NASCAR’s moment of reckoning: Martin Truex Jr.’s Furniture Row Racing to be shuttered

Furniture Row Racing, with defending NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr.  as its only driver, will cease operations at the end of this season, the team announced. That leaves NASCAR at a moment of reckoning.
Furniture Row Racing, with defending NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. as its only driver, will cease operations at the end of this season, the team announced. That leaves NASCAR at a moment of reckoning. AP

You can only ignore the obvious for so long.

On Tuesday, Furniture Row Racing — whose lone NASCAR driver is reigning Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. — announced it would cease operations at the conclusion of the 2018 season.

Yes, that’s the same Martin Truex Jr. who has won 16 races since 2016, including four this year. Oh yeah, and that whole championship thing last season.

Now, gone.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success,” team owner Barney Visser said in a statement. “This was obviously a painful decision to arrive at knowing how it will affect a number of quality and talented people.

“This is not good for anybody.”

Not at all.

On the ground level, countless hard-working, passionate people learned Tuesday they would lose their jobs. Maybe not immediately, but soon enough. That’s terrible news, and no matter what else we can glean from this, that shouldn’t be forgotten.

But on a grander scale, the fact that the reigning Cup Series champion’s team is shutting down — yes, it takes writing out a second time to actually believe it — sends a much larger statement. Or really, several of them.

Two choices for NASCAR

NASCAR is at a moment of reckoning. There have been small cuts in the cloth, tiny reminders that business isn’t as booming as it used to be — smaller sponsors leaving, dips in attendance and TV ratings, and an overall lack of racing buzz nationwide.

NASCAR Furniture Row Closing Auto Racing (2).JPG
Martin Truex Jr. has won 16 races in the past four seasons and the Cup series championship in 2017 faces the shutdown of his team, Furniture Row Motorsports, over sponsorship issues. Nam Y. Huh AP

But this is nothing small. There’s no hiding NASCAR’s decline when the reigning champion and a seven-time champion both lose their primary sponsor within weeks of one another. There’s no hiding from the empty grandstands. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

At this point, NASCAR — and that includes fans, executives, and everyone else involved even tangentially in the sport — has two choices.

The first is, go about business as usual. Focus on the driving, and ignore everything else. Empty grandstands? Signature sponsors exiting the sport entirely? Huge hits in TV numbers, and revenue numbers, and any kind of quantifiable numbers? Just don’t mind it. Things’ll work themselves out.

To date, that’s been NASCAR’s choice. In July, NASCAR chief operating officer Steve Phelps spoke before a race at Sonoma and said the industry needs to stop focusing on the “negative.”

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” Phelps went on to say.

Tuesday’s news is clearly evidence of the opposite. NASCAR might be adding smaller sponsors, but even together, they don’t match the magnitude of brands such as 5-hour ENERGY and Lowe’s.

NASCAR’s meaningless response

Then there’s NASCAR’s statement in response to the Furniture Row announcement: “NASCAR will continue to work on growing the sport and working with the race teams on competitive and operational excellence. Much of those efforts have already been put in place, and will continue to be a focus.”

Let me be blunt: That’s an empty, meaningless quote.

If NASCAR was truly committed to growing the sport, or at this point just to stop it from deteriorating any further, it would stop pretending that business is fine as always. It would stop with these hollow blocks of text, messages with no substantial action behind them.

The truth of NASCAR’s current situation is that the first option isn’t working anymore. And continuing to say it is is dangerous for the long-term health of racing.

Instead of trying to save face — instead of band-aid solution after band-aid solution, trying to fix all its problems on the fly — NASCAR needs to accept and acknowledge its issues.

It’s unnatural for a sports league, especially one as prominent as NASCAR is, to own up to its own shortcomings. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone. But at the same time, the sport is in a precarious place — own up to your issues and openly work with others to fix them, or risk passing the point of no return.

Opportunity for a rebound?

If NASCAR could outwardly admit its struggles, then the opportunity to rebound exists. You work with experts, financially and technologically, to help restore what once was a major national draw. Maybe that means a renewed focus on regionalization, or a new method for cutting costs, or sweeping changes to the cars and schedule that fans so frequently lament. Of course, there’s still the possibility that you admit those challenges and still fail, but at least you’ve then given it your all.

That’s not something any NASCAR executive can say now.

So yes, Tuesday’s news about Furniture Row was bad for NASCAR. There’s no way around that, even when you consider all the complicated and complex factors that went into the decision.

But now, NASCAR has a choice to make in how it handles this news, which in reality is just the latest in a string of major blows:

Open yourself up to wholesale changes, to anything and everything, and hope smart people can salvage a sinking ship...

Or keep pretending there’s no leak in the boat in the first place.