Jeff Burton isn’t the kind of man to sugarcoat a problem.
The NASCAR legend has been in the game long enough to know when difficulties lie ahead.
Yet the man known as ‘The Mayor’ has always been a fighter – and that’s why when it comes to talking about his beloved sport’s future, the tone is bullish.
In an ever changing world where action is consumed on myriad platforms in countless ways, stock car racing couldn’t stand still. Evolution is crucial and with widespread changes being implemented this season, eyebrows have been raised while the same questions are asked.
Is this just another desperate attempt to douse trouble?
Some of the bare facts make uneasy reading. Last season saw a 7% drop in TV viewers with some of the lowest figures seen since 2001. Attendance figures at the track haven’t been released since 2012. No wonder considering crowds at some races last season, especially the Brickyard 400, were said to be the lowest ever. (250,000 attended Brickyard in 1994, compared to around 50,000 last year.)
More strikingly, when long term sponsor US telecom company Sprint announced in 2014 that their 10 year association with the sport would come to an end in 2016, there was a serious overvaluation which has cost millions.
Mooted deals with the likes of Microsoft never came to fruition and despite energy drinks company Monster jumping onboard to bring a new brand awareness, their deal was worth around $30 million LESS than the mobile phone operator’s $50 million a year agreement.
Furthermore, places on the grid have also become cheaper. Hopes of selling team spots for upwards of $10 million have been crushed with some going for around $2 million to $4 million.
“All these costs have become less expensive because everyone knows the sport isn’t as popular as it used to be,” said a well-placed source.
NASCAR bosses, however, have acted decisively.
A new format has torn up the traditional 500 mile race and will now break it into three segments, with points awarded to the top finishers of each stage in addition to the race winners. Extra points are dished out for winning stages, races and finishing the season in the top 16.
It’s a bold, brave move yet one which will encourage drivers to think – and drive – differently.
Legends like Tony Stewart aren’t around anymore – another cause for worry – but those in power are comforted by a massive decade long, $8.2billion TV package.
It’s hardly crisis time. (NASCAR still posted a weekly average of 4.6million viewers last season despite the drop in numbers.) Just like every other sport in the world, however, they are simply being forced to stay relevant and keep the customers happy – and excited.
“No-one should be in denial and say that NASCAR is as healthy as it ever has been – because it’s not,” Burton, who now works for NBC as an analyst, told Sport360.
“We don’t have the same numbers of people watching today as we did 10 years ago. But with these changes and evolution, the future remains bright. Reports of a demise have been exaggerated.”
With F1 now under new American ownership, there is sure to be a serious motorsport push stateside. NASCAR doesn’t fear Lewis Hamilton snaring any disenchanted petrol heads, especially with no star American drivers leading the charge in Grand Prix.
“I look at F1, they are part of the sports entertainment landscape who have a presence in the US and with our own ownership groups with Gene Haas involved,” said NASCAR’s Senior VP of Race Operations Jim Cassidy.
“But I like to think of it from a motorsport standpoint, if they are doing well that’s good news for everyone.”
The size of the NASCAR fan base is not in doubt – it’s the product on the track which needed a tweak.
“Look at the stands and the millions watching at home,” continued Burton. “Racing is still popular.”
Thus far, the format changes have gone down a storm.
In the past too many races faded into insignificance thanks to the leading drivers having already secured their spots in the end of season Chase with wins. Now, though, points are on offer in each of the three segments which stay with them right into the play-offs and through to the final race at Homestead. Every lap of every race now means something.
“We went into the playoffs last year, broke an engine and we were out”, lamented Furniture Row team boss Joe Garone.
“If we would have had those bonus points, we would have been okay. It would have acted as a reward for the consistency shown throughout the season. The new system makes the race throughout the whole event more exciting and valuable to the team because you carry those points into the play-offs.”
“The low downforce packages the cars have on them have also created a different type of racing. The cars move and slide around more. The race is put a little more back into the drivers’ hands.”
