Politics stifles a schedule revolution
We now know the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule has some significant differences from 2010.
Different? Yes. Better? Well, maybe. As good as it can be? Not even close.
Doing what's best overall is compromised by doing what is best for two very powerful organizations: International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc.
NASCAR and the track owners made changes which they hope will increase interest and cause a bit of a buzz in 2011: Chicagoland starts the Chase; Kentucky Speedway gets a Cup event; Kansas Speedway gets a second Cup date; Texas goes to an April Saturday night race.
Interesting moves, but not necessarily the best moves for the sport. What would work best?
Shortening the schedule from 36 to 32 Cup events would help, a simple but effective concept of less supply creates more demand.
Ending the season in Las Vegas, and holding the Sprint Cup Awards banquet the next week, is another good idea if the schedule was shorter. And starting the Chase with a night race at Bristol would create plenty of excitement.
Those things didn't happen and can't happen for one clear reason: politics.
ISC and SMI are competing companies that play host to most of the Cup events. ISC owns 12 tracks that have Cup races. SMI has eight. Only three Cup tracks have other owners -- Pocono, Dover and Indianapolis.
But the complications are deeper. ISC is controlled by the France family, which owns NASCAR. So the people making the decisions on where races are held also have a major stake in many of the tracks that play host to Cup events.
SMI is controlled by racing mogul Bruton Smith, who has endured a love/hate relationship with the France family for half a century.
At the moment, Smith feels it's mostly love with NASCAR chairman Brian France and ISC chief executive officer Lesa France Kennedy, Brian's sister.
"My relationship with Brian and Lesa has never been better," Smith told me in a recent conversation. "I get along great with both of them. I think we're all trying to do what's best for the sport."
But Smith thinks, and rightfully so, that having the season finale at Las Vegas is best for the sport. NASCAR/ISC thinks the Homestead-Miami Speedway works fine as the last race.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of Smith's SMI tracks. Miami is an ISC property. Both groups have stockholders to answer to. Smith isn't getting a finale at Vegas unless ISC gets something in return.
Even if having the last race in Vegas is best for the sport, it isn't the best thing for ISC.
On the other side of things, some fans feel keeping two Cup races in Atlanta is best for the sport, but it isn't best for SMI to have one track (Kentucky) fail to make a profit because it doesn't have a Cup date. So Atlanta gives up a date to its SMI sister track.
Are you starting to see the problem here? Politics and the financial bottom line for two competing groups effects what happens with the NASCAR schedule.
And these are hard times for speedway ownership groups. Attendance is down and so are revenues.
ISC sent out a press release Tuesday saying it hopes to reduce its workforce and operational costs by $20-30 million beginning in 2011.
"As the economic recovery expected earlier in 2010 has not materialized, the Company will initiate additional structural changes," the ISC release states.
Roger VanDerSnick, the chief operating officer of ISC, is leaving. ISC has no plans to replace him.
SMI reported $14.2 million in decreased revenue in comparing the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2009. Admissions were down 12.7 percent in the second quarter of 2010.
So these companies are finding it harder to make money than they did a few years ago, as is true for most companies these days. Consequently, no one wants to give up a Cup date, even if it is best for NASCAR, because it would reduce revenues.
So ISC is going to do what's best for ISC and SMI will do what's best for SMI. And sometimes, that's not what's best for NASCAR in the long run.
It is an odd dichotomy. These companies need each other to help NASCAR grow, but they also fear each. SMI doesn't want ISC to gain too much influence and power, and vice versa.
Scheduling Cup events in the right places at the right times takes a back seat to keeping the balance between these two entities.
For example, taking one Cup race away from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., was the right thing to do. But moving that race to Kansas Speedway, an ISC sister track, may not be the best place to add a second race.
No chance that race was going to Las Vegas because it's an SMI track.
Starting the Chase in Chicago (well, Joliet, Ill., actually) might help that facility, but possibly going head-to-head with a Bears home game, or a White Sox playoff game, isn't so good for a track that gets little attention from the Chicago media.
Smith was willing to give ISC the first Chase race, moving his New Hampshire race to the second Chase event, probably because NASCAR wanted something from him to allow him to move an Atlanta race to Kentucky.
You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
But who is scratching the back of you, the fan?
Brian France called the 2011 schedule changes "impactful." And they are. The changes have a big impact on the delicate power balance between ISC and SMI, thanks to some rare bipartisan cooperation.
Maybe with a little luck, it will be good for NASCAR, too.
But is it the best it can be? Not a chance. Politics gets in the way.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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