RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France says the challenge of connecting with a new, younger generation of fans is something that all sports are trying to figure out, and one that NASCAR will take some time to figure out.
Speaking at Richmond International Raceway before Sunday's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, France compared the challenge sports are facing to the one retailers are facing because of the popularity of online shopping.
NASCAR has seen crowds shrink at virtually every track, many of which have removed seats, and its television ratings have plummeted. At Richmond, which once routinely seated more than 100,000 fans for races in the premier Cup series, only 60,000 seats remain and they were not close to full for Sunday's 400-lap race.
"We're not isolated here," France said. "Every sport is trying to unlock the new consumption levels and fan interest by a younger demographic. Of course we love our core fan and everyone does, but every sport is thinking carefully about how to reach the millennial fan to get them excited about their sport."
He said NASCAR will convene a summit next month in Charlotte, North Carolina, bringing in experts from various fields, to discuss the issue.
France also downplayed the difficulty that some teams are having securing sponsorship for next season.
"It's only April. Those kinds of decisions from corporate America typically get made in August and September, something like that," he said. "We'll always have that. That's not anything abnormal."
One advantage NASCAR gives sponsors, he said, is, "They can't own a team in any other sport, but they can here."
France also paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, who announced last week that he will retire at the end of the season, making him the fourth star to plan to quit racing in less than three years.
"He's meant a lot to the sport in many ways, on and off the track. Not just his popularity and whatever, but carrying on the Earnhardt name in such a good way that he was always competitive on the track, always raced at a high level and always worked with NASCAR to make the sport better, just like his father did," France said.
With his retirement, Earnhardt will join Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards in walking away from racing. France said an exodus like that is not all that unusual in the sport.
"If you look back at our history, we always tend to see drivers in waves move in one direction so it's not uncommon to have three, four or five of your top drivers exit for different reasons in a short period of time, two years, whatever it is," he said, noting they often can do it because they have financial stability.
The good news, he said, is that the talent pool being counted on to produce future stars is deep.
Kyle Larson, 24, began Sunday's race leading the point standings, with 21-year-old Chase Elliott second. Both drivers have registered six top-10 finishes in the first eight races of the season. Joey Logano, 26, and 23-year-old Ryan Blaney also began the day in the top 10, with Logano in fourth place and Blaney 10th.
More AP racing: http://racing.ap.org
Follow Hank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr