The Frontstretch: 2011 Schedule Creates More Problems Than It Solves by Kurt Smith -- Friday August 20, 2010

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2011 Schedule Creates More Problems Than It Solves

Kurt Smith · Friday August 20, 2010


As we all know, or at least most of us do, change is not well received by NASCAR fans. This is especially true when it comes to where the circuit holds its events.

But nothing stands still forever. Foolish though it may have been to move the Labor Day race out of Darlington, the market couldn’t support two races anymore. It may not make sense to saturate the schedule with tracks that are virtually identical, but it isn’t practical to saturate the schedule with tracks in markets where folks can’t or won’t show up either. You could say this as a reason both for NASCAR to move out of the South or back there; either choice is going to make someone unhappy.

Now that the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule has been released, it’s worthy of some analysis from the fans and critics. And while there have been some improvements worthy of mention, some pitfalls have also been created by it.

Most of you know the nuts of it. Kentucky has been awarded a Cup race; Kansas has been awarded a second race; Fontana and Atlanta have both lost events. The Chase will start at Chicagoland this year. Other than that, there isn’t a lot of movement.

Some of this is an improvement. Auto Club Speedway is almost a whipping boy for displaced NASCAR fans, even though the racing there isn’t noticeably worse than it is at Michigan or any other intermediate. As I said, it was foolish to move the Labor Day race there. Through no fault of their own, Fontana suffered for that—the Labor Day race became the poster child for NASCAR moving from classic venues to tamer ones. Perhaps as a result, Fontana didn’t draw big crowds, but whatever the reason, there was no justification for two events a season there.

The loss of an Atlanta race is different but no less justifiable. It’s difficult to explain the borderline pathetic attendance at the track that has produced some of the greatest races in the sport’s history. It can be argued that Atlanta is just a lousy sports market—Braves’ playoff games don’t even sell out—but this is a city with all four major sports represented, so it can’t be all that bad. Again, there may not be a solid explanation, but the place wasn’t selling tickets.

Starting the Chase at Chicagoland isn’t a bad idea either. Chicagoland is a track without much history, it’s a speedway where few drivers are taken out by simple bad luck, and it’s not an event most drivers would attach mythical importance to winning. The Chase was supposed to add some excitement (that’s worked out really well, eh?) so it’s best started at a place that doesn’t arouse much interest on its own.

In theory, this could be an improvement over the 2010 schedule. But the sport punted on some problems that needed to be addressed, and created some problems they may have to face in the future. There are a lot of logistics involved in changing a schedule, so this is understandable, but sooner or later things will have to be fixed.

First, the early season grind is still very much there. Following the buildup and the exhausting preparation for the Daytona 500, just one week later the entire circus goes across the continent to Phoenix, which isn’t a heck of a lot closer than Fontana was to Charlotte. Then one week later everyone goes out to Las Vegas again. I’m not personally griping about this, but it’s rough on a lot of people. NASCAR did put a much-needed week off after Las Vegas, so that is an improvement, but following Daytona with Phoenix and Las Vegas is still a lot of traveling in a short time.

There are also no off-weeks during the Chase—in fact, there are no off-weeks from Indianapolis on July 31 until the season ends on November 20. This is crazy. That’s almost four months straight of teams and crews being away from their families and not having a moment to chill, and it’s in the second half of the season when it is needed most. Before the Chase starts would be a great time to have an off-week.

Though crowds continue to show for the “Southern” 500 in May, NASCAR failed again tor realize that a Labor Day Southern 500 is a fix the Cup schedule is clamoring for.

Why won’t NASCAR move the Labor Day race back to Darlington? They’re obviously aware of the distress that moving that race caused plenty of fans; if they weren’t, the Labor Day race wouldn’t have been moved to a Southern venue and the May race at the Lady in Black wouldn’t now be called the Southern 500. There’s no reason not to bring the tradition back. We’ve already established that Atlanta doesn’t draw—that’s why they lost an event. This was an opportunity to right a wrong and NASCAR missed it.

