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· Registered
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by Peter M. DeLorenzo (ISSUE 255, JULY 7, 2004)

Editor's Note: In the last five years of bringing you The High-Octane Truth, Peter has written countless columns that have reverberated and resonated through the halls of what's left of the "Big Three" - and, indeed, throughout the industry - but few have generated the torrent of email as last week's column about Detroit's misguided fascination with all things NASCAR. With that in mind, and with many auto executives on vacation over the next two weeks, we thought we'd leave the column up another week. - JJP

Since starting this website five years ago, I've built a reputation by 1. Talking about things people in the business are usually only comfortable with discussing in private conversations or after hours, 2. Talking about things that executives are only willing to discuss with journalists "off the record," or in "deep background" conversations, and 3. Talking about things that others haven't even thought about yet, which inevitably become topics of the moment in the business, thanks to us. In short, creating and writing The High-Octane Truth every week has become about leading the discussions crucial to the industry, it's about being out front, and in some cases, it's about saying things people don't want to hear, but who, in private moments, admit are unflinchingly accurate, albeit as painful as that may be.

With that reminder, today I'm going to lead the discussion on why Detroit's infatuation with all things NASCAR needs to come to an end. On the surface, this might be about as popular as suggesting that mom and apple pie have outlived their usefulness, but the reality is that NASCAR has become counterproductive to "Detroit" - and its cumulative and urgent interest in stemming the import tide, and it desperate mission to stop the erosion of market share in the North American market.

Heresy? In some circles, you bet.

But there is a growing belief in executive suites around the Motor City that NASCAR has outlived its usefulness, which is a tough stand to take, especially when you look at all that comes with NASCAR in its current form. It's the No. 2 spectator sport in the U.S. behind the National Football League. Its weekly races generate the kind of consistent viewing numbers that make Madison Avenue media mavens grin with a "cha-ching" soundtrack dancing in their heads. And NASCAR has exploited every opportunity to orchestrate a monster multi-billion dollar marketing juggernaut that has sponsors clamoring for a piece of the action (well, it used to, anyway. Lately, NASCAR has been in the throes of an actual sponsor exodus, as companies have found out that participating in NASCAR is all about promoting the NASCAR brand and little else).

But what does that really mean to Detroit? What does NASCAR actually have to do with helping Detroit in its quest to hold market share - or even increase it? DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors spend $75 million each on their NASCAR programs. That includes direct payouts to teams, drivers, promotions and advertising support. What, exactly, does Detroit get for its money?

In a few words? Not a damn thing.

First of all, NASCAR has created a cult of personality based on its drivers (and their car numbers) and their teams. The drivers are the first priority for NASCAR's marketing machine, and they've been extremely successful creating this cult of personality - based on the number of TV commercials, print ads and promotions that we see with NASCAR drivers involved.

Second, NASCAR has created a marketing environment for its participating sponsors second only to the NFL in both its effectiveness and in the pampering way they treat their sponsor representatives at the events (which helps mask the fact that the sponsors are putting more into furthering NASCAR's interests than they are getting a return for their investments).

Third, NASCAR has created a marketing vehicle only loosely based on the actual racing. Instead, it's all about "the show" - and NASCAR does everything in its power to enhance that show - with sponsors, the car companies and especially the fans taking a backseat to NASCAR's "vision" for what constitutes entertainment.

What does that last point mean, exactly?

It means that NASCAR has taken gradual steps over the last decade to equalize the competition, figuring that if "the show" has as close to a boffo ending every week that they can possibly orchestrate, then the TV numbers will stay up, and the whole machine can get fueled for even more sponsor participation - i.e., even more money.

But in their zeal to orchestrate "the show" - NASCAR has proceeded to make Detroit's participation irrelevant. The cars, masquerading as the Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Monte Carlo, are now defined by "headlights" and grille openings created by different decals, and if you squint real hard they look like the cars' street counterparts (sort of), but in fact, the car bodies are identical, with heavy restrictions due to aerodynamic controls and the quest to "equalize" the competition. Not to mention the fact that the cars populate rental car fleets across America and are completely useless in Detroit's fight in staving off their import competitors.

What is Detroit getting, exactly, from their involvement in NASCAR?

I'll reiterate an earlier point, only this time with an assist from the late, great R&B singer Edwin Starr - absolutely nothing.

The NASCAR marketing machine is in place to do one thing: Promote, enhance and expand the NASCAR brand. Period.

They use their drivers to create a "cult of personality" in order to orchestrate and perpetuate that mission.

And they use their sponsors in the same way.

