Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 10, 2011
This Wednesday, some of NASCAR’s biggest stars did something that they have never done in a NASCAR race. They slipped, they slid, they got themselves, their cars, and everyone in attendance completely filthy. They didn’t earn a massive paycheck, but they did race like a million bucks was on the line.
In short, they ran a dirt race.
Once upon a time, NASCAR’s top series raced on dirt for points. Those days are ,ore than likely gone for good-dirt tracks don’t have the 80,000 or so seats needed to host a Cup crowd, and frankly, I can’t see a lot of today’s fans getting down and dirty in the way a dirt track will make you dirty-think head to toe dirt here, complete with flip-flop or sock lines. Plus, the cost of engineering and building a fleet of dirt cars would be prohibitive to many teams, even at the top level. So while it’s fun to wax nostalgic over points races run on dirt, those days are well and truly gone.
Which makes races like the Prelude to the Dream, the annual event that Tony Stewart holds at his Eldora dirt track, all the more special. The pay-per-view money was for a good cause (though I would argue that running the race on Speed with some kind of telethon surrounding it might entice more fans to watch and still donate to a worth cause-pay-per-view cost is prohibitive to some fans, even completely unavailable for others.) Fans can see their favorites run in a whole new way, and the drivers who are dirt novices are fun too, especially when they return, improved, for a podium finish in a year or two. And the race is run right.
Which is why NASCAR needs its drivers to run more races like the Prelude. NASCAR itself doesn’t offer an event that is in the same league. Sure, there’s the All-Star race, where teams battle it out for a million bucks, but the fact is, that race has lost a lot of luster over the years. The current format is predictable and not all that exciting. The current car on a mile-and-a-half racetrack simply doesn’t provide for a lot of close racing. Get that thing in clean air and kiss it goodbye. Just because it’s the All-Star race doesn’t change the aerodynamic of the cars being raced. And the format of the race itself is too long.
NASCAR needs an All-Star event if the sanctioning body wants to match other major sports in that area. And the event is decent fun, good for drivers and teams. Unfortunately, for many teams, it has become a test session for the 600-mile points race held at the same track the very next week. It’s hard to even say that’s wrong for a lot of teams who have neither the money nor the equipment to race with the high-dollar teams in the Showdown, let alone the main event. Some of them don’t have the luxury of a separate car for each event, so they have to take care of the equipment to have it ready to race again in a week. Smart on the part of the teams, of course, but not so great for the event.
That’s why events like the Prelude are so great. Most of the drivers lease or borrow cars, though a few, like Clint Bowyer, own dirt late models. The cars aren’t cheap, but they can race. Between the short dirt track and the cars themselves, you don’t see the leader run away and hide by several seconds over the next guy. Clint Bowyer led this year’s Prelude wire to wire, but it wasn’t without competition. As a friend of mine puts it, “JJ Yeley was up his ass for the last ten laps.” Plus, there’s just something about watching some of the finest drivers on this planet sling a dirt car.
It has to be fun for the drivers. There’s pressure, sure, but it’s mostly self-inflicted, though many sponsors tag along. The prize money goes to charity, so there’s that motivation to win as well, but it isn’t like a sprint Cup race where, even in the exhibition races it’s nothing but pressure: pressure to perform for sponsors and fans, pressure to make the Chase, to get good notes about the car and track for next time as well as to run competitively now. In short, no matter how cool a job it is, it’s another day at the office. And if that’s true, then Eldora is the company picnic. There’s no need to baby the car for next week (though the owner might think otherwise) and no notes to worry about, except so you can come back next year to kick butt and take names.
Not only does the nothing-at-stake nature of this type of race lend itself to fun and excitement for everyone involved, but the format of the event does as well. It’s an old fashioned short track battle, where qualifying only matters for your heat race, and winning a heat gives you the best possibility for a good start to the feature. There are several races within the race, and unlike NASCAR’s non-points races, everyone has to run them all like the whole night is on the line, because in a way, it is. There are no 75-mile segments to cruise along in. The Prelude had the added incentive of the Champions’ Challenge-past winners could line up at the back of the field for a chance at a $50,000 bonus should one of them win. With the exception of Carl Edwards, every past winner took the bait, though none took the prize (and Edwards offered to pay the 50 grand out of his own pocket if he won as his car owner wouldn’t allow him to drop back.). The four past winners (Edwards, Kenny Wallace, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart) came up short, finishing 15th, 16th, 18th, and 20th, respectively. So much for past glory.
Meanwhile, the event showcased the talents of some drivers who fans don’t hear too much from on NASCAR broadcasts. Yeley, a former USAC triple crown winner and no stranger to dirt, finished second, Nationwide regulars Aric Almirola Justin Allgaier finished third and fifth, ahead of many of the regular double-dippers who make their lives unfun on Saturdays. Ricky Carmichael, who can’t buy luck in the truck series, grabbed sixth. Ken Schrader showed he still can wheel a car and wound up seventh. The finishing order didn’t read like a typical Cup race, and that made this one that much better.
In his column earlier this week, Mike Neff said that perhaps drivers should share some responsibility for bringing drivers up by owning race teams at different levels. That’s true, but I’ll add that these drivers owning the tracks couls also be good for the sport if they were to host similar events. Besides Stewart, Wallace, Schrader, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Johnny Benson all have ownership in various tracks. Perhaps a triad of events similar to the Prelude could be managed during the year.
But it’s more feasible for NASCAR to follow the example Eldora sets. The Sprint Cup Series already has two non-points events each year. Only problem is, they’re not particularly exciting. NASCAR should look at a short track format for those races, even if they do run at Daytona and Charlotte (though why not move the All-Star event up the road to Martinsville? It’s just a two-hour ride and would take away the “let’s test for next week” mentality). Run heats, even add some of the things short track promoter occasionally throw out there: a Champion’s Challenge, inversions, Australian rules, or what have you. While the days of the short track being king are largely over as the tracks couldn’t handle the growth of the sport, the short track premise is one that the sport sorely misses.
Tony Stewart gets that, and the Prelude to the Dream has been wildly successful. Not only is it for a great cause, but it also captures the essence of days gone by for drivers and fans alike. And as the sport evolves, that’s not something to turn up your nose at. Eldora, the polar opposite of the All-Star race, was also fundamentally better, simply because it was racing at its mist fundamental. The sport needs more races like that, where fans can see the true talent of these drivers on display without the sponsor hype, the media hype, or the pressure. The sport needs more races like that because the sport needs more real racing.
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