like the stars of other sports.
Another point was the fact that there was hardly any trash talking by Johnson. The fans gave him many opportunities, they asked about battles with other drivers, Jeff Gordon, Junior, or Tony Stewart and Johnson didn’t rise to the bait, he wouldn’t speak ill of the competition. The fans like a little bravado from their heroes.
NASCAR’s roots are based in the common man from the Southeast, and that has been successful up until now, why change? The way they have done business in the past has worked for them; they have brought the sport to the pinnacle of success. They were starting to lose fans at the tracks before the recession, and the decline has accelerated during the last year. I realize the leadership has changed, but they need to listen to the fans.