The Frontstretch: For NASCAR, A Continued Upswing Is Dependent on Venue Changes by Amy Henderson -- Saturday March 12, 2011

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For NASCAR, A Continued Upswing Is Dependent on Venue Changes

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Saturday March 12, 2011


As the 2011 season has turned three weeks old, feel-good stories have abounded: 20-year-old Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 in just his second start, and for the storied Wood Brothers at that; Jeff Gordon breaking a 66-race winless streak in dramatic fashion after a side-by-side duel with Kyle Busch; the resurgence of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Daytona provided an exciting race marked by everything that makes a restrictor plate race, including a multi-car crash that took out, among others, the series champion; close racing; the draft (though in a slightly different form); and an unexpected winner. Phoenix provided action typical of a 1-mile flat track, with hard-fought battles throughout the field. Ratings are up, optimism is creeping in around the edges.

And then came Las Vegas. Ratings were still up, but the race was hardly a thriller, producing little on-track competition for the lead. The best racing was on restarts, and tires, not strategy, dictated much of the game plan. It was an okay race, certainly nothing to write home about, about on par for a 1.5-mile track.

And herein lies the problem.

At the heart of NASCAR’s modest upswing this year has been very good racing which has, in turn, produced some top-notch storylines. To continue the upswing, it would follow that NASCAR needs to continue to produce an exciting product. The problem is, the 1.5-mile tri- or quad-oval tracks don’t generally provide that.

Facilities such as the Kansas Speedway may be able to host both stock and open wheel races on its surface with ease, but that hasn’t proven to improve the quality of the racing product on a majority of the venues on NASCAR’s national circuits.

There are a few notable exceptions, of course. Atlanta has certainly provided some excellent finishes, none finer than Kevin Harvick’s win by inches over Jeff Gordon just weeks after taking the seat left too soon by Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Charlotte has produced some memorable first wins, though the races themselves often haven’t been as compelling. But overall, the cookie-cutter tracks are to racing what the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums of the 1960’s were to baseball-practical because they can be used for more than one thing, but boring and uninspiring to a sport steeped in tradition.

Note to NASCAR: those awful round baseball stadiums are all but gone, replaced, in many cases, by ballparks inspired by tradition and looking like they could have been a part of an earlier, golden era.

To keep the great storylines and the unpredictability strong, NASCAR needs to consider a move away from the 1.5-milers being the core of the sport’s three national touring series. The regional series-K&N Pro East and West, as well as the Modifieds, run a variety of tracks, mostly less than a mile, and the races are great. They have multiple winners, exciting races, compelling stories.

It’s not that NASCAR should become a short-track series at its highest levels-there needs to be a variety of tracks to challenge the greatest stock car drivers in the world. And that isn’t the case right now. The 1.5-milers dominate the landscape to the point where the schedule plays right into the hands of a few select drivers who have been blessed with both the talent and the perfect setups required to win on these tracks. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting it right and winning races, that’s the point of it, after all. But it would be nice to see more of the tracks like Phoenix, Dover, Loudon, and the short tracks which present a much bigger challenge to the drivers because the car’s setup is secondary to a driver’s skill. The car still counts, but a real wheelman is what’s needed at these tracks. At the bigger tracks, handling and horsepower sometimes overshadow grit, passion and skill. Couple that with large margins of victory, and what you get is rarely memorable.

It wouldn’t have to happen overnight-in fact, it likely couldn’t. Several tracks aren’t ready for it. A track like Rockingham, should present management even wish to pursue NASCAR sanctioning, could easily support a truck race now, perhaps even a Nationwide event, but it would need massive renovation before being ready to host a Cup event. Still, it could be done.

Iowa Speedway already hosts some good truck and NNS racing-why not encourage the track to add the necessary seats and amenities by promising a future Cup date? Darlington already hosts a Cup race, and should most definitely receive another. Tracks like South Boston have hosted the Nationwide Series and could again. By giving existing tracks incentive to upgrade, NASCAR could also buy time to inform track owners that many of the 1.5-mile tracks will be reduced to a single date in the not-so distant future. Charlotte, perhaps should keep the second race because of the proximity to the teams.

