The Frontstretch: Rock and a Hard Place: What Do We Really Want? by Amy Henderson -- Thursday April 21, 2011

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Rock and a Hard Place: What Do We Really Want?

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday April 21, 2011

 

Sometimes I feel sorry for NASCAR.

Yes, you read that right. I feel sorry for NASCAR, the sanctioning body that has given us such gems as the Chase, the top 35 rule, and stock cars that are about as stock as the $20 watch you purchased in the subway station from some guy named Tiny is from an actual Rolex. They have my pity.

After hearing race fans and media malign the racing at Talladega on Sunday (a race that featured 88 lead changes at the line and many more around the track), I can’t help but wonder what, exactly, race viewers want these days.

Once upon a time, superspeedway racing was unrestricted—no plates sapped the engines of power. And in those days, it wasn’t unusual to have a handful of cars, at best, on the lead lap. Even after the restrictor plate era began, races were decided by maybe one or two cars. The draft was used as a tool for the slingshot move, but drivers didn’t depend on it. But as racecars evolved (remember that until 1996 or so the racecar templates still had to fit the production model as well) to become aerodynamically better, the draft became a much more valuable tool—follow another car and it made you faster and more fuel efficient. Tuck up behind another car, let his car be the one doing the work all day, and let him rocket you to the win at the line.

People complained about this kind of racing. It was characterized by several smaller packs of cars strung out around the track for much of the race, leaving the race to be decided by a handful of drivers. And it was a predictable finish, at that—the leader in the late laps usually got snookered though he deserved the win, and fans complained that it was boring. There should be a way to tighten up the pack a bit.

So we got a new plate package circa 2000. A new gear rule mandated the gear ratio teams could run, shocks and springs were mandated as well, and along with some aerodynamic tweaks, the packs got tighter. You could throw a blanket over them. The cars were more dependent on the draft, and it took a strong car indeed to hold its own, even briefly, alone. Long term, it couldn’t be done. Along with the big packs came huge wrecks, some involving more than 20 cars at a time. The drivers took stock and realized that it was solid strategy to race much of the day in the back of the pack, avoiding the massive pileups and coming on at the end. And people complained about the drivers doing that; after all, a driver that ran in back all day was hardly worthy of winning a race.

Despite a change from previous styles of racing that used to dominate Talladega, plenty of fans were dissatisfied with the two-car tandems that were the requirement last Sunday.

So NASCAR made more changes to try and break up the packs and fans complained that the races were boring. Then they complained about the new car, and while some of that was justified, NASCAR tried to address many of those issues, especially safety problems with the wing on the car. Both Talladega and Daytona underwent repaving jobs, and the tandem racing that we have seen this year was born. And the fans complained some more.

What else is there?

This is where I feel sorry for NASCAR. If they mandate changes to try and improve the racing, fans complain that the racing is contrived. If they do nothing, fans complain that they’re doing nothing to improve the situation. What, exactly, should the sanctioning body do? Smaller engines, which could eliminate restrictor plates, could break up the packs-unrestricted, some would naturally have more horsepower than others, while currently you have 43 cars with equal power. But in reality, drivers know the draft is faster, and while increased throttle response could help them avoid some wrecks, it’s not going to improve the racing much.

Which leaves one other option, one I advocate but many fans abhor the very thought of: eliminate the plate tracks from the schedule and replace them with short tracks, where the racing is always hard and close and possibly the least contrived it can be in this day and age. And as I said, that would bring scads of complaints by the fans who love plate track action.

Here’s the problem. Cars, race or otherwise, are not static. They are not the same as they were 10 or 25 or 50 years ago and expecting them to race the same way is completely unrealistic. While I would personally love to see NASCAR have a vintage division, the cars of today have evolved for a variety of reasons, as have their stock counterparts. I may wax nostalgic over my first car as many do, but the fact is, that car had no power steering, no air conditioning, no CD player, and manual everything. The car I drive now is much improved in every aspect from that 1985 model. And it’s not beige, either. But I digress…

There are other situations in which NASCAR is in a no-win situation with fans and media alike-everybody complains about the top 35 rule, but before that everybody complained about the provisional system. Before that, it was two rounds of qualifying that inspired the ire. Before that, they complained when Richard Petty missed a race.

