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NASCAR finds its groove

Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin

I’m not a big car racing fan, but then neither is NASCAR. The organization is to auto racing what the BCS is to a national champion of Division I college football – controlling the money, media, marketing, all of the rules, and the participants. And for years it’s been about the rules and control rather than about the sport.

To be fair, NASCAR is starting to figure it out. Driven by the recession like many of us, it began to improve its product and discovered a pretty good sport buried under the bureaucracy. Over the years it had become the car race sport of rules to the point that fans were calling it “boring, follow-the-leader racing.”

Racing should be heart-pounding. It should be fast and uncontrived and evidenced by wicked good driving. That is what sells. In “real” racing, that is exactly what you get at Le Mans, and even at Baja.

But the rules at NASCAR had made it an engineering game, not a driver’s. Now the sport is understanding it over-controlled and is working toward solutions. Horsepower will be increased, and restrictions lessoned so the drivers can race. That’s a great start. Yet like any industry, even a perfect product won’t help without spreading the word.

Enter Danica Patrick. That’s an even better start. She is a seasoned, generally middle-to-front-third-of-the-pack Indy driver, but who grabs headlines wherever she is. And given her first “stock car” race this last weekend and a sixth place finish, she is by any standard a race car driver.

Yes, she is all of the other marketing things, too: perfect teeth, great hair, too pretty for words, and did I mention, a legitimate race car driver? A temper, too, and that may be what many of us love. Last year, her 5’2” gunfighter’s walk down the infield to punch out a male driver who clipped her was John Wayne all over again. It ended when a Wayne-sized security official of the track convinced her “Ms. Patrick, you don’t want to do this,” and at the same time used his body to ease her through the gate to her safety and assuredly that of her antagonist.

Yes, NASCAR signing Patrick brings a lot and shows it knows it needs some help. Changing the rules and letting drivers drive shows that NASCAR “gets it,” too. The truth is that whether your game is football, racing, retail, or insurance you have to continually reinvent and sometimes retro-invent to keep your old customers and gain new ones.

And like health care, too, many self-serving rules can put your future at risk. How refreshing it would be in car racing to just say “drivers, here’s the track, burn it up.” But then we would be back at Le Mans.

About Michael Tomlin