Kligerman: NASCAR has a niche to scratch, and Kyle Larson is the key

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Earlier this week, we were treated to a man telling us, NASCAR has an “identity problem” for a website that carries the very name of this nation. To keep us on our toes, he made sure to misspell three of the NASCAR drivers’ names that he thought weren’t compelling enough, and therefore are creating this problem.

I mean, nothing shows effort, thought, and understanding like a good misspelling or three. So Mr. Dawn Rindsorrrnurngfierhgud (I hope that is how you spell your name because I can’t be bothered to use Google right now), you’re wrong.

See, NASCAR certainly has problems. It is no mystery that empty stands and declining TV ratings aren’t a mark of good health. But it would be misinformed to say, as a direct result, it has lost its identity.

NASCAR does not have an identity problem, it has a niche problem.

And this is where I think you just were using the wrong word. You even mention that the whole entertainment world is fighting an embarrassment of options. Anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection can be considered an “entertainer,” which means that consumers only will continue to fragment and fracture into small niches of interest.

How do I know this? Because it’s been happening for more than a decade. For example, let’s take a look at network TV shows.

On May 6th, 2004, the TV show “Friends” would conclude in front of an audience of 65.9 million people on NBC, ranking fourth on the all-time list of most-watched scripted entertainment broadcasts in U.S. history. It also holds the distinction of the only scripted TV show to crack the top 10 in viewers past 1999.

And in a rare stretch of coincidence, one year after the show about the endearing group of 20-something friends in NYC concluded, NASCAR would have what is considered to be its most-watched season in 2005.

Since then, the network TV world has been picked, ripped and cable-bundled to a loosely recognizable version of its 2004-self. From the advent of cable channels flooding people’s homes to the revelation of a DVR that suddenly allowed people to choose when to watch their favorite programs. Now you have the on-demand and binge-TV of the Netflix, Amazon Primes, and Hulus of the world.

The result in 2016 was the most-watched scripted network TV show was “The Big Bang Theory” at 19.9 million viewers — a far cry from the record-setting late ‘90s and early 2000’s.

Oh, and even the live TV juggernaut of the NFL lost 9 percent of its viewership in 2016.

We are living in a quickly changing media landscape, and we will be forced to accept “new normals.” No longer are many things, if anything, going to garner the interest of a massive section of the public. There just are too many choices.

I know someone who thinks of Busch Beer as a metaphor for an outsized personality will struggle with what I am about to say. But the dominant age demographic in the United States, Millennials, are adopting to this new world of endless choice with open arms.

Because of this, NASCAR needs to avoid anything that connects it to something else.

It should not care if a football fan knows the name of its latest new star. Or if baseball fan Jenny from down the block puts Ryan Blaney posters on her wall.

It actually should love it if they don’t. Because it is not football. It is not baseball. It is racing.

The only fans to whom NASCAR should appeal, cater and pander?

Racing fans. Because that is the niche, and it should aim to be the biggest, most beloved and well-known form within the racing niche.

But how does NASCAR grow in this niche?

By going to where racing fans already are. Like the dirt-track scene. There are thought to be more than 700 active dirt tracks in the country. Each Saturday night, they have crowds ranging from the low hundreds to thousands.

Now for many reasons, the Cup Series can’t go to many of these tracks itself. But the drivers that end up becoming stars in the Cup Series can — and they can bring the fans from those tracks back to NASCAR.

The poster child for catering to this niche? Kyle Larson.

A Millennial who fought and clawed his way into victory lanes across the dry dirt of the Wild West, wheeling 800-plus horsepower monsters sideways — inches from concrete and metal walls — in front of thousands of adoring dirt fans.

He took those skills and rose to the top rung of the American racing world, bringing many adoring fans in the process. And now when he simply could spend his weekday evenings drinking Captain and Diet Cokes, he makes sure his multimillion-dollar contract allows him to continue to race at these dusty speed bowls.

Why? For the fans.

Which is why he recently pleaded for the rest of his fellow NASCAR stars to do the same. Because the fans of these dirt tracks, short tracks and obscure forms of racing are whom NASCAR needs.

NASCAR does not need to be shouting into a vast and ever-expanding void of the entertainment world, trying to impress anyone and everyone, looking for purpose or identity.

That would be an entirely fruitless endeavor.

It needs to be targeting and appealing to the niche of racing fans who are not yet paying attention to NASCAR.

And a young, talented, drive-anything-anywhere driver such as Kyle Larson is just the man for the job.