It’s a necessary move away from tradition but NASCAR fans, certainly those of a certain vintage, love the old days. Living in the past, however, can be dangerous. And with Monster now on board, a new era dawns. With their young demographic gorging on the razzmatazz of UFC, motocross and drag racing, race bosses are hoping for a serious injection of freshness and fun.
“It (Monster) is built on girls, parties and motorsports,” said Monster’s Mitch Covington.
That may sound like anathema for older fans. Yet no matter. A new vibrancy will be filtered in even if the financials paint a picture of belt adjusting.
Yet, in time, there’s hope Monster’s runaway success elsewhere – their net sales in 2015 totaled $2.7billion with a presence in 120 countries – will give racing the kind of jolt their drinks give to millions.
“They are growing and will continue to grow”, said Cassidy. “They are a brand that is on the side of being a maverick and resonate with our core fans. Monster love racing and bringing the following they do, it couldn’t have been a better match.”
But have Monster inherited a product which can fuel the excitement of their customers?
“We are pretty excited about what we have seen so far with the stage racing”, added Cassidy. “Every single lap of every race means just that little bit more and that is being translated onto the track. There are more storylines, more urgency, more moments.”
Analysing TV figures in today’s multi-media climate can temporarily blur reality.
The NFL, the undisputed sporting king of the US, suffered a slide in ratings last season, an even larger drop than NASCAR.
“2017 is all about stopping the bleeding by getting the people who are watching to want to watch it more”, concluded Burton. “The TV decline has stopped, the attendances have improved. There has been an upward trend. But this won’t all change overnight. It will take years.”
“We tend to glorify the past but it’s a different world now. The reality is we can’t go back. It has to be better than before.”
The MotoGP season is only two races old but Maverick Viñales has made his intentions clear – he’s racing for the World Championship.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, who joined Yamaha last year, has come out on top in both Qatar and Argentina. But it’s no surprise given he was always destined for success after winning the Moto3 title in 2013.
Following his extraordinary start to the season, the Monster Energy athlete spoke about his childhood memories and his determination to succeed in professional motorcycling.
This year must feel a bit different. The hype around you at Yamaha is a new set of circumstances…
The first two years in Suzuki were really difficult, not for my riding style but the machine was not at the top level of the ‘important riders’ but this pre-season has been really good and I’m so happy.
The team, the bike, how I worked in each track: all was excellent. I improve day-by-day and we are happy with the lap-times but we know we have to be ready for other conditions.
At the moment I don’t feel too much pressure; I have just been able to enjoy the bike. Normally I try to take everything in a positive way and the fact that so many are saying I can be a favourite for the title motivates me so much.
I think it is important that people look at you and think ‘he can win’. It means you are doing a good job.
You are used to media attention but the brightness of the spotlight with social media and other demands must have increased quite a lot?
It is a different story now and with social media, people can talk good or bad [about you]. You have to try and take all the information and everything that comes at you in a good way.
When you see critical comments then you have to take what you can from them. But at the moment it is nice to open Twitter and Instagram and see all of this news, and I like it. I like being at the front [of MotoGP] and I like being competitive.
As a boy were you looking to escape and play some sports?
Always. Always out of the house. It is not like now where you have the feeling the kids don’t go out much. I was lucky because as a kid it was like the ‘old times’: we were always on the street and not much was happening.
At 09:00, we’d be out on the bicycles, heading to the mountain, playing, making jumps and then come back to eat before going out to play football. I was lucky I could live that life because now it is totally different; the kids stay at home with the PlayStation.
They lose a lot of ‘good feeling’; when you are with your team-mates at football or your best friends on bicycles.
Was there someone important pushing you to do sport? To ride a motorbike? To race?
No, there was nobody pushing me to get on a motorbike. At first I played football with my position as a striker. They [friends, family] were pushing me to play football because we were good and the level of our team was pretty high.
But when you love bikes it is impossible to do anything else and I was riding and riding all the time until one day I said: “I want to try a race.”
Can you remember a time when racing started to change for you? Going from fun to a vocation, leaving home and it all starting to get serious?
