Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday September 29, 2011
It can’t go on like this.
Something must be done.
It’s ruining our sport.
These are some of the things being said around the garage and in the grandstands about a practice that has popped up in NASCAR in the past few seasons: starting the race and parking the car early, claiming some phantom issue, and collecting the prize money for a finish that is usually somewhere between 35th and 43rd place. The so-called start-and-park teams come to the racetrack with no intention of racing for the entire event; they buy only enough tires to practice, qualify, and start the race on, with maybe one more change. (Want to know who’s not planning on going the distance? Take a stroll down pit road before the race and count tires. Start-and-park teams typically have a new set and a set of scuffed practice tires in their pit, while other teams have in the ballpark of eight to ten sets.) They don’t bring a full pit crew, just a driver, crew chief and a couple of guys to work on the car.
And everywhere they go, the ridicule follows: What a disgrace. They’re stinking up the show. It’s ruining our sport.
OK, reality check. What these teams are doing isn’t an ideal advertisement for NASCAR, but it’s hardly ruining the sport.
As for stinking up the show, really? They’re usually gone too fast to cause any problems for the race leaders. And while it’s been suggested to reduce fields to 36 if so many teams are only going to drop out early, does it really matter that much if they start the race and the field is later reduced to 35 by their attrition? There is an argument that start-and-park teams can take a spot in the field from a team that plans to run the distance, and while it’s a legitimate complaint on a week-to-week basis (Steve Park went home at Loudon last week, for example), it’s really not a big issue in the course of a season. Full-time teams are protected by the rule that locks in the top 35 in owner points.
There are not start-and-park teams locked in over teams planning to run a full race every single week. They don’t send full-time teams home, period. On occasion, they do send home a car running a partial schedule and hoping to go the distance, but it’s rare. Other than that, it’s hard to buy the “stinking up the show” argument because they cause little trouble on track and are gone early, totally inconsequential to the race except perhaps for buying a point or two for a frontrunner by cushioning the blow of an early exit.
There have been plenty of suggested solutions to the perceived problem, from prorating money won for the number of laps completed to monetary fines to actually suspending teams who park early. The first has a lot of support, but it’s ill-thought-out. For one thing, what about a team who everybody knows planned to run the whole race but had engine trouble or got wrecked? Under the rule, that team would receive a prorated purse as well, as would any team that ran all day and simply finished a lap or more down. It would have to be applied across all of these teams, and that would be grossly unfair. But the bottom line is that not all the start-and-park teams are the same, and the solution isn’t in penalties at all. Like so much else in NASCAR, it’s in money.
There are two types of teams parking their cars early. One group, luckily the minority, uses starting and parking as their business model. They don’t intend to race full races, sponsored or not. These teams do lack respect for the sport and the fans, and these are the ones most people think of when they hear the words “start and park.” And if these were the only teams doing it, perhaps penalties would be justified. But they aren’t the only ones, and penalizing them would also mean penalizing other teams who are just trying to make it in a dog-eat-dog world.
The majority of the start-and-park teams do it for a simple reason: they want to race, and if they park early, at least they got on the track. If they could afford to race every race, they would, no questions asked. When they have funding, they do race. Joe Nemechek is among these owners. So is Robby Gordon, and he and Nemechek are both winners on the Cup circuit. Nemechek and Gordon are racers, and it kills them not to race, but most weeks for their teams and several others, that’s just not in the cards. They hope that by showing up every week, perhaps a potential sponsor will notice something-great practice laps, a good qualifying effort, a good run while they’re out there-and that they will find the funding to race. In the meantime, they’re getting a little track time and learning something for next time, in case they have more money when they come back.
An example of this is Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 team, who parked most weeks for two years. Having secured sponsorship from Golden Corral to run at Talladega earlier this year, the team put together a great effort and driver Dave Blaney ran at the front enough for Golden Corral to take notice. They stepped up with money for more races and the team is moving forward. That’s what all these teams are hoping for. They don’t enjoy parking. They don’t do it to beat traffic home. Casey Mears, who has had to park on weeks when Geico doesn’t sponsor the No. 13, said that having to pull into the garage before the end of the race is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. Teams like these deserve respect, not ridicule.
In a nutshell, if you’re at the track every week, you have a fighting chance to be noticed by a sponsor. If you’re not there at all, you have no chance. That’s the reality these teams face.
But something must be done about them! This much is true, but what needs to be done isn’t imposing some kind of penalty. These teams are penalized every week by the economics of the sport.
The solution to start-and-park teams won’t be found in the rule book or the penalty logs. Instead, it lies in a concerted effort to help these teams find funding. It’s a reality that NASCAR funnels money away from race teams when they add an official sponsor of the sport. While that’s a short term gain for the company, it’s a long term loss if they can’t fill fields and otherwise maintain the overall health of the sport. A comprehensive program where NASCAR would help potential sponsors enter the sport and funnel money to the teams who need it most would only improve the sport overall by making the racing more competitive and more compelling to watch.
Franchising has long been the dirtiest f-word in the sport, but perhaps it’s a possible solution. By moving teams from independent businesses to a collective group under the sport’s umbrella, rules like spending caps and revenue sharing could come into play. Spending caps would almost surely bring new sponsors to the sport, as those priced out of the sport under the current model could come back and be competitive. It’s possible that franchising could, in the long run, revitalize the sport.
There are no perfect solutions, but starting and parking is also not nearly the problem some would make it out to be. These teams rarely affect the qualifying of the field or the race results. Most of the teams doing it are doing it because it’s all they can do, in hopes of attracting a sponsor’s attention, or in the case of the drivers, a better ride. While there are a few parking with no intent to change that, they’re the minority, and penalties couldn’t be applied fairly. The solution to start-and-park teams isn’t in punishment, it’s in finding ways to help them through the difficult economic environment that is today’s NASCAR.
Sometimes, the best solution is the hardest one, especially when the real problem is much deeper that it appears on the surface. The real problem lies in the economics of the sport, not in the teams doing what they can to remain a part of it. Penalties would do nothing but punish people who don’t deserve to be punished. A real solution, much harder to come by, would put an end to it because there would no longer be a need. And if there was no need, the entire sport would be better off.
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