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Sunday, 15 February 2009

Recession Rumbles On NASCAR's Biggest Day Of Thunder

I don’t know if I like Nicole Kidman. As an actress I mean. For every To Die For there’s a Bewitched or an Australia. Or a Days of Thunder. Motor racing doesn’t make for great films (Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix aside, though that is more of a technical marvel than a good story) and Days of Thunder is no exception. It’s an OK tale of a young driver (Tom Cruise) attempting to make his way into NASCAR, and our Nicole makes an appearance of her own as a brain surgeon and love interest of the world’s favourite scientologist, before he became a scientologist. Her character Dr. Claire Lewicki (please comment if that’s your surname... it’s unusual to say the least) utters one line which I think is worth repeating.

Nobody knows what's gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack.

Tonight, of all nights, that’s a pretty appropriate sentiment. The future of NASCAR is uncertain. In 2009, 19 years after Cruise and Co put NASCAR on the silver screen, the sport needs something another boost its profile. Much like Formula 1, NASCAR has fallen victim to this recession you might have heard about. America’s ‘Big Three’ car manufacturers have needed a bailout from the US government and, when they’re laying off staff, it’s difficult to see how they can afford to spend millions of dollars on an increasingly expensive sport.

As I type this, I’m watching the Daytona 500, the first and most important race of the Sprint Cup season. 43 cars are racing in front of a sell-out crowd in the stands and millions on TV, but one has to wonder what the sport will be like later in the season, in less traditional NASCAR strongholds like Fontana on a random NASCAR Sunday rather than during The Great American Race. Will the sport survive the economic meltdown? Yes. It’s got too much tradition and the television income is substantial, to say the least. But what sort of a NASCAR will we be looking at in 2010 or 2011? That remains unclear.

Measures have been taken. Testing has been curtailed in a cost cutting measure, while it seems that among the teams there is a genuine willingness to cut costs and end a ‘he-who-spends-most-wins-most’ culture. Yet I question the actions of NASCAR in this crisis. Sure, the testing has been postponed, but why has there been minimal international marketing? Where are the in-race features which show the drivers’ personalities to the casual fan, who has tuned into today’s 500 and needs to be lured into the sport? I'm watching FOX's coverage right now and on the sport's biggest day, which attracts the curious viewer, there's been none. Why are races so long? Even hardcore fans are pushed to watch 400 miles at Dover or 500 in California. Why are there races in Fontana, Atlanta, Miami, Infineon and Vegas and not, say, in Rockingham where hardcore fans are in plentiful supply? If people in the locality aren't going to turn up to watch, then that makes for an unappealing television spectacle too.

The crisis has bitten, but the show is still good. Tune in, you won’t regret it. Yes, they turn left all the time but as a series it offers much more competitive racing than we see in Europe. The show is good, both on TV and in the stands. There is no reason that this series cannot survive the recession better than F1. I feel it will do that, but the suffering should not be as extreme as it already is. NASCAR authorities need to do more, but so far there has been no pro-active measures from them, badly needed as they are. Don’t just take my word for it. Remember what Claire, I mean Nicole, said.

You...have a sickness, it's called denial and it's probably going to kill you.


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