As NASCAR fans are gearing up for the season opener this Sunday, Feb. 26, in Daytona Beach, Florida, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France sat down with The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task to discuss what fans can expect this season and what changes have been made to the sport.
France says 2011 "was a great year by all metrics" for NASCAR and remains confident that fans will stick with the sport even in hard economic times.
"We have a lot of momentum going into 2012," France says. "We're always hit harder" in an economic downturn, France notes, but "the future looks bright for us."
NASCAR has close to 75 million fans around the world and nearly 30 percent of Americans are NASCAR enthusiasts. The organization reports it's seen strong growth in its fan base, TV viewership, race attendance and online sales merchandise over the past year.
"Our attendance is on the up rise and there's more demand right now across the board for tickets," France says, while referring in part to the excitement from Tony Stewart's improbable third win in the NASCAR Spring Cup Series last November, which he hopes will continue to carry over into this season. Another boost for NASCAR is Danica Patrick's decision to leave the IndyCar series after seven years and run the Nationwide series schedule, including the season-opener Daytona 500.
NASCAR Economy: Better But Still Struggling
Although NASCAR has managed to bounce back, much like the economy, the sport and its fan base are still struggling.
A Forbes study found that the value of the top ten NASCAR teams fell five percent between 2010 and 2009. And very recently, California's Irwindale Speedway, which has been called the "best short track in minor league NASCAR racing," has canceled its 2012 season after opening 13 years ago. Some of the game's biggest names, including star drivers Tony Stewart and Joey Logano, competed there.
In terms of the economic state of fans, while demand for tickets is on the rise, some cannot afford tickets and have been forced to watch the games from home, France acknowledges. In response, tracks have become more accommodative, lowering ticket prices and working with hotels to lower rates in an attempt to bring people back into the stands.
But when it comes to advertising dollars, France says the sport has not seen a decline in corporate sponsors and many NASCAR staples — Sprint (S), MillerCoors and SiriusXM (SIRI) and Goodyear (GT) — have renewed for the 2012 season. Several companies have also decided to enter the NASCAR market for the first time, a good barometer for both the economy and sponsor-heavy sports like NASCAR.
NASCAR Daytona 500: Prepping for Race Day
As fans get ready to cheer on their favorite drivers, NASCAR will also be revealing some of the changes it has made this season. One example is NASCAR's embrace of technology, including its introduction of electronic fuel injection.
"Our goal is excite the manufacturers who have such an important position in NASCAR and also to make us more appealing to other technology companies," France says.
Race cars will now have smaller spoiler, a larger restrictor plate and softer springs. Bigger changes are to come in 2013.
Who will win the Daytona 500?
"I have no idea," says France. "It's always a wide open event."
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