The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : How To Make A Good NASCAR Race by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday September 25, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : How To Make A Good NASCAR Race

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday September 25, 2008

 

A lot of people have taken me to task lately — either by email or in the comments section below my articles — claiming I’m too negative. They feel I am lost in rose-colored remembrances of times gone by, referencing races that weren’t really all that great after all. Some go as far as to claim that the racing this year is better than it ever has been, thanks to the “excitement” of the Chase.

Well, a couple of quick points. First, most of those who say today’s racing with the new car and the Chase are better than years gone by weren’t around in the glory days of this sport or, if they were, they were sucking at their mama’s teat — not watching races. Secondly, if the Chase and the new car appeal to you, that’s fine. Your opinion is valid, and I respect your right to feel that way. But I feel differently. And these columns are my opinions, no more or less valid than your own. If you really can’t stand reading what I say, feel free to stop and use the time you are no longer wasting reading this aging hippie’s opinions to write some columns of your own. If you have a way with words and a little luck, maybe one day you’ll be published, too, and then people can comment on your opinions.

Hey, I’m not going to be doing this forever. I could walk away tomorrow with no regrets. It’s been a blast. The competition to take over the Monday Race Recaps and Thursday morning Mouthing Off (a title I’ve never been fond of by the way) columns starts here. All you’ve got to do is write those columns, and convince the editors and readers of this site you’re better at it than me. Go on and give it a shot, Cowgirl. This ain’t my first rodeo, but eventually somebody’s going to get the draw on me. Bring it on.

I’ll forewarn those of you determined to put a positive spin on the ghastly state of stock car racing today, you’re going to draw some fire, too. In a recent column, respected, longtime NASCAR journalist Ed Hinton asked for readers’ opinions on the state of the sport. In his unscientific poll, 96% of his readers expressed great dissatisfaction with the state of the sport today. I don’t own a business yet, but if I did and 96% of my customers were dissatisfied, I’d be losing a lot of sleep. If my longtime customers stopped showing up, I’d be even more anxious. The number of empty seats last week at NHMS last week was troubling. That’s not to single out NHMS; a lot of tracks have seen bad ticket sales this year.

But some of you feel that this old hippie and the 96 percenters are impossible to please. Some folks even felt that last week’s race at New Hampshire was good — or even outstanding. That explains a lot about how Miller Lite still sells, Chevy keeps selling Cobalts, Britney Spears has had a career, and ugly nasty chicks end up married. Some consumers have very low expectations, and will settle for crap if someone spins it well enough. It might also help explain a lot about politics — but I’m not going there.

So what is it I want to see that makes me decide a race was good or even great? For one thing, there’s a sense of anticipation leading up to the event. Admittedly, that’s partially biased on my part. When I look at the Cup schedule, there are certain events I genuinely look forward to for weeks in advance of the race. Some tracks that come to mind include Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville, and Bristol. On the flip side, some of the cookie cutter tracks drop me into a funk for a week beforehand, dreading a wasted afternoon.

If you’re fair though, you’ll give me this much. If a race at Darlington is lousy, I’ll say so. I have about zero affection for the Kansas track, but the 2004 race there featuring the final lap battle between Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd was a classic, and that’s what I wrote at the time. It surprised some of my longtime readers who were waiting for me to tee off on Kansas as usual — but it was a good race, and that’s what I wrote.

As most of you know, I (and a lot of folks like me) like to see lots of green flag passing for the lead. No, I don’t count it as a lead change when the leader pits and the second place car peels off a lap later, handing the lead to the driver who had been running behind him and so on. That’s not a lot of fun to watch. What’s fun to watch is one driver take a bead on a driver ahead of him and employ varied strategies to get by before finally finding one that works. In a perfect world, the former leader who slipped up and fell to second will then begin working the new leader’s rear bumper like a chew toy trying to find a way back around him. When two or more drivers are passing and repassing each other for dozens of laps at a time, I’m grinning ear to ear. When one driver lets another driver pass him because in the “big picture” it’s better to finish second rather than risking a wreck to save a few points, I am sick to my stomach. There’s a reason they call these events “races” not “strategies.”

Last weekend’s race at Dover saw a three way battle between Roush teammates for the win, but competitive racing has been the exception this season, not the norm.

What might even be better than passes for the lead is side by side racing. There’s nothing as exciting in sports as watching two or three drivers going at it lap by lap and side by side, with fenders rubbing, tires smoking, irritation growing, but each of them unable to shake the other as they race through a shroud of tire smoke into the autumn sun setting over Turn 1. My biggest beef with the Car of Horror is that it has all but eliminated side by side racing (with last weekend’s Dover race a notable exception). Drivers can’t afford to bend up fenders, and the cars get so loose beside one another that most drivers will bail out on any actual side by side racing. And lately, with points more important than race wins, drivers spend the first 9/10ths of a race cruising before finally getting after it in the final 10 laps or so. That’s just not much fun to watch, and that’s why I hate the Chase. It rewards such behavior, not actual racing and winning.

