Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday August 2, 2013
NASCAR fans are in for some changes in 2015, when the new television contracts will mean the season will be split between FOX and NBC Sports Network. The races, particularly those on NBCSN, will no doubt have a new look for fans.
With that big change on the horizon, the time is ripe for NASCAR to capitalize on it in a big way with changes of their own, adjustments that could pique fan interest and increase their audience at a time that’s going to be a crucial juncture for the sport. Think about it; the timing couldn’t be better. The sanctioning body would have more than a year to really seek fan feedback, analyze what would make the most sense, and implement a plan to move ahead. There are several key areas that can, and should, be easily addressed in the next year…
If the fans’ main complaint about the sport centers around the racing itself, the schedule lies at the heart of the matter. The tracks where teams race are perhaps the single most crucial element in improving the end product; and, with television changes looming, why not put track owners on notice that their race dates could be switched as well?
For starters, there needs to be a road course in the Chase (though it can easily be said that this would be a great time to get rid of that format as well, since fans have not warmed to it. In fact, most say they hate it.). There just does. If the Chase is supposed to be a ten-race test of who is a true champion, then the road to the title needs to take some right turns. It also needs another track that’s not a 1.5 or 2-mile, mass-produced multiplex; my vote is for moving Richmond into the last ten.
Which brings us to tradition. NBC offers the perfect chance to throw a bone to the diehards who are still around, moving the Southern 500 back to the Labor Day weekend date that it deserves. Try this on for size: Darlington on Sunday night under the lights as the last race of the regular season before the Chase. That’s right; let the Lady in Black be the final hurdle teams have to overcome to make the championship field. Then, take a week off and start the Chase at Richmond. Add a September race at Watkins Glen to the mix while leaving off Chicago and Kansas. All four tracks are owned by the same company, International Speedway Corporation, so moving them around would, in theory, be a simple matter. The other eight Chase tracks are a decent choice, though an argument could certainly be made for taking the restrictor plate race off the table as well; it’s more of a game of luck than one of skill.
As nice as it would be to see tracks like Iowa or Rockingham on the Cup schedule, the simple truth is that neither track is currently suitable for that level of competition. They simply don’t have the capacity for a Cup crowd or the infrastructure to support the addition of seats without other, major work. The same applies to Eldora; while a dirt race is certainly an appealing idea, the reality is a bit more complicated. Running the Trucks and even Nationwide on a dirt track is feasible. A Cup race is just not; there just isn’t a facility that could handle it. After years of neglect, North Wilkesboro also isn’t a viable option.
But even working with what they’ve got in terms of tracks and races, there is a lot NASCAR could do to make fans sit up and take notice. They just need to stand up to the track owners and do it.
While making the rule book available is a start, it’s time for an overhaul of the rules in terms of infractions and penalties. The former need to be clearly defined (why can one driver say it was hard to pass but not another?), and the latter need to be clear, consistent, and predetermined.
For example, there should be a graduated system for penalizing race weekend inspection failures. Fail the first tech, before the car even hits the track? That’s just not even in the same ballpark as failing postrace inspection; the penalties should be just as different. If it doesn’t hit the track, the team never raced an illegal car; losing a practice while they fix it and have it reinspected is punishment enough.
On the other hand, a car that’s illegal after a race is a whole other ball of wax. There’s no way an illegal car should ever beat a legal one for any position. The team with the illegal car should have its finish stripped, receive no points or prize money from the event, and not be credited with any finish in the race. NASCAR’s old excuse that fans need to know the winner before they leave the track doesn’t hold water. Most race fans aren’t completely inept; they are capable of understanding why the finishing order was changed if a car fails inspection. That NASCAR doesn’t think they are is an insult.
The bottom line is, the severity of a penalty should be tailored to when the infraction is discovered. A car that never took to the track isn’t even in the same realm as one that’s raced in terms of how wrong an infraction really is. Penalties can no longer be one-stop shopping, because one size most definitely does not fit all.
OK, not everyone can be Clint Bowyer. And really, can you imagine 43 Clint Bowyers in the garage, all at once. That might be a little much…
In other words, drivers all have different personalities. Some, like Bowyer are outgoing and even outrageous, while others are more reserved. That’s all fine. Some people like vanilla… others like a little spice. Whatever floats your boat. But where NASCAR (and the sponsors in the sport, to be fair) errs is in not letting all the drivers show their personalities all the time.
No driver should be afraid to speak his or her mind, as long as what they say is constructive. Certainly, stating that passing is hard in the Gen-6 or any other car is not wrong. Fans can see that for themselves. It wasn’t as if Denny Hamlin said that NASCAR’s top execs had their collective heads… um, in the sand, or something. He never said the racing was bad, or that the sanctioning body was bad, or that the race cars were bad.
NASCAR would also do themselves a favor if they found a way to market more Cup regulars, not just the biggest names. Why not use drivers like Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, or JJ Yeley, for example, in advertisements and promotions? There are many drivers like those three, who aren’t exactly household names but are personable and marketable. So why not use that to everyone’s advantage?
The Nationwide and Truck Series
If NASCAR did a better job of promoting these series and, more importantly, their drivers, they wouldn’t need the argument that the Cup drivers in lower series are a draw. Actually, what’s proven to be a draw in recent years is not the drivers, but the venues. Rockingham draws great crowds with very few Cup drivers in the field. Eldora didn’t sell out in a few weeks because of the Cup drivers who might be in the race. Race fans care about racing. Good racing is the key to long-term interest in these series… and that will come on short tracks and venues that Sprint Cup currently doesn’t visit.
Also, it’s just not good racing when one or two drivers are winning every week. Many fans simply don’t bother watching these series because they feel like the outcome is predetermined. That’s not a good thing. No fan should have to feel like they already know the ending to the story before they open the book.
And there are solutions that don’t completely exclude the Cup drivers. They could be limited, either by the number of races they can run or by the number of Cup drivers in any given race. The NNS and Truck Series schedules could simply include more races at venues where the Cup Series isn’t racing that week.
Another viable solution would be to exclude a driver from running for the same car owner (or a closely linked team) in more than one series. That would stop the drivers and teams who are simply outspending the others to rack up a few more trophies. A few drivers could (and some no doubt would) run for other owners, but even that would limit the trophy hunting because it’s unlikely that a driver’s Cup owner would let him race for a direct competitor of the team in another series. For example, you probably wouldn’t see a Roush Fenway driver running for Penske Racing in the Nationwide Series. That would limit the drivers to smaller teams running the same manufacturer they race in Cup; it could be mutually beneficial for the teams and the series while limiting the ridiculous (and downright obscene) dominance of a few drivers in series they’ve outgrown.
With the new TV package several months away, the timing would be perfect for NASCAR to make some changes that would help drive the sport forward, keeping the interest of current fans while staying appealing for newer ones. By addressing the schedule, the rules, and how they market drivers and series, the sanctioning body could drive the sport in a direction so many want to follow. The sport is bleeding, from attendance to their pocketbook and they have the perfect reason, right now, to make wholesale changes to the racing without making new rules that nobody wants.
The time is ripe. NASCAR just needs to reap it.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!