Finally, the new schedule creates a bigger problem for the future, that being that NASCAR should try to get away from cookie-cutters, and moving races from Fontana and Atlanta to Kansas and Kentucky is only going to make that more difficult down the road. The speedways are a bigger problem for NASCAR than the concrete doughnuts were for baseball—however unappealing those big stadiums were, they didn’t affect the product on the field much. Speedway racetracks change the game of auto racing to one of fewer passes, fewer on track battles, and aero dependency. Most fans will see the majority of races on TV, and no one watching on TV cares if there’s a casino at the track.

This problem has grown to the point where people are noticing it. In 1990 there were six events on the schedule at 1.5-2 mile racetracks. In 2000 there were 10. In 2010 there are 14. The intermediate speedways that produce the least passing and fewest lead changes and clean-air dependency have gone from being about a fifth of the Cup schedule to almost half of it. This is a good part of the reason the perception of the sport has changed—they just don’t beat and bang like they used to. Of course, there aren’t as many post-race fisticuffs. And NASCAR has made this tougher to fix, especially with Bruton Smith wanting another Vegas date.

Just because we can’t go back to North Wilkesboro doesn’t mean we can’t go to someplace like it.

Overall there are some improvements in next season’s schedule, even if they aren’t all that “impactful,” to borrow a term from the Brian France Lexicon. But sooner or later, NASCAR should address its venue problem, and it’s not happening in 2011.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Jeff Gordon is providing input to the design of a track that will likely be built in the Niagara Falls area of Canada, and from what I’ve been reading he gets what I’m talking about. Rusty certainly did with Iowa Speedway. Incredibly, it’s very rare that drivers are consulted on track design.
  • It’s a great relief to see ESPN’s Danicamania has subsided. There were a few camera shots on her in last week’s Michigan race, to be sure, which was to be expected, but it’s nice to not get an update every lap on a driver four laps down.
  • Brian France was asked whether there would be a Chase in the Nationwide Series, in case he wasn’t happy with what it has done to the Cup ratings. He answered in the negative, saying that there are something like 10 fewer Nationwide races in a season. 10?
  • Denny Hamlin suggested that the No. 11 team wasn’t good enough to win the Sprint Cup, after finishing second at Michigan. Well, I guess he’s got a point.

Contact Kurt Smith

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08/20/2010 08:59 AM

“2011 Schedule Creates More Problems Than It Solves”

And this surprises who?

08/20/2010 09:18 AM

What’s even worse is that they never admit the changes don’t work.

08/20/2010 10:31 AM

“Brian France … answered in the negative, saying that there are something like 10 fewer Nationwide races in a season. 10?”

I noticed that too and wondered how long it would take somebody to comment on it in an article. I hope he just had the truck series on his mind when he said that, but still…this is the man running our sport? That scares me a little…or maybe a lot.

I’ve also noticed and commented on the increase in the 1.5 and 2-mile tracks in recent years. In my opinion, that’s the single biggest reason why NASCAR racing isn’t as good as it used to be. The smaller the track, the more often drivers will be racing with other drivers. That logic is so simple it seems that even NASCAR should be able to understand it.

It’s feasible, too. I’d love to see them back at North Wilkesboro, but even if that’s not possible, there are a number of other tracks they can choose from: Iowa, IRP (ORP), Rockingham, Memphis if it reopens, Irwindale if it could accomodate the Cup Series…and while I don’t know much about them, ARCA goes to several more short tracks. Add in about 6 of those, get rid of 8-10 cookie-cutter tracks, and we’d be looking at a much improved schedule!

08/20/2010 10:33 AM

People are fine with changes as long as it doesn’t ruin the sport. Nascar hasn’t made many changes that actually helped the sport in the last few years and that’s what makes people angry.

Where are these “impactful” changes Mr France? I’m guessing when he said impactful he meant to his wallet. Why else would we put a crappy race to start the Chase.

