Oh boy. The 2018 NASCAR season hasn’t even begun, and already we’ve got drivers calling each other names and trading barbs.
This newest controversy started Tuesday at NASCAR media day in Charlotte, when Kyle Busch told reporters he thought it was “stupid” for the sport’s marketing executives to place so much emphasis on young drivers instead of established veterans.
“It is bothersome,” Busch said. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on. ... Pushing these younger drivers is, I wouldn’t say, all that fair.
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“But I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
Naturally, Busch’s comments (he’s 32) didn’t go over well with those younger drivers.
Ryan Blaney, 24, said part of the fault is Busch’s.
“The reason why I get asked to do (marketing spots) a lot is because I say ‘yes’ a lot, because I think it’s good for the sport and myself,” Blaney said Wednesday. “I can tell you personally, (Kyle Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so they don’t ask him.
“So that kind of made me upset, how he bashed that part of it.”
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who will be a rookie in the Cup Series in 2018, was even more blunt. He called Busch’s criticism “stupid” right back.
“I love Kyle to death, but, dude, come on,” Wallace said. “ He was in the same spot we were. He had some of the same treatment we went through. I will say when certain drivers – and if I ever get to this level, you can pinch me and bring me back down – but when they get to a certain level, they stop doing stuff.”
That’s a lot of talk, but the back-and-forth masks a more serious issue for the sport, so it’s worth breaking down.
Basically, the conflict is this: NASCAR’s base has always been veteran drivers, and subsequently, the older fans who follow those drivers. But at the same time, given the current exodus of experienced drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and plenty of others – the sport has to adapt and market itself for the future. And that means marketing younger drivers.
It’s one thing to market anyone under the age of 25 regardless of talent, and NASCAR isn’t doing that. It is specifically choosing younger drivers who have had success at the Cup level. Drivers such as Chase Elliott and Blaney fit that bill, even if they’ve only got one Cup victory combined.
NASCAR must find the balance between supporting established, proven drivers (the four championship contenders at Homestead in November are 32, 33, 37, and 41 years old) and trying to prepare for the future. Not just the future of the sport, either – the future of its fan base, too, which has historically been older.
In some respect, NASCAR has no choice but to market its young drivers. As Wallace and Blaney point out, veterans such as Busch already have set sponsors and fans (and a decade’s worth of events to earn them), meaning they’re less inclined to do more than they have to. That’s understandable. But it’s an entirely different perspective for younger drivers still hoping to win over fans and sponsors.
One last factor to consider: NASCAR’s dwindling viewership. Marketing executives understand that the older market share has already been tapped; no significant new returns are coming from older fans, who have largely supported now-veteran or retired drivers. To ensure the prosperity of the sport for the future, NASCAR must reach a new generation of fans – and what better way than with a new generation of relatable, personable drivers?
Busch has every right to be frustrated. NASCAR’s marketing direction will surely mean fewer promotions for him and more for drivers such as Wallace and Blaney.
But Busch’s fans aren’t going anywhere. He will continue to win races, and the media will be there with their cameras and microphones when he does.
In the meantime, the sport – for its own good – has to gamble on some of these younger drivers living up to their potential, and sooner rather than later.
And frankly, there’s nothing “stupid” about that.