In a now annoying ritual, NASCAR drivers, in a typical post-race Victory Lane interview, first thank their car sponsors in an endless regurgitation of a laundry list memorized for the occasion, then they thank NEXTEL, the series sponsor, then they thank the sponsor of the actual event itself. If Dodge, Ford or Chevrolet is mentioned, it's in a brief throwaway line that inevitably gets lost in the shuffle.

Detroit's participation, in short, has become an afterthought.

NASCAR makes no bones about the fact that it believes it can get along just fine without Detroit, either. Moving closer to even more of a "spec car" series in the interest of "the show," NASCAR is contemplating building the center sections of the cars and only allowing teams to finish them off for their particular "brands" at their shops - all in the interest of making the cars as identical as possible. NASCAR has even discussed making and selling "spec" engines that remove any chance for a manufacturer to exploit any engineering advantage discovered. Heaven forbid a manufacturer be actually encouraged to use racing for what it has always been used for - to push the envelope, to innovate and to explore new technologies that end up improving production cars that we can all enjoy on the street.

Detroit is wasting a cumulative $225 million on NASCAR. And wasting is the operative and dead-accurate word to use here. Here they are locked in the fight of their lives, literally for their very survival - and they're pissing away a quarter of a billion dollars every year to advertise their rental car fleets and help fuel NASCAR's marketing machine.

What Detroit is doing in NASCAR has nothing to do with racing - instead, it has everything to do with perpetuating the NASCAR brand and enhancing "the show." And for those very crucial reasons, Detroit is being classically underserved in its interests.

There are several other viable racing series in this country that allow Detroit to actually go head-to-head with the same import competition that they face in the showrooms every day. Those venues, like the SPEED World Challenge and the American Le Mans Series, offer import-oriented consumers a real opportunity to see Detroit products in action, and they can do wonders for Detroit's credibility. When Detroit can't even get on most import buyers' radar screens, they've got to go out of their way to do everything possible to change that - and pissing away millions on NASCAR's glorified branding exercise isn't going to cut it.

The perpetual problem in Detroit is that nobody high up enough in these companies has the cojones to say "no" to NASCAR. Their marketing minions trot out the usual TV numbers and sponsor mumbo-jumbo, but nobody has the guts to ask the tough questions, such as - what are we selling here? And what are we really getting for being part of NASCAR's show? Or, are we making a dent in the consumers we need to reach, or are we just placating a diminishing domestic-oriented constituency?

And nobody in the motorsports departments wants to deal with the reality of the situation either. Given the choice of racing in NASCAR or not racing at all, they will always just shrug their shoulders and go along to get along with the NASCAR juggernaut. It's as much about inertia as anything else.

And that's just a flat-out travesty.

Two years ago, General Motors walked away from one of the most important racing programs in its history. Their Cadillac American Le Mans Series prototype racing program had endured setbacks and fits and starts, yet they were just on the verge of becoming consistently competitive against the dominant Audi racing program. But then they walked away from it, ostensibly because "they just didn't have the money," as one of GM's top executives pointedly told me at Pebble Beach last summer. So, instead of going head-to-head against Audi for the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans - the most prestigious sports car race in the world - GM folded its tent and cancelled the program.

It was one of the most momentously wrongheaded decisions ever taken by an automobile company. And the real reason was not that GM didn't have the money, the real reason is no one had the cojones to say "no" to the NASCAR machine. So, instead of competing for the hearts and minds of imported car intenders around the world with their resurgent Cadillac brand, they shored up Monte Carlo's stature as one of America's favorite "go to" rental cars.

The sooner Detroit collectively realizes that they're just another sideshow in the NASCAR circus, the better off they'll be.

It's time for Detroit to finally pull the plug on their NASCAR involvement.


· Cheshire Cat
1,025 Posts
It's not that he hates NASCAR, but rather that he believes that since all of the cars have been brought to a single standard, with little to no differentiation between the various makes, there is no financial reason for the big three to stay in. Although, if the muddy masses see "Ford cuts NASCAR effort" on the front page of their sports section, and it will be there, then Ford's sales will drop simply as a matter of principle.

As far as the innovation, you only have to look as far as Toyota's NASCAR truck effort. I mean, just look at it. They're taking some names, aren't they?

Contrary to this guy's opinion, I believe that nobody can pull out of NASCAR. If they do, they will lose an edge in equality over their competitors. However, the conversion of the series to a spec race series would not be too far off from where it is now, but would eliminate the one part of NASCAR that I respect - the engineers.

· Super Moderator
18,531 Posts
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaayy too long to read for me...And it's all irrelevant, anyway...Nascar is a billion dollar industry, and there is no way EVER any of the big car companys will pull out...

The statement below is as true as it gets, and it will always be this way...

