What was that?
Friday night was to be a celebration of everything that is positive about NASCAR. It's the climax and culmination of Champion's Week when all the teams are gathered in Vegas. You graciously send off your sport's most popular figure, you honor that season's champion, and you get folks pumped up about the immediate and long-term future of racing.
Instead, we were left with a kind of hangover feeling where you ask, 'what just happened'. Why? Because the man who leads the sport, the man charged with giving vision and direction, the man who should be the biggest cheerleader looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but presenting awards Friday night.
NASCAR CEO Brian France has long had an image problem. Fans and drivers feel like he's out of touch. Friday night certainly didn't help. The Wall Street Journal published an article earlier this year in which it pointed out several facts about France that rub fans (and maybe some drivers) the wrong way. France admitted that he attended only half the Cup races in 2016. And given the poor TV ratings NASCAR has been getting over the last several years, the WSJ wonders why France would choose to skip a big meeting of "racing-team executives, drivers, track operators and TV executives" in Las Vegas.
Before the final race at Homestead, France said he's optimistic about where the sport is headed. Really? NASCAR, he said, is in a natural cycle with retiring drivers and change. He said TV ratings don't tell the whole story and attendance is actually "up at many, many events". But the fact remains that sponsorships are harder to come by, many tracks are struggling to fill seats, and teams are folding up shop. Despite what France may say about ratings, a huge portion of NASCAR's money comes from TV network deals. Without fans watching, networks will not be willing to shell out big bucks. That should have France worried.
The other major source of income to NASCAR and affiliated tracks is from the fans directly. Ticket sales, merchandising, etc. USA Today did a poll in 2016 asking fans what's the problem with NASCAR. In one very poignant response, a long-time fan said, "It doesn't have the same good feeling it used to have. We've just lost interest in NASCAR. NASCAR has lost interest in us." Maybe fans are just taking a cue from France, because when he had a chance for an easy win Friday night, it appeared he was disengaged and disinterested.