Another thing that makes racing interesting to watch is rivalries, and there haven’t been many good ones over the last few years. Back in the day, you had drivers like Bobby Allison and Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, or Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott who genuinely seemed to dislike each other, at least on the track. Week in and week out, you knew those guys were going to be running up front and, whenever they were running in close quarters, things were bound to get interesting. Allison and Petty seemed intent on killing one another for a few seasons, and fans stood in line to get tickets to watch the next bout. Nowadays though, if a driver bumps another driver on the cool down lap or calls him a “dirty rotten so and so, son of Budgie” after a race, NASCAR will probably fine him 100 points and his corporate sponsors will go into cardiac arrest. For awhile there, it seemed Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were going to develop a genuine rivalry, but then I guess Gordon’s handlers told him that all that nastiness was having an adverse effect on the pre-teen female, private school, horseback lessons and tennis demographics.

Nothing makes a race more interesting than a little suspense. To knowledgeable fans at the Atlanta season finale in 1992 (the greatest race ever, by the way), it became clear that the title bout between Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott would likely be decided by which driver led the most laps. Lap after lap, Elliott and Kulwicki ran side by side for the lead. On one lap, Elliott would be inches ahead of Kulwicki, and on the next, the 7 Underbird had the lead. It was gripping stuff to behold. Adding yet more suspense was the fact Kulwicki’s team wasn’t sure they had gotten enough fuel in the car on the final stop to make the distance. Had he run out of gas, Kulwicki surely would have lost the title. More recently, Jeff Gordon was leading at Darlington, but his car was clearly overheating, and fans were on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the engine would expire before the end of the race. Suspense has kept Gil Grissom and company in business on Thurday nights for over a decade now, and we could use a little more of it most Sunday afternoons. But lately, any suspense NASCAR has managed seems to be as part of the artificial excitement of the Chase. Oh, no! Kasey has the sniffles! Can he still make the Chase? Hand me that barf bag, all right?

Closely related to the above, in a good race there are a few surprises. OK, so Driver X has dominated the race but, late in the going, Team B gambles on a fuel only pit stop to take the lead. Team B’s driver has never won a race before (first time winners are always good for an extra point in my ratings) and the team hasn’t won a race in six years. Driver X is buried back in traffic because most drivers took two tires and we’ve got eight laps to go. Team B’s driver is all over the track on badly worn tires trying to keep his opponents behind him. Driver X is taking no prisoners roughing his way back towards the front? Who’s going to win? I don’t know. I like surprises. Surprise me. The new car’s aero push problems in traffic have all but eliminated this sort of scenario.

What some folks have accused me of wanting in a race is a lot of wrecks. Sorry, but you’re shopping at the wrong five and dime. Wrecks don’t make for a good race. Nothing is worse than watching the field parade under caution lap after lap as the track crew cleans up rather than racing. I’ve never been a wreck fan. I want to see the athletes walk the tight rope, not fall off. I want to see them catch a badly out of control car and not lose a spot. I don’t want to see anyone hit the wall. Wrecks still scare me because you never know. Geoff Bodine had his horrible Craftsman Truck Series wreck into the catchfence at Daytona with his car reduced to scrap, fire all over the place and the engine 300 yards down the track, and when all the smoke cleared, he wasn’t badly hurt. Dale Earnhardt’s wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 looked like a fender bender by comparison, but he was killed. That gutted me. I spent the next three days doing radio shows and banging out columns, but I remember little of it other than putting my fist through the wall when I first got the official news, A framed picture of the 3 car hung over that hole until I moved. No, I don’t like wrecks at all.

What I like best of all is last lap drama and passes for the lead. Let’s face it, as years go by and memories fade, the last lap is what everyone remembers — just as you might not recall a single other scene in the movie The Sixth Sense, but you remember how it ended because it knocked you speechless. Let’s recall the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s, Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick at Atlanta, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, or, perhaps best of all, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington and March of 2003 with Craven prevailing by .002 seconds. I was at that race. I don’t recall a whole lot about the other 3 hours, 10 minutes and 15.998 seconds of the race other than it wasn’t up to Darlington’s standards. Only 10 drivers finished on the lead lap. But if someone were to come over tonight and try to tell me stock car racing is boring, I’d whip out that tape and make him watch it with me because I never get bored of watching it myself.