Now. Now it is getting good. No, seriously, in 2011 when I started in the world championship it was still a bit like a game for me. It was racing and a bit of training and just loving everything about it.
When I won my first Grand Prix, which was just the fourth race, suddenly it became more of a job. I had the chance to win more and I had to take it seriously. After that I changed my mindset and looked at the training and many other things.
Did I lose the fun? It changed. It is not like when you go and do motocross where you can just ride and enjoy yourself and that’s it.
You have pressure, people that push you, a team relying on you, money behind you and many things that can make it difficult to enjoy.
But like I’ve said in many interviews I don’t remember a time when I have enjoyed a pre-season as much as I have done this year.
Do you feel lucky to be where you are now or it is something you worked for?
Let’s say ‘worked for’. Especially last year: it was quite difficult and I had to demonstrate many things to different people. That I could be strong…especially for Yamaha.
It wasn’t easy and I worked a lot at home and on the track. You need to have luck in particular during the season and in many situations you have to keep your concentration and stay focused on the job.
I think it is easy to lose your way but at the moment I think I have my feet on the ground and I haven’t gotten lost. Away from the track my life is about motocross, cycling and the gym.
What is the best moment of a race for you?
The start is incredible. It is really nice. You feel something strange in the stomach and every start is like my first one. It is such a good feeling. Then, I think it is crossing the line and just seeing everyone going crazy when you win. It is emotional.
Did you see the recent photo of you on social media as a young kid on the podium ahead of Marc Marquez?
Yeah. Nice no? It is strange when you have your opponent now at your side [at that age]. Now fifteen years afterwards you still have the same people around.
Are you ready to be even more famous?
Normally I don’t care so much: to be famous or not famous, to have followers or not have followers. I try to have a good image. I want to be nice and friendly to sponsors and everybody.
But what I care about is winning. I want to be the best and the best I can be.
Fuelled by a narrow defeat in the preceding round of the Sodi World Series (SWS) Sprint Series, Saeed Al Mehairi bounced back to take a commanding SWS Senior Cup win at the Dubai Kartdrome on Monday night.
With a best lap time of 1:11.188, Rami Azzam opened the contest as the top qualifier, 0.127 seconds ahead of Al Mehairi and 0.193 seconds ahead of Ahmed Al Hammadi in third position.
The three drivers began Race One fighting for the lead with Al Hammadi dropping back to sixth position after spinning out. The other two karts carried on and Al Mehairi took control of the race and held on for the win. Azzam harassed the Emirati on every turn but was still 0.598 seconds behind at the finish line.
“Things happen sometimes in a race but I’m glad that everyone is happy now,” said Al Mahairi. “Even after the race they were shaking hands which is really good.”
Newcomer Pierre Oliver Chevalier made an instant impact in the Masters category, taking top honours over veteran Heiki Eelma in second place. Adrian Jones secured third.
SWS JUNIOR CUP
A dominant double win for Kyle Kumaran fuelled his has grand ambitions to compete in the next SWS World Finals.
His two rivals managed to get ahead of him in qualifying, with Ahad Minhas topping the timing screens with a best lap time of 1:21.431, which was 0.307 seconds better than Hugo Gid and 0.318 seconds better than Kumaran.
In the opening lap of Race One, Minhas and Gid dropped back and Kumaran got away clean. Kayne Cherian came up from fourth and Alexander Renner all the way from sixth on the grid to battle it out up front with Kumaran.
The three drivers scrapped the entire race, with Renner and Kumaranemerging side by side in the last corner of the last lap. Kumaran nosed ahead for the win, just 0.158 seconds ahead of Renner, with Cherian claiming third.
Kumaran took the winning momentum into Race Two, securing the lead and fighting off challenges from Patrick Debattista and Gid. He held on for victory, crossing the finish line 0.786 seconds ahead of Debattista, with Gid another 0.724 seconds behind in third place.
“The competition was pretty stiff; I was lucky to get up front so quickly,” said Kumaran.