The others? As a more raceable track comes along, phase them out. Darlington in Cup for 2012 perhaps, along with the Milwaukee Mile (that is reportedly now under new, stable management) and South Boston for Nationwide and trucks. The next step could be a truck race for Rockingham or even North Wilkesboro in 2013, an Iowa Cup stop in 2014-a slow and steady return to NASCAR’s roots in the form of old venues and new.

It would be easy to inform track owners and promoters that no new 1.5-mile tracks will be awarded race dates, thereby forcing their hand and making new builds produce more varied and creative racetracks. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a slow return to some old favorites, particularly in the Nationwide or truck series. The Cup schedule is trickier, but a slow turnover could happen over several years.

While it’s not a quick fix, bringing better racing to NASCAR is imperative for the health of the sport as a whole. While feel-good stories will fade over time, as fans can’t expect them each week, great racing will produce more of them. Maybe not every week, but more often than we get now, racing on the same type of racetrack for the vast majority of the year. NASCAR is racing, plain and simple-the product is what will keep the fans interested. A good product will naturally produce the great stories.

A commitment by NASCAR to pay homage to its roots and to the racing itself by giving fans a better product week in and week out would be the greatest story the sport could write.

Contact Amy Henderson

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Stephen HOOD
03/11/2011 07:24 AM

OK. Atlanta has fast racing and close finishes. Texas produced one of the best races of 2010. Kansas City is a good race. Kentucky is a wild card. The NW races there have been good. The Michigan race usually produces some water cooler moments (what was the last race Junior won?). Homestead has drama because it comes last.

In my mind the only two 1.5 mile tracks that are really mind numbing are Las Vegas and Charlotte and you propose that we leave two races at Charlotte (three when you count the All Star race)! Other mind numbing tracks are not 1.5 milers at all, but include Pocono and, dare I write it (?), Indianapolis.

I agree with you that there are too many tracks that produce boring racing. I disagree that 1.5 milers are the sole blame for the problem. It has become conventional wisdom that the 1.5 milers are the culprit which may be because the tracks they replaced were beloved of the old school fan. But, the races where I’m guaranteed to get a good nap are Pocono and Charlotte. I watch Indianapolis because I get caught up in the hype that it’s going to be a great race and I continue to watch year after year to no avail. Bruton Smith knows Charlotte is a stinker which is why he hires military battalions and giant robots to liven up the infield. I noticed show girls in the pictures from Vegas, so he probably understands he has a problem there as well.

I’d love to see another road course and another short track. Is there any reason why they can’t run a restrictor plate on a 1.5 miler? Maybe a conventional Charlotte in the fall and a restrict plate crash fast in the Spring. I don’t have the answers but I do know that the snooze fests are not the sole purvey of the 1.5 milers.

03/11/2011 07:44 AM

Yes!!….What he said!!

03/11/2011 09:49 AM

Great article, couldn’t agree more. Add a couple more road courses and you’ve got it. Cutting the schedule from 36 races to 30 or 31 would probably help the over saturation.

03/11/2011 10:34 AM

So people complain about the cookie cutter mile and a half speedways and want more short tracks. Now Phoenix is getting a makeover. Are they straightening the dogleg and making it a three-quarter or seven-eighths OVAL? No, they’re making it about a mile and a half tri-oval. Seems it’s Brainless at work again.

Russ Edwards
03/11/2011 11:21 AM

You have TOTALLY overlooked the obvious! Guess who owns those cookie cutter tracks we malign so much? ISC (International Speedway Corp.)! And who is ISC? NASCAR. Which is a long way of saying, that Jesus will be the Grand Marshall before any change is made.

Carl D.
03/11/2011 11:48 AM

I’ve seen some pretty good races through the years at Charlotte. Yeah, there have been a few stinkers, and Jimmie Johnson was given every break in the book when Lowes was the the track sponsor, but I wouldn’t say the racing there has been consistently bad. Also, though unrelated to the actual racing, the track has been among the most fan-friendly in Nascar, especially when Humpy Wheeler was running the show.

Kevin in SoCal
03/11/2011 12:24 PM

Thank you for the recycled story, Amy.