No, not all races can be classics. Sometimes one driver is going to dominate. Sometimes the field will get strung out. You’ll have occasional travesties like this year’s Brickyard, and it’s going to rain on race day from time to time. But the last few years, and this year in particular, the ratio of clinkers to classics is unacceptably high. That needs changing; and until the ratio is restored to an acceptable level, you can expect me to be occasionally negative or sarcastic.

I’d like to conclude with a Youtube video by another fellow with fairly negative opinions about modern NASCAR racing. It would be interesting to hear what he might have to say about this season; but unfortunately, we can’t ask him because a year to the day later, he wasn’t around the sport anymore.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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marshall
09/25/2008 06:28 AM
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Mr. Earnhardt sure knew how to put things in perspective . And that interview could just as easily have taken place yesterday considering how relevant it is . I’ll bet he wasn’t called to the NASCAR hauler either , like a driver would be today for saying that .
As we all saw at Loudon , all is not lost for NASCAR or the track owners . It doesn’t really matter if fans show up or not , just use huge areas of empty seats to put up sponsor banners . Who needs fans ( ungratefull , never satisfied , always complaining ) when you can charge sponsors a fortune to spread their logo out in kingsize fashion .

SallyB
09/25/2008 06:45 AM
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AMEN! Thank you for putting into words what makes a good race. The drivers today may be as intense as the ‘old days’, but it doesn’t come across when watching a race. Of course, most of those drivers were racing to put food on the table, which tends to make for more intensity. I remember when Bobby LaBonte and Dale Sr. spent the last several laps at Rockingham running side by side…maybe ’99 or ’00. When the interviewed Bobby after the race he said he had looked across at Earnhardt after 4 laps of running side by side, and all he could see whas the huge grin on Earnhardt’s face. Maybe that’s why the Rouschketeers were smiling so much after the race this weekend. Running hard side by side like that is almost a lost art these days.

Mark
09/25/2008 07:25 AM
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WOW…. these last few years I thought I was just a pi$$off race fan…. today I found out I’m an Aging Hippie” ….who would have thunk that!

Great article…thanks man…be cool dude……

baker
09/25/2008 08:03 AM
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matt- great article. another classic comes to mind…the down to the line finish of the late great davey allison and mark martin at bristol…the old bristol. i unlatched from my moma’s teat just in time to see that one! lol

HenryM
09/25/2008 08:33 AM
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If Dale Earnhardt were still with us would we have the Car of Horror or the Chase? I seriously doubt it. He would call a spade a spade and we need drivers to step foreward and do so today.

Stormin
09/25/2008 08:41 AM
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Amen, Matt. I’ve lost my sense of anticipation, too, and I really, really miss it.

janice
09/25/2008 08:43 AM
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amen matt! i’ve felt this way a long while.

watched some of the dale sr footage at youtube. Man I miss him!

Douglas
09/25/2008 09:02 AM
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WONDERFULL!

A great big thanks for putting it into words!

Where my “negativity” comes from, at least in part anyway, is I remember being at races, at too many tracks to list here, but starting with Talladega, Daytona, and yes, even the Michigan, and barely being able to sit down during the event because of the “ACTION ON THE TRACK”!

Lap, after lap, after lap, of the most intense racing, take no prisoners
style of driving!

No politics, no politeness, no racing for the points, just flat out racing for the win or clawing your way forward, no matter where you placed!

And then along came Brian!

And if one was out of town, or driving on a trip, playing the radio like a piano to try and pick up a radio station that carried the race, goosebumps trying to find out who was leading!

Gues you can call me the “core fan”!

Not anymore, read the paper on Monday morning is now good enough!

Bill B
09/25/2008 09:08 AM
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Great article Matt.

I think the days of lasting rivalries are over. It’s hard to stay pissed off when you are making millions of dollars. The old rivalries you speak of existed in a time where when you wrecked a guy you were taking food from their children. It’s hard to stay mad when you go home to a mansion. Now you get rivalry “lite” at best.

I think NASCAR has gotten a lot more spin happy with their PR. That may add to fans’ anger – they no longer listen to the fans they tell us what we’re supposed to think. When I first started watching, NASCAR, the fans and the teams seemed more like partners. Now NASCAR is a dictator and has become “the evil empire” to many fans.

Good Budgie reference. In The Grip Of A Tyrefitter’s Hand you freakin hippy.

Ed
09/25/2008 09:10 AM
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You are the man! That column brought back some fond memories and some not so good ones, but it states my feelings exactly. When NASCAR started trying to appeal to more fans and trying to compete with other sports, the house started to crumble. Now with the big money and sponsor influence it is in a free fall.

chase
09/25/2008 09:44 AM
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Matt – thanks so much – incredible column! Had tears in my eyes watching and listening to Sr. and the poster above said it best: if he were alive today and said the same exact words there would be changes made and so fast you couldn’t even blink your eyes! Too bad King Brian can’t seem to get out of whatever slump he lives in and do the right thing – oh well, I’ll continue to watch and hope like most of us!

