When NASCAR kicks off its 2013 racing season at Daytona International Speedway next month, Dan Pierce and a group of friends will get together to watch the race as they have every year since 1995.
But Pierce, UNC Asheville professor and NASCAR historian, worries some of the magic might be gone from the track. He said he and his friends spend less time with motorsports than they used to.
I dont sense the passion about it anymore, said Pierce, who became a fan after a conversion experience at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1994.
NASCAR is hoping to reverse some of those troubles and woo back fans this year. Drivers are getting new cars that look more like stock cars, so fans will be able to tell a Ford from a Toyota. The sport inked a new, $2.4 billion, eight-year television deal with FOX, a 36 percent increase over the previous deal.
And executives hope an improving economy will lend a hand, helping fans who often drive hours and stay for a weekend or longer at racetracks. Looking ahead this week in Charlotte, many were upbeat about the sports future.
Going into 2013, we feel we have the strongest sponsor base we ever had. We are in a much better position this year than we have (been) in the last several years, said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. His company will field three Cup teams and two Nationwide teams in 2013.
We had nine sponsor partners up for renewal and were extremely pleased all nine are back with Roush Fenway going into 2013, he said.
Pierce lists a litany of fans gripes: Cars look uniform, drivers lack a rough around the edges appearance and races arent as exciting. And the economy hasnt helped, with both unemployment and gas prices still high.
The problems Pierce sees have shown up in unfilled sponsorships for big-name drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., falling race attendance and television ratings, and pinched financial results at some major track companies.
Television ratings for NASCAR slipped in 2012, falling to their lowest level in five years, according to reports. And in the crucial 18- to 34-year-old demographic, ratings fell 25 percent.
Stewart-Haas Racing has unsold sponsorship spots on all three Sprint Cup Series teams, including Tony Stewarts, Ryan Newmans and Danica Patricks cars.
There has been a lot of added cost this year to owners and a lot of parts are a lot more expensive than in the past, said Stewart when asked about the financial climate of owners in NASCARs biggest series. Racers are very resourceful and we will find a way to make it work.
Hendrick Motorsports confirmed this week it still has unsold sponsorships in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season on the No. 88 Chevrolet, driven by NASCARs most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Weve got a lot of good opportunities and the way were positioned, our car is covered until the end of the summer, team owner Rick Hendrick said on Day 3 of the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. Im looking for the right deal, not any deal.
Hendrick said he has had companies interested in sponsoring Earnhardt for the entire season but that would conflict with current sponsor contracts.
Racings challenges also have hurt track owners.
International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, reported Thursday that its revenue slipped about 1.3 percent in the fourth quarter compared with the year before.
Ticket revenue fell about 4.7 percent compared with the same quarter last year. Still, the company said that beat a 10 percent decline in 2011.
Charlotte-based Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns tracks including Charlotte Motor Speedway, reported in its most recent quarter that ticket revenue fell from $51.6 million in the prior year to $36.2 million.
Shifts in race schedules accounted for some of the drop, SMI said, but acknowledged lower attendance was responsible for some of the drop.
Changes to attract sponsors, fans
Roush Fenway Racings Newmark said the pressure has made NASCAR teams adapt. We had to take a hard look at ourselves a few years ago when the economy fell and there werent sponsors lined up, he said.
Now, the company works more with sponsors to make the most of their money, instead of just putting names on cars.
Instead, we can say Heres a sweepstakes you can do around it. Let us know your objectives on social media so we can work on coming up with good promotions, he said. We are able to generate a positive return on investment and NASCAR is still a very positive platform.
NASCAR also has poured effort into its new cars, known as Generation 6 cars, that debut this year. They replace the uniform car designs NASCAR introduced in 2007, which were unpopular with many fans.
The new cars are designed to look different, so fans can tell the makes and models apart.
Pierce said he thinks many of the steps NASCAR is taking to improve the race experience will help motorsports thrive.
Its going to be a long time probably before they get back to where they were in the early 2000s, Pierce said. But that was pretty heady territory there.