A new era of NASCAR racing is here.
A new title sponsor. A new racing format. And, for Texas Motor Speedway fans, a new racing surface.
For a sport trying to boost interest for better attendance and TV ratings, these changes were necessary. And it’s been a hit with fans in Texas so far who have seen them up close going into Sunday afternoon’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
“It’s a completely new atmosphere for racing,” said Kelby Ener, a 25-year-old fan from Houston. “And it’s been great. It’s been awesome.”
Let’s start with the new sponsor — Monster Energy.
This is a brand that isn’t scared to be edgy, evident by its marketing platform of “girls, music and racing.” They’ve been successful promoting motorsports events such as Supercross and Monster Jam, and are making their presence felt with NASCAR.
At the season-opening Daytona 500, Monster created a stir with the outfits worn by its busty babes known as the “Monster Girls.” They also created buzz by bringing out New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
All of that “Monster Experience” has been prominent this weekend and will be again Sunday. Monster’s pre-race spectacle includes smoke shows, stunt trucks and motorcycles spinning around the “ball of steel.”
“We like to bring demonstrations. You come out, you get to not only see our logo everywhere, you get to see the girls, get a picture made and an autograph, and we bring a lot of our other athletes to the events,” said Mitch Covington, Monster’s vice president of sports marketing.
“Hopefully that’s a positive experience and we have lifelong friends of the brand.”
Covington admitted being surprised the girls’ outfits gained so much publicity, but joked: “Pretty girls sometimes cause a disruption.”
All joking aside, this is the type of partnership NASCAR needed in an effort to reach a younger demographic and broaden its fan base.
Covington feels it’s been beneficial for both parties and time will tell whether it becomes a long-lasting relationship.
“NASCAR fits our DNA really well because it’s the highest form of racing in the U.S.,” Covington said. “Our brand is built on racing. It only made sense to be part of the premier series. Racing is what we do.”
On top of the new title sponsor, NASCAR has changed the format of its races by adding two stages before the final stage/conclusion in each race. This is designed to create more excitement and drama during the early and middle parts of the race.
So far, it’s provided the drama. Last week at Martinsville Speedway, Kyle Busch wasn’t happy with how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced him at the end of Stage 2, something that could carry into Sunday.
“Racing needs rivalries,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “Ali needed Frazier. The Yankees and Red Sox. The Packers and the Bears. It’s no fun when the Packers beat the Bengals. Rivalries are good things. If the stages create more of them, why is that a bad thing?”
The bigger question, though, is whether this format has resonated with casual fans yet. NASCAR seemingly is always changing its format to determine a champion, and it’s difficult for most to keep up with.
But the early reviews suggest fans have embraced the stage racing. The stages at Texas end after Lap 85 and Lap 170.
“In all honesty, the stages have made the races a whole lot better,” said John Stokesberry, a 24-year-old fan from Houston. “The drivers don’t just fight for the end of the race. They fight in the middle of the race too. They’re racing harder throughout the race, and I just love it.”
Finally, for racing fans here, the TMS racing surface is something to watch. It’s been the talk all weekend with how the new pavement and configuration will affect drivers.
Four Cup drivers ended up spinning out or crashing during Friday’s opening practice, and six-time TMS winner Jimmie Johnson spun out during qualifying.
But the track improved throughout the weekend, and the hope is that it’ll be in its best possible shape Sunday. TMS ran its “Texas Tire Monster” again after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.
But the new pavement and configuration mean it’s anybody’s guess what car ends up in Victory Lane.
“It’s a clean sheet of paper,” Johnson said. “You can’t pick a favorite right now. Anytime there is a reconfiguration, a new asphalt, it’s a total game changer. All of past history is now out the window.
“It’s like we are coming here for the first time.”
Auto Parts 500
12:30 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4