On Saturday February 12, the first NASCAR race of 2011 was contested at Daytona Motor Speedway. Following the event – the Budweiser Shootout – fans took to Twitter, Facebook and chat boards to complain that the three-wide movement and action they love was missing from the race.
Apparently drivers were taking a new tandem drafting approach and cars were simply going too fast. The buddy system resulted in speeds as high as 206 miles per hour and a spread out field of cars. While drivers and car owners contended they were simply following the rules, all was not well with the product on the track.
Can you guess what happened next? Because it’s auto racing, and not horse racing, you probably can – the fans won a decisive and immediate victory. The day following the race, NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition informed teams of two new rules, both intended to heat up engines faster to limit the “pairs” and “tandem” racing. Three days later, NASCAR informed teams they’d be taking measures that would ultimately give cars less horsepower, and slow down the speed of races.
Like in horse racing, owners, teams, sponsors and drivers have huge investments in the sport. Unlike in horse racing, the fan was put first in a decisive, no nonsense manner. Yes, the next morning, teams were scrambling to make the required changes and some dissention was expressed by participants – but it was promptly and simply dismissed.
Fans have complained about single file racing, class and condition disparities, and dramatic post position advantages in harness racing for years. Everybody agrees on the problems, yet major changes rarely occur, and when they do, the desires of the customer seem to fall last on the long list of priorities.
Horse racing has a history of ignoring its customer’s most basic complaints, often pretending that there are no solutions to legitimate concerns, or that bettors are just ‘whiners’ who will complain about anything and everything.
Sometimes the answer is even more frustrating. “We don’t even know what the customer wants,” they’ll say. “Somebody should do a study on that.” Translation: it’s easier to do nothing and watch the customer base implode than to try something different.
It is true that not all is well with NASCAR racing. The sport is dealing with a decline in ticket sales and in revenues. The recession has hit the game hard and many fans are choosing to watch from home rather than attending a race.
In the case of NASCAR, struggles at the box office make the necessity for swift customer driven action that much more important. Officials are prepared and willing to act at a moment’s notice to address fan concerns. The claim that a car can go 206 mph is no more or less impressive than saying that a horse can pace a mile in 1:48. Neither is very meaningful for the customer who invests his or her money to watch or wager on a competitive race.
Being responsive to the customer does not involve a 15-month review of issues the fan cares little about. It means listening, and making swift changes to improve the game or to right a wrong.
For NASCAR, meaningful change to improve the flow of a race can be addressed in 18 hours. Sadly, the timeline for a similar change in horse racing is closer to 18 years.
By Darryl Kaplan