Carl D.
08/20/2010 11:06 AM


Could you try any harder to make excuses for Fontana? Sure, they might have been the whipping boy for fans angered at Darlington losing the Labor Day race, but that doesn’t change the fact that they built a boring cookie-cutter track in a place that has minimal interest in stock car racing. I’m from SC, and let tell you that Darlington on a night in April is much more tolerable than the brutal Labor Day heat, but that’s still no endorsement for Fontana getting a plum date on the schedule. Had the Labor Day race been moved to a place where there was genuine fan interest and bumper-to-bumper racing, the fans might have been a little more forgiving.

08/20/2010 12:15 PM

Here’s what the schedule SHOULD look like:

08/20/2010 01:06 PM

IMO the only impact that these changes to the 2011 schedule makes is the resounding thud it made with fans. BZF is such a poor public speaker it is horrible to listen to him so I usually only read the transcripts. Plus I think all his brain cells have been pickled since most days he makes NO sense.

I’ll have my own “off week” in September since the weather will be nice and the race at Chicagoland will most likely be the usual snoozer until the last 20 laps, so why waste a nice (probably) sunday afternoon inside watching it on TV?

I am still one of those folks who boycotts even watching the cali-boring races after NASCAR made its stupid move of the Darlington date. Why not put it back at Darlington on Labor Day and make it a night race? I’d be willing to bet that race would sell out!

08/20/2010 01:17 PM

I’ve been going to the races in Atlanta for almost 30 yrs…the reasons that attendance has been lacking are weather, traffic and track reconfiguration. The races were in March and October. March and October in Atlanta is when it rains, and its usually kinda cold too…Labor Day is HOT. They should have put the Labor Day race back in Darlington (the hotels in Myrtle Beach would appreciate that) and given Atl a May date, when the weather is nice.
As for traffic, despite the track’s efforts to improve traffic flow, the reality is that the Ga State Patrol and Henry County Police are complete and abject idiots when it comes to directing traffic. I live about 60 miles from AMS. A few yrs ago I left my house at 8am for a 1:30 green flag- was getting out of my car in the parking lot as the anthem was playing. Got to my seat as the pace car was pulling off for the green flag. How many people are willing to leave the house at 6am and get home after 9pm for a race?
As you noted, there are too many cookie cutter tracks. The racing at Atlanta is good, but it was better before they made it a tri-oval like Charlotte…was better as a pure oval.
As an aside, the stick and ball sports dont sell out in Atlanta because nobody is ‘from’ here anymore. They’re all fans of teams from their hometowns…

08/20/2010 01:42 PM

Could someone please tell me what Brian is saying?

Doug in eastern NC
08/20/2010 01:58 PM

I agree with Carl D. about the May race being a better time to race at Darlingtin. If my memory serves me, the years prior to canceling of the Labor day race, there were several hurricanes that came by or near the track. So attendance was down those years and some of the were rain shortened. Remember when we were Calling Jeff Burton the Rain Man cause he won the rain shorten races.

08/20/2010 03:04 PM

If Brian France is the answer, it must have been a stupid question.

08/20/2010 04:58 PM

And remember Darlington lost its Chase race because of a lawsuit. The Rebel 500 in May is on its Confederate Memorial Day event, but maybe NASCAR does need to look at not having what they call in golf Tournament Players Club style courses. Players who win majors don’t usually win at TPC’s.

Darlington would be well-served with a May date and the season-ender in November. Florence-Myrtle Beach has no FBS college football teams, and its closest FCS team is 60 miles away.

The season-ending race at Darlington can also stretch the Myrtle Beach resort’s season a few more weeks and toughen the Chase in addition to promoting a Myrtle Beach Racefest with Myrtle Beach Speedway with its season-ending event, with Darlington having qualifying and practice for all three classes Friday, and the K&N Pro Series Friday night at Myrtle Beach Speedway. The Nationwide race can be run at noon Saturday. After that the track closes and fans can head 90 minutes to the Myrtle Beach Speedway’s feature races that evening. Finish with the Truck race at 1 PM and the Cup race at 5 PM.

