The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Going Back To the Drawing Board by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday October 23, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Going Back To the Drawing Board

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 23, 2008

 

OK, let’s admit it. Something is wrong. It’s not that this year’s Cup racing has been mediocre. NASCAR fans — those that haven’t chosen to leave the sport — have come to accept mediocrity as the norm over the last few years. To be frank, this season as a whole has featured boring races, though there have been occasional great finishes like the final laps at Kansas a few weeks back.

The Chase was supposed to add some excitement to the season, particularly at the end of the year as NASCAR spars with the NFL, college football, and the World Series for the attention of sports fans. But with four races left to run, the Chase is arguably over. Jimmie Johnson is going to win it, and we’re not going to head into Homestead with three or four drivers having a good shot at the Championship. Ironically, under the old points system, the battle for top spot would actually be closer — if still somewhat lopsided. From a fairness standpoint, Kyle Busch, the driver who has won the most Cup races this season, would actually still be hanging on by his fingernails with a shot at the title after dominating much of the season.

Ultimately, the Chase was destined to fail. Fans attend a race, or watch it on TV, hoping to see a good event that day — not one piece of a 10-piece puzzle that will later determine the title. And no matter what, fans want to see a great finish. They may be tangentially aware of the championship implications of the race results afterwards (or the networks will be happy to hammer them over their heads with it to alert them), but they just want to see good racing.

McLaughlin thinks NASCAR could remedy many problems that plague the sport today by modifying the design of the “Car of Horror.”

In my mind, the root of the problem is the damn new Car of Horror. OK, it’s ugly, but that’s not the main point. Pretty is as pretty does. The cars were supposed to be harder to drive; but by and large, they have appeared to be impossible to drive. It’s clear to me that at this point, they’re just not working out. There’s been little side by side racing and numerous times where tire problems have made a mess of the entire event — most notably the debacle at the Brickyard. With their high centers of gravity, weight distribution, and aerodynamics, the new cars have seemed to throw a curveball at Goodyear that they just can’t hit. And in the height of irony, the problem the “new car” was intended to solve was aerodynamic issues. Remember when the old car lost the air off its nose and began plowing to the point that passing was nearly impossible? If anything, the new car has just made the problem worse.

Despite a season of boring races, NASCAR still clings to their new mount like a stage mom trying to get her ugly teenage daughter entered in a beauty contest. Officials have refused to consider any changes to make the cars more drivable. In fact, they’ve already announced that the teams should expect no such changes next year. The smart guys and engineers have tried to convince NASCAR officials they need wider tires and wheels, and to raise the front valence up off the race track to make for a more drivable car. That can only lead to better racing, but NASCAR officials don’t want to hear it. “Yeah, she’s ugly, but wait until you hear her belt out ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie.” The question is, will anyone be left in the stands to listen if NASCAR officials continue to micromanage the inspection process of the car to eliminate innovation?

There’s another problem here. Given the ability to tweak on the cars a little, there’s some real smart crew chiefs and mechanics in the garage area who could make these new cars drive better. But by stifling that “shade-tree” mechanical ability, NASCAR isn’t limiting the costs of running a competitive car — they’re actually raising it. Since no significant improvements can be made, team owners in search of better performance need to find a whole lot of minor tweaks that will fly under NASCAR’s radar. Hideously expensive seven-post shaker rigs have now become a necessity for a successful team. And to interpret that data and incorporate the improvements on the cars, teams need a flock of highly compensated engineers. The multi-car team owners with the deepest pockets can afford that sort of research, but the lower-funded single car teams cannot. Thus, our sport has been the stomping ground of four “super teams” (Roush, Childress, Hendrick, and Gibbs) while the rest of the cars are becoming little more than field fillers. The power shift also means the same drivers are winning races week in and week out; and frankly, that’s boring. The last time a driver from a team outside the top four even won a Cup race was when Kurt Busch took the 17th race of the season at Loudon.

That sort of domination leads to even more problems. Even once proud organizations like Robert Yates Racing and DEI are now in danger of falling out of the sport due to both competitive and financial concerns. You see, the rest of the teams need to find high dollar sponsorship to compete with the Big Four, which is especially difficult in today’s economy. But with less success to show a sponsor they are worthy of backing, there’s less opportunities to get a decent funding package from corporate America. And with less sponsorship (or at times no sponsors), the lesser teams can’t succeed to draw that corporate backing. It’s a vicious, downward spiral.