While the thought of 43 cars racing WFO for 500 miles is great on paper, that’s not the reality of racing-and hasn’t been in decades, if it ever was. That style of racing is well suited for Saturday night at the short track for a 50-lap feature-but it doesn’t translate to 500 miles on a 1.5-mile speedway. Teams have employed strategy for many years; rarely does running hell-bent-for-leather all day reap benefits. Unless a blown engine or a crash is what they were looking for. And if they cause a wreck from that type of racing, people complain. Besides, if a guy does race that hard and dominates? You guessed it: people complain.

It goes on and on. And as I said before, many of the complaints from fans and media are certainly warranted. NASCAR made some huge mistakes over the last few years, chiefly trying to compete for fans with the NFL when they should have been building and nurturing their own fan base. The changes since then have been unwelcome and unpopular on many occasions. But in some cases, the sanctioning body has tried to make improvements while working alongside evolving auto and race industries, and it seems that any decision is the wrong one. And for that reason, I feel sorry for NASCAR.

What do people really want, anyway?

Contact Amy Henderson

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Bad Wolf
04/22/2011 06:04 AM
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You laid out the problem very well without even realizing it.

Nascar did this in response to………

Then Nascar changed this in response to….

After that Nascar mandated this to……..

And when that didn’t work Nascar changed this……

And then Nascar put their finger in the air and changed that……

And then the Sponsors whined and Nascar changed this rule…..

And then to maximize profit Nascar instituted this rule……

And then when the fickle newbie fans were not satisfied Nascar changed this….

And on and on it goes with Nascar, always screwing with the system and never getting back to the roots of honest to God STOCK car racing. Back in the ’80s and ’90s the fan base was one solid block of satisfied can’t miss a single lap of the action die hards. The Kingdom of all things Nascar was united and all was well, with the exception of the temporary restrictor plates, but we believed they would come up with a solution and send the plates to the ash heap of history. Only one problem though, the casual fans loved the plate racing and Nascar was swayed by the lure of the easy money. I guess maybe this was the start of the downhill slide of money before racing?

I will tell you one thing; It is grating to us old time fans to hear one of the Nouveau Race fans talk down to us about how Nascar is just trying to please us and we don’t know what we want. We do know what we want, we once had it and it is not Tandumb Racing at Daytona and Talledega.

Russ
04/22/2011 08:45 AM
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Maybe the problem is more fundamental than you realize.
Nascar has been manipulating this for more than twenty years. For all those years they have proclaimed that parity is the goal. Of course you shouldnt ask, how if all the cars are supposedly using the same equipment,meeting the same templates, and everybody is a “great” driver, how some are consistently faster than others.
They took the emphasis on the various manufacturers out, because the Frances dont want more boycotts like in the 60’s. In doing so they removed much of the reason for fans to care who wins. Kinda hard to pull for one young spoiled millionaire over another. And like it or not, to attempt to go head to head with the NFL was a fools errand.
Dont feel sorry for Nascar. The hundreds of millions they make show that its not necessary.

jim
04/22/2011 11:37 AM
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open up the grills this should make the cars less aero sensitive maybe smaller carbs for the season

Brian France Sucks
04/22/2011 11:44 AM
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I think Bad Wolf, with an assist from Russ, hit the nail on the head. Amy, you claim that fans don’t really know what they want. I disagree. We, the fans (at least not the ADD crowd), want more short track racing, less 1.5 mile + snoozers, and a sanctioning body that actually gives a damn about the racing instead of how much dinero they can stuff into their greedy, fat fingers while talking out the side of their mouth about improving the product. This means you Brian France. Here’s what the fans want:

1. Put the Southern 500 back to its Labor Day weekend time slot.

2. Either bring back the Rock, or put Iowa Speedway on the schedule, or both. Ever notice how the short track races get good ratings from the fans? Its because they actually see racing.

3. Transparency. Show us the timing loops. Show us the debris. Open up the rulebook for all.

That’d be a good start.

Sincerely,

What the fans want (at least many of us)

Bette
04/23/2011 08:22 PM
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Just want to comment on a interesting article today Amy, and some good “think abut that” replies.Makes for a very enjoyable read.

 

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
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.