Sports

Attendance at Michigan should send message to NASCAR

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Coming to Michigan International Speedway and seeing fewer grandstands feels so different than at other tracks.

At the home of the manufacturers, it’s a swift kick to the groin to come to a facility with fewer seats than the last time one was here.

While rain certainly impacted attendance, it was an underwhelming crowd for the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at the track, which now has fewer than 60,000 seats, making one wonder whether NASCAR has totally lost a connection to the U.S.-based manufacturers that still have a presence in the Motor City.

It hasn’t, of course. Ford has a lottery for its employees, with 1,200 receiving tickets to attend the race and hear from the Ford drivers and executives prior to the event. For those who can get the tickets, it’s a highlight and perk they love.

Chevrolet had some of its drivers in its Lansing plant on Thursday, and Alex Bowman, among others, met “one of his biggest fans,” who had a photo of No. 88 as her screen saver.

Kevin Harvick, speaking in January, swore there is still passion for manufacturers when the suggestion was made that rarely does one see bumper stickers or window decals that promote pride in a specific car manufacturer and that the car culture is dead.

“You should change brands,” he said.

Harvick had driven Chevrolets for more than a decade when Stewart-Haas switched to Ford prior to the 2017 season.

“I took a lot of grief from the Chevy side of things, and you had a lot of Ford fans say, ‘Glad to have you,'” Harvick said. “Still, to this day, you have people that write you and say, ‘I can’t root for you anymore because you drive a Ford’ and the Ford fans say, ‘I never rooted for you before because of a Chevy.’

“It wasn’t a few people. It was way more than I had anticipated when it all happened. I was like [manufacturer passion] is not a real thing anymore, and then you look at your Twitter feed, you’re like, ‘Holy crap, that’s still real.'”

NASCAR appears to have missed an opportunity to tap into that manufacturer passion. It should have a test day or a manufacturer day at the Michigan track where it buses factory workers to at the end of their shifts. Maybe a picnic of sorts to celebrate the technology as well as the passenger car relevance — yeah, it’s not as good as it should be, but it’s got to be there somewhere — of Cup cars.

The cars are not like the street cars, although the body styles do contain some elements that make them unique and attempt to tap into that passion.

Chevrolet moved to the Camaro this year from the SS as its brand for the Cup cars. Ford will trash the Fusion and go with the Mustang next year, a decision the Ford brass say was made before plans to discontinue the Fusion. Toyota neither confirmed nor denied reports that its revived Supra model will be used in the Xfinity Series next year.

“We do believe winning is important for the brand,” said Ford’s racing head, Mark Rushbrook, earlier this year. “Having more Fords running up front we think will help the brand.

“The way we’re trying to tell our story through the media is to tell our story and how we are using racing to make our road cars better and everything on our road cars to make our racing better.”

Both Ford and Chevrolet have racing in their DNA — both Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet raced cars. Rushbrook meets with Edsel B. Ford II, a member on Ford’s board of directors, once a month to discuss the racing program.

“We have some metrics that tie our participation and activation and performance,” Rushbrook said. “It’s not an engineering equation. We look at those metrics but there also is a great feeling from inside the company — the employee pride and everything.

“There are a lot of intrinsic things about being in the sport and winning the sport that even the metrics can’t fully capture it, but our senior management believes it’s an important part of the company.”

Track officials at Michigan have a rotating trophy awarded to the manufacturer that wins the Cup race at Michigan. It’s important to those who work for the manufacturers, and it hopefully shows their bosses that NASCAR is still a wise investment. The auto show atmosphere, with several manufacturer vehicles on display, in the fan areas at some tracks often has people taking a look at the newest thing on the lot.

The adage of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is an outdated slogan that still sounds great but has little evidence in reality. It’s win on Sunday, hope to get them in the showroom in six months.

“It’s almost win on Sunday, we have to sell every day — if I can get Chevrolet to be one of the top three brands they’re considering, our advertising, our local dealers will solidify that final decision,” said Chevrolet Racing manager Terry Dolan.

Dolan accompanied the drivers on the tour of the plant last week.

“We’re able to monitor awareness, consideration, opinion and then, most importantly, shopping,” Dolan said. “We’ve been doing these [surveys] for about 10 years, and the trending remains very strong.

“That is one of the tools that reinforces that the investment we’re making remains paying dividends.”

That’s a good thing. Bubba Wallace, the 24-year-old Cup rookie, has driven for each of the manufacturers in his career. His Cup team made the switch from Ford to Chevrolet in the offseason.

“It amazes me the feedback you get,” he said. “When RPM [Richard Petty Motorsports] switched over to Chevrolet, you got the positive tweets and the negative tweets.

“It’s like [for me], I’m sure if you were in our world, you would drive anything they gave you. For me, I was always a fan of anything and everything.”

If there are more people like Wallace, fans of all manufacturers, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does NASCAR need to connect all that much with those who love their Chevrolets or Fords or Toyotas?

If the answer is that NASCAR does need to make that connection, do restrictor plates and other methods to tighten competition fall into the right vision for the sport?

Or should NASCAR be looking more to an electric car series at some point to remain relevant with manufacturer technology?

Some will say that the passion for the car will never come back, that Michigan is one of the tracks destined to just have one race on the schedule.

But throwing in the towel just seems wrong. NASCAR didn’t throw in the towel when attempting to dry the track amid threatening weather forecasts Sunday. The NASCAR industry approach to reaching the car lover, the car builder and the weekend mechanic needs to have that same resolve.

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