--Win on Sunday, sell on Monday...

· Registered
522 Posts
NASCAR is the WWE of motorsports. Some unclassy drivers cause drama that fans just love to watch, like how a two drivers were spinning each other off during yellow flags and Tony Stewart hitting people left and right at Infineon. It makes it very entertaining to watch compared to the procession that is Formula One.

Just watch Windtunnel, people call in and complain about this driver and that driver and how "their" driver is the best. It shouldn't be about the driver or the track, it should be about the racing. Close racing is interesting to watch, but the races where the driver pulls away and dominates is what makes legends. Oh well, I guess your typical NASCAR fan doesn't care much about that though.

· Registered
4,266 Posts
I've never been a fan of going in circles. But I do remember when there was brand loyalty and a difference between the vehicles. I remember before NASCAR was cool when it WAS all about which car you drove.
Much of the musclecar era was fueled by NASCAR. The Superbird really was pretty much a NASCAR with headlights and turn signals. Much like we enjoy with SS crotch rockets today when the stock classes actually lap faster than full modifieds on some tracks.
But the car racing in NASCAR and the Monte Carlo you can buy are so totally not related anymore that it's truly irrelevant. It's like F1, the cars just bear no resemblance to anything you can buy.
And NASCAR has indeed become as boring as golf (actually, I always found it dull) with only the last two laps and all the pit stops making the slightest difference.
It's far more about the abilities of the pit crew now than the driver.

And the sheer lack of skill erquired makes having identical cars all the more boring. Even in say, motocross, where there is only so much you can do with a 300lb machine to make it faster than the next 300lb machine, there are total standouts like RC or Reed.
MX has a cult of personality because you can truly shine based on your own skill. RC just has more skill than any 10 riders out there. Any bike, RC is going to kick a$$.
So at least that cult of personality is interesting. NASCAR doesn't have that. It's primarily old ********, although they're dying off lately, driving these things. Not a young guy only a few years older than the weekend wannabe that's tuning in.
Old fu*ks don't buy cars based on whether it's something that is raced. Young people do. Hence the 16 year old's fascination with SS bikes.
NASCAR is great for people like my dad. He sits in a recliner and falls asleep 5 laps in to a race, wakes up 5 laps from the end, and is more than entertained.

· Premium Member
9,168 Posts
I've seen plenty of homes where the family spends Sunday watching the race and cheering for the Dale Jarret Ford to win. And of the 4 cars that family has parked in their driveway, how many of them do you think are Chevy's? ZERO!!! Die hard fans like that would only own Ford vehicles. I've personally seen many of these families and it's soo often the same. That is what Ford, and the other auto makers are in it for, the die hard fans that will end up buying their product.

Just like the old saying - "Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday". That may not apply quite as much today as it did 40 years ago, but it still is what the Big 3 are going after.

· Registered
199 Posts
I like nascar and watch it when I dont have nothing going on on Sunday. Some of the races do suck, they are just boring, but some are great fun to watch. Dega this past race was great fun to watch, while infinion was a little boring to me to watch (though not as boring as some have been) Everything is about the driver in nascar. that is why formula 1 isnt as big as nascar. In F1 it seems whoever has the most money will win. Nascar has tried to even the playing field by making the cars similar. that makes it more about the drivers.

· Banned
245 Posts
my family owns chevy :twofinger

and i got a ford and gm mmm domestic

rereading parts of it, cuz its sooo long

the author seems to hate nascar. why does he care if the three put money into it. It is called sponsorship. Nascar racing isn't cheap at all. The racers do make great money but to go cross country and race costs millions. A lot of companies put their names on nascar. Does it make me want to buy Tide, join the army, or drink pepsi, No. Maybe some of the hardcore nascar fans will be brand loyal.

Maybe he should bash why athletes make millions of dollars and even more when they sell niki shoes on tv. Or how stadiums are filled with advertisements and even a stadium will sell its name to have a product name. They renamed chicagos stadium to cell one or some shit like that. :thatsgay

if people want stock cars racing, i think iroc is still around. Plus theres demolition durby.

· Professional Mixologist
479 Posts
I'll be honest that is way to long to read...but I like nascar...

· Registered
4,266 Posts
The article focused on how NASCAR does little if anything for car manufacturers because all NASCAR cars are virtually identical. A chevy didn't win because it is a better car than a ford. The "Win of Sunday, sell on Monday" logic is being squeezed out of racing.

The cars they race are pretty much the rental car line for these companies as well, not their sporty cars.

It's not a rant against NASCAR itself, but rather that it is no longer doing anything for the car makers, only the sponsors and of course, the NASCAR brand itself.
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