Lorraine
09/25/2008 09:47 AM
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Good call Matt. There was a time when I never made any plans for Sundays, told everyone I was busy. Now? If it suits me, I will tape a race and fast forward to watch it. Since the new COT, the racing has sucked. Who can forget the Dale and Dale shows in Charlotte? Or the Intimidator taking out the Ice Man at Bristol? Or Allison and Yarborough at Daytona. But, I think you’re missing another vital point as to why the stands are not being filled. Money!!! Fans can no longer pay the exorbitant prices for tickets, lodging, food and transportation. A weekend can cost over $3,000. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can no longer afford that. Up until this year, for my grandson’s birthday, I would take him to the Atlanta race. Last year, it cost me over $500 dollars for 4 tickets. Can’t do it this year and I know my grandson is going to be very disappointed. So am I.

Frank
09/25/2008 09:47 AM
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Another excellent article, clear and concise. I’m thinking your job is safe.

john
09/25/2008 10:08 AM
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pretty much agreed on everything as usual matt, and for the record, I’m 27 years old and “the good old days” of NASCAR for me were 92ish to around 2001, so “the good old days” are not always as far back as some people think they are.

Gordon/Harvick in 2001, Busch/Craven at Darlington, Dale Sr’s “rattling” Terry’s cage at Bristol, that’s some real racing, and it just doesn’t happen with the Car of Tomorrow, and it just doesn’t happen at the MAJORITY of cookie cutter tracks the MAJORITY of the time.

  • When two or more drivers are passing and repassing each other for dozens of laps at a time, I’m grinning ear to ear. When one driver lets another driver pass him because in the “big picture” it’s better to finish second rather than risking a wreck to save a few points, I am sick to my stomach.
    There’s a reason they call these events “races” not “strategies.” ****

Absolutely. I had the shit-eating grin on my face during the Dover race last weekend for just the same reason. If I want to watch “strategy” I’ll watch Formula 1.

PontiacGuy
09/25/2008 10:41 AM
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“or, perhaps best of all, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington and March of 2003 with Craven prevailing by .002 seconds.”

Sadly, Craven’s team no longer exists, and his owner now is with a ricer team. GM shafted Pontiac out of NASCAR. Craven got injured, and he now is a sports writer/commentator. The car he was driving has been replaced by the COT package.

Wish there was a good update to this story….

baker
09/25/2008 11:41 AM
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you know matt- to paraphrase Sr. ..” if they aren’t cheering OR booing you are in trouble.” keep doing what you are doing….at least they are reading your column!!

Greg
09/25/2008 01:54 PM
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Matt … I used to be one of your “detractors” as I only agreed with you 99% of the time! I think it is now 100%!

Two of what I have always considered “among the greatest finishes” that have seemingly been over looked or forgotten are the 1974 and 1978 Firecracker 400s — two more races that goes to prove David Pearson was and still is the Greatest of All Time!

Tom G
09/25/2008 08:52 PM
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Matt, Great column as always. Your the only writer I look forward to reading after a race, since you go back to the time when race winnings were important to their livelyhood. Somehow being a competative 35th place and a millionaire were not synonomous with WINSTON CUP racing. If they still had the Winston Million I don’t think the competitors would have the “win at any cost” desire they had in the past. Thanks again and don’t stop writing. TOG

Kevin in SoCal
09/25/2008 10:49 PM
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Reading this reminds me of the times my father complains about how expensive things are today and how great it was back in “the good old days.”

Max
09/26/2008 11:26 AM
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First of all, I will start off by saying that over the years, we tend to forget the bad times and only remember the good.

This does not apply for the most part to Nascar.

There is no question that the reality that the drivers lived in, the sponsors lived in, and Big Bill and Little Bill lived in back in the day was vastly different to what we all are dealing with now.

On a larger scale, we are watching the inevitable deterioration of the American way of life.

On the smaller scale, we are seeing in Nascar what happens when you put a boy in a man’s shoes.

He has neither the foresight or experience to successfully make the proper decisions that are in the best interests of the sport.

He is a product of the MTV generation he grew up in. Where tradition means nothing and creating and promoting the next hot new fad is what sells.
Coming up with hair-brained ideas to morph this sport into Moto TV for the MTV bunch.

Expect more of the same.

Matt, you can write this stuff until your fingers fall off.

I can sit here and agree with everything you and Ironhead say, nothing is going change until something happens to Brian France. He has got to go, one way or another for anything to change.

Of course, he does have some nasty little habits that could come back to bite him….