I have been invited to join the Huffington Post’s blogging family. It seems my first post for the Chicago bureau stimulated a lot of conversation about the future of auto sports. Here it is:
Dear Brian France:
It’s time to retool NASCAR. While your family guided the franchise through good times, there’s no denying that times have changed. The economic crisis means the bottom is falling out of pricey sponsorship deals that fueled the NASCAR machine for years. With corporate sponsors accounting for roughly 80 percent of the typical NASCAR team’s budget, the $30 million in fees that drivers such as Jimmie Johnson command are a thing of the past.
Americans are waking up with hangovers from our energy addictions. We’re feeling queasy at the sight of NASCAR drivers circling the track burning colossal amounts of precious fuel. Yet, we still love cars. So there remains an opportunity here and it includes the sport doing its part to deliver a return on investment to its most generous sponsors–the Big Three automakers.
It’s time for NASCAR to pull a U-turn. Leadership needs to get on board the green express and point NASCAR in the direction of sustainable, renewable auto sports. Why not create races for hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles? Make it about low emissions, speed and duration. This would be a boon for American auto makers who could use it as a platform to innovate and create excitement for the alternative vehicles they are feverishly bringing to market. Imagine that, NASCAR could help save jobs and keep the Big Three relevant, while perhaps saving tax payers from having to pick up the tab on another costly bailout.
And it’s not just about being green, it’s also about being trustworthy. The NASCAR smoke machine that would have us believe auto racing appeals to a large swath of college-educated women is kaput. Companies bought into the myth to justify paying outrageous sponsorship fees while passing the costs along to suburban female shoppers in the price of goods. It was a fable that made putting Dale Earnhardt’s picture on a box of children’s cereal seem like a no-brainer. And it was, more or less.
Turns out the NASCAR audience is a beefy niche, albeit a loyal, beefy niche. The hard cold fact of the matter is that grocery store managers are some of NASCAR’s most adoring fans. They willingly grant NASCAR sponsors more shelf space in exchange for all manner of freebies.
NASCAR has earned a rightful place in American popular culture. But as we fall deeper into this downward spiral, it will be important for the people who create the culture, whether that be the France family with its NASCAR juggernaut, or Robert Redford with Sundance, or Oprah Winfrey with her media empire, to lead the way to a more enlightened way of life. It won’t happen by looking in the rear view mirror. We all need to look up from the ditch we’ve dug and conjure a new society–one that is more environmentally sound, more inspiring and more innovative.