NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had some harsh words Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the extreme lengths some NASCAR's Winner's Circle program events have been going to in order to create interest among fans.
The Winner's Circle program, which starts each season with the top 10 winning drivers from the previous year, plus two more "wild card" slots, rewards these drivers' teams via an additional prize money pool. Each Winner's Circle driver, on behalf of their car owner, makes several public appearances during the season to assist tracks in publicizing their NASCAR events, and this is the part Johnson has a problem with.
"They are crazy," Johnson said of the scripted appearances on behalf of the program. "In the end, I'm not sure that the whole Winner's Circle program is working as it needs to. There are some tracks that are a pleasure to work with and other tracks that are not. In the end, I think the goal of the Winner's Circle program is to sell tickets. And if somebody can show me how a paint ball fight is going to sell tickets and fill the grandstands, I'll gladly be a part of that paint ball fight. I don't believe that's the case, though.
"Do hot dogs really sell tickets? There are a lot of questions out there that don't make sense in a lot of ways. At the end of the day, we need people in the grandstands and we need to figure out how we do that. I think there has been a lot of pressure put on the garage area to fill the grandstands. And if you really look at what's gone on in the garage area, the teams have had to step up and build new cars; all the money that it took to build new cars and to develop them, and Goodyear has built a new tire. You look at the competition side of NASCAR and the field is closer than it's ever been."
Johnson reckoned that NASCAR's declared openness policy conflicts with the enforced silliness of some Winner's Circle events, which lead some fans to take the drivers less seriously.
"Drivers are being encouraged to speak their minds. You look at everything that goes on in this fenced-off area and we're tapped out in there," he declared. "We're doing everything we can to put on a great show. People may think that we race for points – which is absolute crap. We're out there to win races.
"I'm trying to keep from making a complete ass of myself in slamming people, which is just what you (the media) want, so needless to say there is a lot of stuff that doesn't drive grandstand sales. There is a lot of stuff that improves the position maybe with the track and the local market and the local media and favors that seem to be taking place, but I really find it hard to believe that we actually are impacting the people who are going to be at the ticket counters buying the tickets. That's where the shift needs to take place."