Jimmie Johnson proved it in the 2004 Southern 500 when Darlington had a Chase event. That made the race twice as important. NASCAR should seriously look at Darlington with two Sweeps races.

08/20/2010 06:02 PM

Here’s a schedule that will expand Cup racing without expending drivers…

08/20/2010 07:14 PM

There will be a bigger crowd in Soldier Field to watch Da Bears than the number of people in the seats at Chicagoland next September 18.

Bad Wolf
08/21/2010 04:32 PM

Get back to the short tracks and put the “stock” back in Nascar. Worry more about the racing on the track and the fans in front of the TV instead of how many over priced burgers and beer you can sell to the live captive fans in the stands. Lower the price of the broadcast rights so the networks can show a pure unadulterated race without trying to cram more and more product placement and paid sponsor plugs into the telecast to pay the inflated price paid for the rights.

This all started with the stupid money Fox paid back in 2000 for the broadcast rights, and they have forever changed the hopes and expectations of Brain France and Nascar in regards to what their “Product” is actually worth. Fox bought the rights at the hight of the “Nascar Bubble”, and like so many home owners that bought too much house with no money down and a huge note, they are stuck with a product worth about half of what they paid but still make the fans pay for their mistake.

The other big factor is Brain France and his “Chase”, the pretend “Stock” car with no actual production parts, and nascars quest to seperate the most money from the fans as humanly possible while making them cry for more.

08/21/2010 06:33 PM

Chicago starting the chase is not a good idea they only had 65,000 for the July night race that is pitiul. I guess the new way to award plum dates is a big TV market that the TV’s are tuned to something else and a casino. A great racing track and surface does not matter anymore.

08/22/2010 03:25 AM

Bob – agree 100% with you. I’ve lived in GA 12 years. Went to races at AMS for 10 yrs. The icing on the cake was when I, who lives in West GA took 92 down to track and back roads, got to the track on a Saturday am at 7:30 and the idiots at the track made me get out into the mess on 19/41 just so they could control things. They’ve made it near impossible to use back roads into the track. I use back roads to avoid 19/41. One year it took me 6 hrs to get home, 3 of that just to get off the track property. At the March race I’ve sat in almost 12 hr rain delays, bitter cold, snow and then we do have those rare heat days. Qualifying is usually a wash out. October was rainy and November could be chilly. Besides these, what has hurt AMS’s attendance is the chase. I use to love the last race of the season staying around for the championship celebration.

Burton use to “black out” the March race unless it was sold out. Only way you could see March race in the Georiga area was to go to race. So I guess the tv partnerships have helped kill that race too.

They overbuilt AMS and when the tornado hit and they tore down Weaver Grand stands for the motorhome parking/camping and $$$$ fees, then the winner circle section in turn 1 and the suites did them in. Their corporate suites haven’t sold out in 4 yrs, and recently they don’t even bother selling the suite space in the Elliott Grandstand. Ford and Chevy have closed their plants in Atlanta and the economy still stinks. Unemployment is still over 10% in Atlanta/Georgia. People just don’t have the money. Haven’t heard Ed Clark touting that the Labor Day race is a sellout this year.

I’ll hold onto my money, watch race from home.

thomas dalfonzo
08/22/2010 08:08 PM

Here is a 2011 schedule suggestion:

1. Let Atlanta keep its March spring race (run it under the lights).

2. Give Kentucky the Mother’s Day weekend race (run that under the lights, too.)

3. Darlington and the Southern 500 will be moved to Labor Day Weekend, where they rightfully belong.

4. Iowa, Milwaukee, Gateway, Nashville, and Rockingham will host Cup series races.

5. The finale for all three touring series should be at Bristol. Save the best for last.

That is some improvement right there. That will create no problems at all.

Contact Kurt Smith