Yes, to some degree the driver is still part of the equation. In days of yore, aspiring Cup drivers (think Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace here) had to spend several years toiling for one of the lesser teams when they entered the sport. If they ran better than the quality of their equipment indicated they should, those men then moved up the ladder to the bigger rides they deserved. But in the process, they gave the smaller operations a brief shot at success. As those successful drivers moved up, they also left open seats for others wanting to get in the game. Nowadays, superstars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson have started their Cup careers with the Big Four, enjoying nearly instant success. Having seen their career path, is it any wonder other new drivers are courting rides with the Big Four and their development programs?

Add it all up, and the gap between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” has become such a huge chasm this season that in the next year or so, it will become a matter of the “Still Heres” and “Have Gones.” There likely won’t be enough field fillers to fill the fields, and the competition will be further diminished.

Trace the problem back to its root, and it’s still the new cars. Yet NASCAR steadfastly refuses to address the issue, even as TV ratings tumble and empty seats have become an embarrassment at most tracks. I guess the question here is by the time NASCAR finally pulls their corporate heads out of the sand and admits there’s a problem, is there going to be anyone left who gives a damn?

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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SallyB
10/23/2008 06:34 AM
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You hit it right on the head about fans just wanting to see a good, competitive race without having to figure out where that puts anyone for the final 10 races. While appreciating the success of drivers like Petty and Earnhardt with their multiple championships, that has seldom been the most compelling reason to watch an individual race. By encouraging teams to run just well enough to make the ‘final 12’, each individual race has become secondary to the final 10. Doesn’t make for the most interesting racing. I can’t even look at the COT!

Douglas
10/23/2008 07:47 AM
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NICE!

Johnboy60
10/23/2008 08:45 AM
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The only thing that NASCRAP will ever understand is money! As long as fans go to races, watch them on TV, the gooney birds that run it will continue to pat themselves on the back! Quit going, quit watching, and it WILL change but no until.

Mark
10/23/2008 09:48 AM
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There’s an old saying: Desperate men do desperate things. I don’t remember where I heard it…. Hell I might even have said it first my self. A man measures his success in a couple of ways:

– The level to which he has risen in his given (and I use that word tongue in cheek) profession.

– The amount of money he has in his bank account in relative comparison to the amount of work he had to perform to get it.

– The number of people that flock to his product and use it exclusively

A man can also measure his failure in a couple of ways too.

– How fast he falls from his lofty perch

– How fast he lost his money doing dumb things.

– How fast his loyal customers (fans) abandon his product (races)

So far NA$CAR has experienced all of the three success measures. Well now it time for that desperate man to start doing desperate things. Race attendance is off, we see that. TV ratings are down, we hear that. And fans are just not real happy right now. In my 30 odd years of following this sport, I can’t remember this much dissent amongst the common folks… can you? NA$CAR you need to open your eyes and ears and take a REAL good look around before you truly experience the last three measures of success…. sorry I mean failure.

dawg
10/23/2008 10:12 AM
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In a Lemming like rush to try to achieve parity. The Suits from Daytona, have instead achieved mediocrity. They are in full denial. Much like a proud mother who won’t admit to herself, that her baby is ugly. One thing that might improve the so-called, COT. Would be a tire of tomorrow. Until that comes about. I think we’re going to continue to see the cars wallow around. With races decided in favor of the few CC’s who have figured this deal out. I have never seen tires damn near blowing cars in half. Like Matt, Jr., & JPM.
With all the problems facing NA$CAR, & it’s “private contractors” in the near term. The best way for them to continue to prosper, or just survive, as the case may be. Is with a riveting on track product. 480 miles of boring riding around, coupled with 20 or so miles of racing won’t cut it.
It’s handy, to blame the current woes of unsold seats on the economy, but it’s hard to tie that to the disappointing TV numbers. At some point, & I think, sooner rather than later. NA$CAR is going to have to pull their collective head out!

midasmicah
10/23/2008 10:13 AM
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Well, here we go again. The votes on the poll you put up tell it all. 88% of the people voted that changes need to be made to the caroftrash. nas$car also insists goodyear is doing the best they can. Oh really. What na$car has proven time and again is that THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO WHAT’S LEFT OF THEIR DIE HARD FAN BASE. Johnson may be a great driver, but that doesn’t translate into fan interest. The problem is the mostly boring racing on boring tracks, a car that makes it impossible to pass on these boring tracks. a tire that implodes if you look at too hard, and an organization that constantly tries to shove this crap down our throats. Lately I’ve been watching the nfl on Sunday and periodicly switching over to check on the race. That’s how much interest and excitement I was getting from it. And if I see one more Jimmie Johnson storyline I’m going to upchuck. Okay, we get it. He’s a good driver. But believe it or not, there are other drivers in the series. Once other thing. Being a Jeff Burton fan, I had a faint glimmer of hope, but that’s gone in a flash. Same for any Biffle or Edwards fans. With four races left it’s over. What possible interest should I have left. Particularly when I’ve got football to watch. Wow, I wouldn’t have made that statement a couple of years ago

Steve Cloyd
10/23/2008 12:14 PM
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“Fans attend a race, or watch it on TV, hoping to see a good event that day — not one piece of a 10-piece puzzle that will later determine the title.”