03/11/2011 03:41 PM

Michigan (2), Las Vegas, Texas (2), Kansas (2), Chicago, California, Charlotte (2) all provide terrible racing. That’s over 1/4 of the schedule

Reduce the schedule to 30 races, have only one race at each track currently on the schedule and give the remainder to places like Iowa, Rockingham, North Wilksboro and some other worthy tracks.

This would allow those tracks to keep their one race and allow other, more exciting tracks to be added to the schedule as well.

I don’t think we need to go to Michigan twice anymore, Charlotte 2 weeks in a row and Pocono twice in a month.

BZFrance had a chance to give the schedule an overhaul last year and dropped the ball again. Let’s hope he finally wakes up and makes some badly needed changes to the schedule and soon.

03/11/2011 03:47 PM

The problem with the cookie-cutters is not so much that they produce the same race every time—although they do—but the fact that they make aero more important than anything else, including driver skill. Short tracks and road courses test the driver more, and are better gauges of how good a driver can really race.

Something to consider when NASCAR talks about helping smaller teams, instead of just taking down the successful teams.

Chris in TX
03/11/2011 04:36 PM

As usual, enjoyable races (both in person and on TV) are pretty subjective. None of what follows is an attempt to convert anyone to enjoy what I enjoy.

I love watching the Cup, Truck and Indy races at Texas (where I am a season ticket holder). The NW races are interminably awful, and have been for the last…well, all of them that I have been to.

On TV, Pocono is easily in the top half for me. that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t enjoy them even more at a shorter distance.

the 2 road courses are pure awesomeness. Most of the tracks 1.33m or less are also excellent. The 1.5milers can vary widely. Chicago is arguably my least favorite race of the year. Michigan is almost always really awful for me to watch. Indy is not a good stock car track. Having 2 races at Kansas sounds like it may be a beating. I think I actually like California quite a bit with 1 race.

I’m not certain that I think that any tracks (except maybe Dega and Pocono) should be allowed to run the same configuration 2x a year. If that means dropping dupes and getting down to 30 race weekends a year, great. I’d love to see a 3rd or 4th road course. I’d like to see some sort of rotation where some tracks (on the same weekend in a year) run a NW race one year, and cup the next…or something.

Change is good. Make them run the road course at Daytona #2. It’s a pretty good course.

03/11/2011 08:11 PM

Drop these races!

  • second Texas
  • second Michigan
  • second Pocono
  • second Charlotte
  • second Kansas
    Replace them with these
  • Daytona road course to end the season back to the roots!
  • Road Atlanta
  • Indy Raceway Park
  • The Rock (best track period)
  • Ohio

Old Farmer
03/12/2011 01:19 AM

I guess the money must be good there to keep a race, but the Brickyard at Indianapolis is an absolutely terrible place to watch a race. For all practical purposes, one can see only a snippet of the race, no matter the seat. I’m from Indiana, but I’ll not go back to a cup race there.

Now, the track at IRP at Indy, that’s something else—it’s awesome racing there. Better than Bristol, I think.

03/12/2011 11:07 AM

IRP better than Bristol. What kind of plants are you growing Old Farmer.

IRP is probably the worst short track on the NASCAR schedule. Historically, it is a one lane (for the leader) track where the passing up front is only done on Pit Road or on restarts.

It is better than the 2.5 mile track, but go to a real short track in the Midwest like Winchester or Salem.

Drop 1/2 the 1.5 milers and the second Michigan Race.

Add Iowa x 2, Rockingham, a 2nd Darlington, 1 North Wilkesboro and Nashville

Replace California with Irwindale.

If you are going to add another Road Course add Mid America.

Take the NW series back to Hickory, South Boston, Myrtle Beach and a few of the Modified tracks up North.
(Run 8 Cup tracks a year Daytona, Charlotte, Dega, Darlington, Dover, Kentucky, Homestead, Bristol and Rockingham

Run the Trucks at Concord, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Irwindale, etc

thomas dalfonzo
03/12/2011 01:02 PM

I have designed my own race tracks for the purpose of great racing and great entertainment. Also, I have them in big media markets as well because I believe in catering to big markets. I would want to knock down Chicagoland and Michigan and sell off whatever I can to help get these new tracks going. Here are my tracks and plans:

1. The .646 mile Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, WA, will receive a complete upgrade including 24 degrees of banking, an asphalt racing surface, and 100,000 seats. Also, the track is only 35 miles away from Seattle and will fill NASCAR’s void in the Pacific Northwest.

