NASCAR and the Olympics – Subtle Differences

Believe it or not, NASCAR racing is not an Olympic sport.

Back in 2010, I wrote an “Open Letter to Randy Bernard”, and in that letter, I suggested that the top sporting events in the world – including the Olympics – all have three key elements – or sides – to their “Success Triangle”;

1) they have the world’s best athletes

2) the athletes have talent that a majority of people can relate to, and,

3) there is a big prize – a significant reward for winning and devastation for losing.

Many people have tried ‘running’… which makes the talent of Usain Bolt easy to relate to. photo: Phil Walter – Getty Images

Both NASCAR and the Olympics have great competition and world-class athletes. Millions are invested on sponsorship and there’s plenty of live television coverage.

There are however, some differences.

Imagine training for four years, getting the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, and then falling off the balance beam, or finishing 4th in your race by 9/1000ths of a second… and getting nothing.

In the Olympics, if you finish 4th – or worse – you get nothing. And, some sports, like women’s gymnastics, are very difficult to come back to in another four years. The US women’s gymnastic team has not had a team member return for a second time for the last three summer Olympics.

So, 4th or worse?… you then must wait, and continue to train, for four more years.  Then you must re-qualify for the team, before you can try again. That’s tough. And most people can relate to this. High stakes indeed.

In NASCAR’s biggest event in 2012 – the Daytona 500 – David Ragan crashed on lap 1, finished 43rd and collected $267,637. He packed up and got to try again one week later.

The Olympics don’t have that.

The Olympics invented the concept of ‘go or go homers’ with many of their events being ‘single elimination’. In other words, if you lose, you go home… but the Olympics definitely do not allow ‘start and parks’.

In NASCAR, there have been 21 races so far in 2012. Of those 21 races, Josh Wise has entered 20, qualified for 19, and parked it in 18. And in the one race where I think he might have actually been racing (Richmond), he crashed about 1/3 into the race and collected over $70,000 in prize money.

Here’s the life of a NASCAR serial start-and-parker from a different perspective:

To date, there have been 5,746 laps run in NASCAR Sprint Cup. Josh Wise has completed 850 laps… or 14.8%.

Josh Wise has collected $1,516,570 in prize money…. so far, this year.

That’s $1,516,570 in prize money even though he showed up at these ‘professional’ sports events with “Quit” as an action item on his to-do list.

This is a tweet from occassional ‘start-and-quitter’ David Stremme. “I don’t always ‘start and quit’… so when I’m gonna race, I tweet that my quarter panels are on sale.” (He didn’t actually say that – I made it up. Really.)

In the official results on the NASCAR website, beside Josh’s name for each event, oddly, they do not list “I quit” as the reason for him “quitting”. They blame this on his team and his crew and ‘all the guys back in the shop’ when they use words like “Vibration” (6 races) and “Brakes” (6 races) to lie to us about why he quit.

The Olympics don’t have that.

In fact, Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi pulled a “start and park” in his 800 meter race. He had qualified for the 1500 final, and did not want to hurt his chances by running the 800. So, he started… then quit…. and was immediately kicked out of the Olympics. This came after four badminton teams had been tossed for purposely trying to lose their matches to get ‘easier’ draws.

NASCAR doesn’t have that.

Of course, this is not about Josh Wise, and it is not his decision to “quit”. His team owner makes that decision, with NASCAR’s ‘system’ being the enabler. I think Josh is probably a fine racer and feels sick about what he is doing. But, a guy’s gotta eat right?

In NASCAR, in qualifying, when one of the “go or go-homers” gets locked into the race, Mike Joy or DW will announce VERY excitedly…. “And Josh Wise WILL race tomorrow….” even though in actual fact; no…. he will not race tomorrow. He will “start… then quit” and his team owner will get about $75,000 for him doing so.

The Olympics don’t have that.

In NASCAR, the top athletes travel to their next event in their own private jet.

In the Olympics, the top athletes have to book time off work – both for training and to compete in the games – and then most of them must return to work after the games, gold medal or not. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general terms, most Olympic athletes are truly amateurs.

Which scenario is more relatable?

Of course, this comparison between NASCAR and the Olympics is not ‘apples-to-apples’. In fact, they are not even close.

But here it is…. here’s my point;

Both NASCAR and the Olympics are competing with each other…. for both sponsors and audience. As the Olympics have maintained strength in all three sides of the ‘success triangle’… that being;

1) world’s best athletes

2) talent that people can relate to, and,

3) the big prize,

NASCAR encourages and rewards mediocrity, and insults the audience about the purity of the competition. Furthermore, NASCAR blames the economy for their empty seats. If this was true, why aren’t TV ratings – in fact – rising? Why aren’t all of those “diehard fans” that cannot afford the gas to drive to the races watching at home, on TV – for free… resulting in all-time-high TV numbers?

This from an August 6, 2012 story from Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily Global Journal;

“Television ratings for NBC’s prime-time block were, by far, the early story of the Games and exceeded the most optimistic expectations. NBC averaged 35.6 million viewers through the event’s first five nights, putting the London Games on pace to become the most-watched Olympics in history.

But perhaps even more surprising were the business metrics around the Olympics. NBC sold more than $1 billion in ad sales — $1.02 billion to be exact — and started releasing new ad inventory into the market.”

NASCAR doesn’t have that.

I think that NASCAR probably wishes that they had strength in all three sides of my success triangle. Why wouldn’t they? What continues to bother me – and this is true in ALMS, Grand-Am and IndyCar as well – is that they are not taking big enough swings at change. They continue to do the same things over and over and over…. and then ‘hope’ that the sponsors and audience will come back.

They are not coming back until you change things, and until you do, the Olympics will continue to capture the audience, the sponsors and the cash.

One change the Olympics made – a big swing if you will – was to have the games take place every two years. From a sponsorship and audience perspective, I’d say that was pretty clever.

As the great visionary Frank Zappa once said….

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

Here is a link to my original “Open Letter to Randy Bernard”

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