I’ve been saying that for years now. Personally, I could care less about the season title. I only care about the race that day.

Dennis
10/23/2008 01:00 PM
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I agree. I see each race as an independent event. Who cares about the Championship.

Hell, keep the current point system for figuring out purse money and such but crown a “Champion” at the end of the season strictly on wins. Make racing full out important each week.

No more than 3 car teams. None of that “my sister owns that team, my dog the other” crap either.

Make Officials independent like in the NBA and MLB.

NA$CAR should own the system as the sanctioning body or tracks, but not both. They make enough money off trademarks and licensing, right now they are too much of a monopoly and the lack of competition and transparency is what makes it a WWE type of joke now.

What I would also like to see is stock cars racing in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Races. What made it exciting was that you could watch people racing cars not much more different than the ones we drive.

It is that feeling that “I could do that”, that connection you get that holds you, and makes it an exciting sport to watch. Football, and Baseball are so popular because we can all play them, there is a connection, but the Pros just do it so much better. Which makes it popular. The realism is gone, it’s no longer something we can touch, it’s fantasy now. And someting real is always better than fantasy.

chase
10/23/2008 01:38 PM
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Great column Matt and you hit the nail on the proverbial head dead center. This bloody car which has been foisted upon the teams and drivers is a huge disappointment – racing is no longer captivating this season thanks to the COT – sure there have been glimmers of some occasional laps of real racing but they are few and far between. I used to be totally enrapt watching races on TV and attending races for years because there was always good racing going on but no more. Unless and until NASCAR feels the pinch in their overflowing pockets, they will continue to bury their collective heads in the sand and do nothing to stimulate the racing situation or the fans. We lose big time. I have never felt so ‘sold down the river’ before – and thats what has happened: we the fans have been sold down the river by NASCAR. Parity? Shish!!!!

Mike
10/23/2008 01:51 PM
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Lately I’ve been watching the nfl on Sunday and periodicly switching over to check on the race.

In a nutshell, yup – me too.

Funny how its a foregone conclusion who will be in the mix each week to win the race – yet the NFL has had all the underdog stories this year! St. Louis, Cleveland, Oakland… These are the equivalents of the Woods’ or BAM winning a Cup race these days.

Douglas
10/23/2008 03:35 PM
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Hey midasmicah! I even watched a Detroit Lions football game over NA$CRAP!

If that doesn’t put NA$CAR in perspective, I don’t know what will!

Lunar Tunes
10/23/2008 03:56 PM
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Johnboy 60 wrote:“The only thing that NASCRAP will ever understand is money! As long as fans go to races, watch them on TV, the gooney birds that run it will continue to pat themselves on the back! Quit going, quit watching, and it WILL change but no until.”

The fans HAVE quit going and watching. Hence the mass of empty seats and low tv ratings!

Guess what? Brian France is too stupid to notice.

What if they put on a race and nobody came! That would be awesome!!!!

Let’s start a movement (besides our daily morning one)
BOYCOTT HOMESTEAD!

I wish I was ultra rich so I could pay people not to go.

Shayne Flaherty
10/23/2008 03:57 PM
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Great comments folks. I can’t add much to what’s already been said. We were discussing Charlotte next year and I told my friend not to buy me a ticket. I’d rather hangout in the campground with some great friends instead of watching the COT struggle for 600 laps.

Gerry Blachley
10/23/2008 07:40 PM
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Johnson is NOT a great driver.. good I Have no idea, when you start your driving at the top level with a owner that has more money than any one else and your a half ass good driver, your going to win, look how fast Chad figure out the COT, and was set down for cheating, but the money was spent this is not racing it a boring Show. Big Bill is turning over in his grave

jif
10/28/2008 01:35 AM
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I was watching NA$CAR Now on ESPN just now, and Ray Evernham said something that makes a lot of sense. (I know, I know!)

He said that NA$CAR wanted to make the CoT drive like the cars from back in the 70’s, and they have, but those cars back then had 300 less horsepower and went 50 mph slower.

I like 5.8L engines as much as the next guy, but it’s time to downsize.