The Kansas Speedway will undergo a transformation to make itself respectable and competitive. I want to up the banking to 33 degrees in turns 1 and 2, and 31 degrees in turns 3 and 4. Other than that, the track will be left alone.

2. The Texas World Speedway will be coming back from the dead. TWS is a 2-mile oval track in College Station, TX, with 22-degree banking in the turns. Without aerodynamics and radial tires, cars can run lightning-fast, five-wide, and flat-out all race long here. This track hosted NASCAR eight Winston Cup Grand National races from 1969 to 1981, even serving as the season finale for the 1971 and 1972 Winston Cup Grand National Series. The only thing that will change is that the 23,000 seating capacity will be jacked up to 83,000. The winner of each race at the Texas World Speedway will receive The Texas World Cup.

3. The Meadowlands Racetrack in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ will be transformed into the Meadowlands Raceway. The new-Meadowlands Raceway will be a 1-mile oval track with 34 degrees of banking in the turns, 17 degrees of banking on the straightaways, and 100,000 seats.

4. The Bay Area Motorplex will be a 2.5 mile, D-shaped superspeedway somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area Motorplex will have 24 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2, 22 degrees of banking in turns 3 and 4, a concrete racing surface, and 100,000 seats. The Bay Area Motorplex will be a magnet to hungry race fans from the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose market and crowd.

5. The Detroit Speed Plant will be a 3.0 mile, D-shaped oval track located in Detroit, MI with 35 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2, 25 degrees of banking in turns 3 and 4, and 15 degrees of banking on the dogleg frontstretch. It will have 125,000 seats and a hotel complex resembling a power plant in between turns 1 and 2.

6. The Minnesota Speedway will be a .875-mile circle race track, almost exactly like the old Langhorne Speedway. The track will also have 80,000 seats and 18 degrees of banking all the way around the track. The Minnesota Speedway will attract the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington Metropolitan Statistical Area, one of the largest in the country.

7. The New York Race Park will be a 1-mile race track with 75,000 seats. The race track will be shaped exactly like a baseball diamond, with four bases In addition, there will be 29 degrees of banking in 1st and 3rd base, and 21 degrees of banking in 2nd base and Home Plate, which is where the start/finish line will be located. This track will be close to Buffalo, NY, a good-sized market and crowd. Also, the New York Race Park will be designed and built exactly like a baseball stadium. One of upstate New York’s most famous institutions is the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. This track will be my personal tribute to the sport of baseball.

8. A brand new race track will be built just outside of New Orleans, Louisiana called the New Orleans Raceway. The New Orleans Raceway will be a 1-mile oval track with 33 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2, 26 degrees of banking in turns 3 and 4, and 80,000 seats.

9. The Lake County Speedway in Painesville, OH, will be transformed into the Ohio Speed Dome. The Ohio Speed Dome will be a 80,000-seat, 0.535 mile oval short track near Cleveland, OH. This track will have 24 degrees of banking in all the turns, and will be the first climate-controlled domed race track anywhere. This race track will be my own personal homage to the game of football.

10. The St. Louis International Raceway will be a 1-mile race track with a D-shaped frontstretch like Richmond and a rectangular backstretch like Indy with 90 degree rectangular turns. The banking will be 30 degrees in Turn 1 and 25 degrees in Turn 2, with 15 degrees of banking spanning the entire front straightaway. The track will seat 80,000 and will garner the St. Louis market and crowd. St. Louis, The Gateway to the West, is now The Gateway to the Best, race track in the world.

11. The Chicago Motorsports Raceway is the last of my own tracks. It will be a 3/4 mile paper clip oval just outside of Chicago. There will be 90,000 seats, along with 29 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2, 23 degrees of banking in turns 3 and 4, and 10 degrees of banking on both straightaways.

12. Give Pikes Peak Intl. Raceway, Rockingham Speedway, and North Wilkesboro Speedway Cup races.

13. Finally, move Darlington back to Labor Day Weekend and keep it there until the end of time.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.