The Great Muppet Caper

With the usual apologies to Mr. Springsteen

Well they threw out ESPN last year,
Now they’ve thrown the Muppets out too,
There’s going to be a rumble down on Madison Avenue Monday morn,
Going to see what those ISC dudes can do,
Now there’s trouble out in the Land of Lincoln,
And NASCAR can’t get no relief,
When it comes to shooting themselves in the foot,
Their aim and accuracy defies belief,
Maybe all these sponsors are trying,
Baby that’s a fact,
But maybe after the way they’re treated,
They won’t be back,
Put the decals on, fix your car up pretty,
But don’t bring no Muppets to the Windy City…

After the uproar on the message boards and the amount of email I received on the matter, I guess I should have saw it coming. One local sports anchor managed to take a break from the less than tragic tale of a NBA thug under virtual house arrest in a 2.5 million dollar mansion to report some NASCAR news last night. He didn’t say who won the pole or comment on Christian Elder’s wicked qualifying wreck. Instead with a bemused twinkle in his eye he mentioned the track at Chicago-Land Speedway had banned the Muppets. The implication came through loud and clear; “What are these ignorant hillbillies up to now?” For the life of me I wish I could tell him.

It simply defies belief that the Great Muppet Caper could ever have been allowed to happen. This diecast marketing “opportunity” has been in the planning stages for a year. Chicago-Lands marketing partners have also been well known. And earlier this year the ISC sold “pouring rights” (honest to God, that’s what they call them) to Pepsi at their facilities. So how was it no one saw this fiasco coming down the pike and moved the “happening” to a more Muppet friendly facility?

The woman I finally got to talk to at the track actually sounded frightened. I asked her why the Muppets had been banned and she told me she just didn’t know, but everyone was asking and some of them were very upset. Meanwhile on TVs across the country NASCAR drivers were using unusually blunt language saying that the track management were being “jerks” about the Muppet situation. Tony Stewart used the Muppet fiasco as a springboard to attack the track for only offering season tickets not tickets to individual events. This is in a Winston Cup climate where drivers are typically circumspect to the point of saying “Well, I’m not sure about the track’s decision not to send a fire engine to extinguish a burning car. That was a new one on me, but I’m sure NASCAR knows what they’re doing…” And as John Belushi might have said, “And that’s not the really weird part. The really weird part is Tony Stewart’s car wasn’t even one of the ones involved in the Muppet program.” (Another missed oppurtunity. He’d have been a shoe in for Oscar the Grouch.)

What appears to have happened is another feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys of the soft drink industry, Coke and Pepsi. Maybe the Pepsi boys were still a little steamed that Mike Waltrip ended up swigging a Coke in Victory Lane at last week’s Pepsi 400. Or maybe they were implying, “You throw our seat cushions on the track, and we’ll throw the Muppets out of our track.” Most (but not all. Jeremy Mayfield is associated with Mountain Dew, a Pepsi product) of the drivers slated to run Muppet themed cars last Sunday were members of the Coca Cola family of drivers. And the title sponsor of the event was Tropicana” which is owned by Pepsi Cola. People also swear to me that the Muppets have ties to Coke. Isn’t a Congressional hearing in order when the beloved, ultimate politically correct, tutors of youth sign on to endorse a product shown to cause obesity and tooth decay in kids?

The reasons still aren’t clear, but what is clear is that are too many dogs fighting over the same bone. It used to be that a sponsor would sign on to back a team with reasonable expectations their car would get a lot of air time during race broadcasts. But when NASCAR sold it’s soul to its new network partners, those partners crunched the numbers and decided the team sponsors were getting too much of a bargain. No kidding, huh? The fact sponsoring a race team was such an outstanding bargain compared to a more conventional marketing campaign made the decision more palatable to boards of directors who by and large frequent Wall Street not Thunder Road. Now if a sponsor wants to get a satisfactory amount of exposure not only must they pay the team, they have to pay the network. It’s the same way for title sponsors of a race. In the old day they just made a deal with the track. Now they have to pay the network as well or the boys in the booth are only obligated to use the events “official name” once per hour during the broadcast and are free to call the event by another name if some company buys rights. And all of a sudden a lot of good race teams can’t find sponsors. Who would have guessed? And it now it would seem a diecast company has to sign deals with not only the driver, team, sponsors, licensing companies for properties like Warner Brothers and the Muppets, but the track as well. Which probably indicate why toy cars are selling for $50. (But, mom, I don’t care about paying the electrical bill this month. I NEED a Kermit car.)

It appalls me that there’s apparently no one who works for NASCAR who saw this situation developing and thought, “You know throwing out the Muppets might be bad PR, and possibly even make us a laughingstock.” Certainly the NASCAR folks could have tried to reason with the ISC folks in that they share the same corporate headquarters and in many cases the same bodies. But they didn’t sense a problem at all. It’s just how big league sports operate these days. And somewhere in Texas old Johnny Cochrane is scribbling himself a note that reads, “If they threw out the puppets, you can not acquit.”

In the great scheme of things, the presence or lack thereof of Muppets this weekend doesn’t mean much, though some race fans are taking the slight very personally. But looking at all of the ISC’s decisions as of late, it’s another pretty clear indication this isn’t Curtis Turner’s stock car racing anymore.

Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you got,
Till it’s gone,
They let in Britney Spears
And threw Miss Piggy out….ooh, cha-cha..

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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