Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Crunch Time

It's a NASCAR dynamic that has never been seen before. A moment that is going to be captured by social media in real time. It's history unfolding right in front of the reporters assigned to tell the story. It's pivotal words being spoken about the future in a building that celebrates the past.

Wednesday night at 6:30PM in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the sport's top executives will appear in front of the reporters assembled for the Charlotte media tour. Here is the line-up as forwarded by NASCAR.

Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO, who will be the featured speaker at 7PM.

Mike Helton, NASCAR President, who will no doubt be the focus of questions about changes within the Sprint Cup Series.

Paul Brooks, NASCAR Senior Vice President/President NASCAR Media Group, who controls all the television, radio and online rights for the sport. TV ratings are his job.

Steve Phelps, NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, who was featured on Undercover Boss. This gave viewers a small glimpse into the lifestyle of a top NASCAR executive.

Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR Managing Director of Public Affairs, who may field some interesting questions on the continuing diversity agenda.

Joie Chitwood III, Daytona International Speedway President, who is expected to focus on the upcoming Speedweeks and update the recent testing in terms of the new pavement at DIS.

Missing from this group are Robin Pemberton, the VP of Competition and Jay Abraham, the COO of the NASCAR Media Group. Also noticeably absent is the yet-to-be-named head of NASCAR's new Integrated Marketing Communications Department, the public spokesman for the sport.

Preliminary remarks are scheduled to get underway shortly after 6:30PM and the entire press conference will be streamed on the website. Click here for the direct link. Originally, was also participating but now only the official NASCAR site will handle the streaming.

At 7PM, Steve Byrnes will be hosting Race Hub on SPEED TV. That show will join the press conference live to get the France remarks and hopefully stay for the questions that will follow. Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond will be in the studio for reaction and analysis after France's remarks.

The reason for all this media focus is easy to understand. Even on Monday and Tuesday of this week, France was still meeting with Sprint Cup Series teams to talk about the season format, race points structure and several topics concerning the 2011 season. In other words, things appear to be last minute.

This past weekend, television viewers saw Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leave a key game at a crucial time. On TV he appeared to be disinterested, arrogant and not in pain. The images presented angered millions of viewers around the world.

In fact, Cutler had been pulled from the game by the team doctor after a knee injury. In subsequent interviews, the coach and key players all called Cutler one of the toughest football players on the team. The back-up quarterback related that Cutler had been cooperative and helpful during the game. To many fans, it did not matter.

Just like that NFL telecast, NASCAR also ended the season with a perception and a reality. To the NASCAR executives, teams and television networks the season was a success. Three drivers were in contention for the season championship in the last race. In reality, it came down to the wire.

There is, however, a perception that lingers. It has to do with Darrell Waltrip talking over top of Mike Joy and dominating every on-air conversation. It has to do with the tired clown act of Chris Myers. It has to do with Phil Parsons conducting the worst pit road interviews ever seen on national television. It has to do with Marty Reid crumbling down the stretch. It has to do with horrible national anthems for a sport loaded with American pride.

It has to do with one-third of the racing being covered by commercials. It has to do with pictures framed so tightly viewers never see the actual race. It has to do with twelve on-air announcers all fighting to be heard while cars race under green. It has to do with men pointing to shock absorbers on-camera ten months into the racing season.

In short, this was one of the roughest NASCAR TV seasons of Sprint Cup Series coverage in recent memory. The ratings told the tale. So, what is going to change? FOX returns the same on-air line-up as does TNT. ESPN had Ray Evernham depart, but the rest of the group is back. ESPN announced Tuesday that Rusty Wallace had signed a four-year extension to continue as the Lead Studio Analyst.

The reality may be that the Chase worked well and the racing was outstanding. The perception is that the sport is drowning and TV is the anchor dragging it down. At the end of the year, the NFL pounded the Sprint Cup Series into the ground and enjoyed every minute of it.

It's up to one man to convince the fan base that the 2011 reality is going to be quite different. Wednesday night, France needs to offer changes that will excite the fans and create the kind of preseason buzz missing for years.

This one moment in time may be a determining factor for many fans as to whether they commit ten months of weekends to NASCAR or simply take a walk. We know the fans are out there because NASCAR enjoyed their presence for many years.

Low TV ratings aren't due to the economy, over-the-air television or Kyle Petty's ponytail. How many of us got into NASCAR through the old Nashville Network on this new thing called cable TV? NASCAR has been on cable since the 1980's.

It's the dynamic TV coverage of the sport combined with a set of rules that drives competition on the track in every race. That is the only recipe for recovery. France is first with his changes and then FOX, TNT and ESPN each must respond on the air with their new approach. The bottom line is that 2011 is crunch time and the season opens now.

We will have a live blog for your Wednesday comments on the press conference starting shortly after 6PM. In the meantime, please feel free to leave your opinion on the topics mentioned above. To add your comment, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.