Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday September 27, 2013
It really should be simple. What’s coming from most race fans these days is that what they want is simple: good racing. And that’s followed by many saying that’s not what they’re getting on a weekly basis.
But when you take a closer look at the sport, it’s suddenly not so simple. It’s not just one person or one group responsible, though everyone loves to point fingers. There’s no one cause, no tidy solution. The responsibility for changes that have come to the sport in the last 15 or so years is shared, and it’s shared by a lot of people. And that’s both part of the problem with NASCAR’s backslide and part of the solution.
Looking closer, what’s detracting from the pure racing that fans would like to see (and is often seen in smaller series and at local tracks around the country)? What roles do the sanctioning body, the media bringing you the races, and even the race teams play in breaking—and fixing—the sport?
NASCAR takes a lot of criticism for a lot of things, including some that’s overblown. Their biggest mistake in recent years is in putting too much emphasis on the championship and not enough on each individual week of the season. Sure, the championship is a great accomplishment for a race team, and certainly every fan wants to see his or her favorite hold that distinction each year, but it shouldn’t overshadow the weekly show.
No race fan buys a ticket to see a championship, but they do buy one to see a race.
That’s where the Chase has really hurt the sport. The fans want to see a race each week where NASCAR has made it into a contest of who will get in and then a ten-race determination of a winner. Think of a 500-mile race. A lot of the time, there isn’t a lot of action early as teams figure out what they’ll do to be there when it counts and then make a run at it. In essence, with their emphasis on the championship, they’ve made much of the season a strategy session for getting into the Chase and then making a title run that teams see little value in racing hard for the win every weekend.
NASCAR doesn’t need playoffs the way stick-and-ball sports do for one simple reason: it isn’t a stick-and-ball sport. It’s not just two teams going at it at a time, it’s 43. What works for that kind of game doesn’t work for this one, and it never will. The championship battles in NASCAR’s other national series are close and compelling without a Chase. And even in those stick-and-ball sports, there are regular-season games that have little to no impact on the postseason which are memorable simply because they were great contests. NASCAR needs to get back to that.
The other mistake that NASCAR has made was to tighten up the rules to the point where no team is allowed to do anything to build a better car than its competitors. To a degree, a level playing field is needed, and nobody would argue that, but as long as a few teams have five times and more the resources of others, it’s not going to be leveled by tightening the rules more and more. All that does is make it so that nobody can think outside a very small box.
Nobody’s saying that NASCAR should not crack down on blatant cheating, but what the current atmosphere does is give a false sense of suspicion about every little thing. And NASCAR adds to that suspicion by not handling the same things in the same way. If one team has a minor issue with a part of the car that they have worked on and is told to fix it and come back through inspection, and another is given a points deduction, that’s giving the wrong message to teams and fans. It tells teams that if they try anything they think might be legal and it isn’t, they’ll be able to fix it, when sometimes they will and sometimes they’ll be slapped with a big penalty. And it’s giving fans the impression that some teams are treated differently than others. If one of the teams’ issue was bigger than the others and that was the reason for the discrepancy, that’s another story, but if NASCAR doesn’t explain exactly what the violations were and how they differed, how is a fan to know?
Plus, if a couple of teams can come up with something to make their cars racy, others will counteract with something else and it lends an element of interest to the show—what will they come up with next? How can this guy beat that one? That was once a big part of the sport…but not anymore.
NASCAR needs to put the sport more in the hands of the race teams and make each race count more. I’ve written in the past that all the champion should receive is a nice trophy and a trip to Vegas for the team, and I stand by that. If the point fund money was all reallocated to race purses, and the championship was a nice perk, the racing would improve.
To be fair, NASCAR is reportedly working on a package to change the way air flows around and under the cars in an attempt to reduce aerodynamic dependency that’s made passing much harder than it used to be. The sanctioning body is trying to improve the racing, or at least one aspect of it, and they aren’t the only ones responsible for overhyping the championship, either.
The people behind the weekly NASCAR broadcasts are also part of the problem. The voices in the booth and the producers telling them what to talk about need to gain a little perspective. The Chase talk starts in February and only intensifies. Sometimes the voices are so busy talking about the Chase—who’s in, who’s out, what might this do to someone Chase chances—that the on-track action is barely a side show.
That’s a problem.
For one thing, there is plenty going on in most races that doesn’t have Chase implications but is still impactful and exciting. It’s at it’s very worst now, during the Chase, when a driver not in the title hunt practically has to do backflips with his car to get more than a passing mention, even if he’s going door to door with the Chasers. Eventually, sponsors are going to realize that they’re not getting much for their money in the final ten races if their driver missed the Chase. Someday, one of them is going to have and exercise a clause in the contract that allows them to pull their money for the final ten races if the team misses the show…and then others will follow suit.
Besides, the voices aren’t giving fans much credit. Fans understand that the whole race is important, every position is important, and they don’t all choose to follow the same few drivers that the networks focus on week after week. Fans are smarter than that, more loyal than that. It makes the TV networks look uninformed and worse, biased, when they focus on a select few drivers all race, every race and ignore the action that’s going on.
Plus, one reason that fans complain about boring racing is that the networks don’t show the actual racing if it’s not in the top few spots or involving one of the drivers they wish to overpublicize. Racers race just as hard for fifteenth place as fifth, and if the battle for fifteenth is a great one, the broadcast is doing a great disservice in not showing it, especially if they are showing the leader running alone.
It’s television that’s responsible for bringing the show to the fans at home every week. And they’re doing a lousy job of portraying what’s actually happening in a professional manner. It’s irresponsible not to show actual racing when it’s going on, and it’s equally unprofessional broadcasting to hype the Chase over the race when it’s months away and there’s action on the track.
Simply put TV isn’t bringing fans at home complete race coverage. They’re bringing them overblown Chase coverage almost from the drop of the green in Daytona. They’re missing the point. And it’s a huge problem for the sport that NASCAR doesn’t seem interested in correcting.
It’s hard to heap too much blame on the teams because they are playing the game under the rules they’ve been given. But it’s also hard to swallow when some of them are so worried about a Chase spot that they settle for a “good points day” rather than take a risk that could get them a win…but could also end their day in the wall.
Teams used to take those risks to win, because winning races in itself was their focus. Even before the Chase, teams were thinking points over wins, and that hurts the quality of the individual races. Drivers ride around at the back at Daytona and Talladega because they’re afraid to get caught in a crash and finish 41st because of the points hit. That’s not why the people in the stands bought a ticket.
The solution is simple, though actually making it come to fruition would be complex because of the sheer number of minds that would have to be changed before it could happen. But what needs to happen here is that everyone—NASCAR, the media, and the race teams—need to come to the track each and every weekend believing that this is the biggest, most important race of the year and winning it is the most important thing that anyone can do. TV needs to do their part and show the battles in the pack, because they’re racing just as hard and against the odds for the win. Every race needs to be its own entity, and winning it should be everyone’s top priority.
Fans don’t buy tickets to see one step toward the Chase or the championship. They don’t watch broadcasts to see a few drivers ride around avoiding risks. They don’t follow a driver and root for a good points day. This is what everyone in the sport needs to remember. It needs to be about the race. This race, right here, right now. And everything else will sort itself out.
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