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NASCAR tries to attract younger crowd

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- By allowing children in the garage and younger teens behind the wheel, it's clear NASCAR wants a youth movement.

Television executives do, too.

NASCAR has aged considerably the last decade, with stars such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart -- and their faithful fans -- growing grayer every year. The result has been a steady decline in the highly coveted 18-to-34 TV demographic.

Now, the sport is trying desperately to get it back.

"We need to appeal to the younger market," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "I know that's where we need to go. We need to attract the young people."

Only 10 of 43 drivers in Sunday's Daytona 500 are under the age of 30 -- and there's little star power in that group beyond Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

Just three of those 10 are younger than 25. Of those three, only the 20-year-old Logano has a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series.

Officials would like to see that change.

NASCAR has taken several steps to appeal to younger fans in an effort to offset an aging audience that comes at the same time TV ratings and attendance are shrinking.

The sport believes it has figured out how to better promote its current crop of youngsters.

NASCAR tweaked a rule that should help emphasize up-and-coming drivers in the second-tier Nationwide Series. Officials forced drivers to pick a series in which to run for a championship, an effort to take the focus away from Cup regulars pulling double duty in the Nationwide Series and possibly creating more opportunities for budding stars.

It's also eager to give younger fans access to those stars, allowing children in the garage on race days for the first time. Although only adults with approved credentials can bring kids in before races, the policy could be expanded to the general public down the road.

NASCAR also is lowering the age limit for competitors in its regional touring series from 16 to 15, hoping the change will increase opportunities for drivers to gain experience and prepare for the top racing series. That decision could speed up Chase Elliott's development.

Elliott, the son of 1988 Cup champion and fan favorite Bill Elliott, has signed a developmental contract with Hendrick Motorsports. Chase Elliott won 13 late-model races last year and had 37 top-10 finishes in 40 starts.

"That kid has done a fantastic job," the elder Elliott said. "I don't know what goes on in that little head of his, but he figures it out."

Still, landing sponsorship deals will be key.

Although many promising young drivers were able to land financial backing when NASCAR was at its peak a few years ago, companies have been reluctant to partner with unproven drivers in the wake of the economic downturn.

"Sometimes that chance is worth taking and can pay off big," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who paired with DuPont as a 22-year-old rookie in 1993. "Car owners should stay motivated (to sign young drivers) because the payoff can be really, really big, from a sponsor's standpoint and from a team standpoint."

Sponsors have enjoyed recent success with Logano and Kyle Busch, and television executives believe the same could be on tap for Trevor Bayne, James Buescher and Ricky Carmichael.

"These young, new people are exactly what can appeal to that young audience and grow it," said Rich Feinberg, vice president for motorsports for ESPN and ABC. "The ratings and the research show a decline into the 18-to-34 category. NASCAR is no different than any other sports entity. That's what everybody is looking for."

Feinberg has worked on the X-Games since 1994 and knows how a young audience can boost attendance and ratings and attract sponsors.

He's keeping an eye on Travis Pastrana, the X-Games star who is planning to make his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series in July. The 27-year-old Pastrana has a cult-like following and plenty of full-time sponsors but at best is several years away from a Sprint Cup ride.

Although everyone agrees fresh-faced drivers would be the fastest and most efficient way to attract a younger audience -- think NASCAR finding its version of Justin Bieber -- it also could happen through a few off-track endeavors.

Online simulation games such as iRacing and a growing number of fantasy racing leagues are expected to entice the next generation. With four-hour races and a 36-race season than spans 10 months, keeping their attention might be an even bigger challenge.

Hendrick pointed to NASCAR's recent research and study of audience trends as signs the sanctioning body is committed to attracting younger audiences.

"This social media is something we've got to really look at and find a way to tie some of the gadgets they bring to the track into what we're doing," Hendrick said. "So NASCAR's looking at how we can bring that to the racetrack and how can we get technology input, whether you walk in with the iPhone and you want to listen (to the race) or you want to do things through your telephone or whatever. I'm not the best in that area, but I know that's where we need to go."

It comes with hurdles, though.

Turner Sports owns online video rights to NASCAR content. And because Turner also runs NASCAR.com, the company has declined to provide multimedia content outside its website.

So NASCAR's hands are tied in many regards.

"If you look at that (young) demographic, that's what they're interested in today," said Gordon, whose Daytona 500 car is sponsored by AARP. "They've got their iPhones and they're into apps and it's kind of a computer age, and I think we've kind of left technology behind in a way that's hurt us a little bit."Despite all the concern and changes, at least one prominent NASCAR driver cautions against overreacting.

"I think NASCAR is what it is," Carl Edwards said. "It's auto racing. It's 500-mile races. It's complex. It's tough sometimes to understand. I think that's OK. No one is going to compete with some of things that are available to kids right now.

"Kids can experience things through Facebook and video games and all sorts of things online. It's OK that NASCAR is different. We don't have to go try to be everything to everyone."