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.
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?
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