Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 28, 2009
On Tuesday, NASCAR held a pair of town hall meetings, reaching out to drivers and team owners for suggestions on how to fix what ails the sport. I guess my invitation got lost in the mail, because I’ve got ideas on that topic like a mongrel dog has fleas. In a way, these sessions proved sadly ironic, as the sport seems primarily concerned about how to re-attract increasingly frustrated and disenfranchised fans whose numbers are shown by decreasing ticket sales and declining TV ratings. But guess which one group of folks wasn’t invited to the meetings? The fans themselves! NASCAR has shown a decidedly egalitarian view when it comes to listening to the fans — and now, that’s coming back to haunt them. By and large, millions of supporters are growing disgusted with the sport that was once a passion for them and, as just another race fan with a soapbox and a cool job, I count myself amongst them.
Yeah, admittedly holding a town hall meeting with the fans would be a rather unwieldy enterprise. Who would decide which fans got to attend? And my guess is that Brian France would get such an ass-scorching at such a meeting, he’d be wearing asbestos boxers the rest of the season and cuddling up with a fire extinguisher when he laid down to sleep at night. In fact, I’d suggest that if he were to hold such a forum, any stout branches be chopped down from trees in the area while participants be frisked for rope before entering.
Call me cynical, but I don’t buy this whole charade, including the new talking point of NASCAR stressing thanking the fans in the stands for coming out after winning a race. I think after most races lately, the drivers ought to be apologizing to all the fans that aren’t there as evidenced by empty seats. But in the interest of constructive criticism, let me offer some of my ideas… though I’m keeping the tar boiling and accumulating bags of feathers by the local railroad track.
Shorten the Season — The NASCAR season is way too long, longer than any other professional sports season I am aware of. Our season starts the week after the Super Bowl and stretches into the 10th week of the NFL regular season. The glut of races diminishes interest in, and the importance of, every race, while some tracks offer up such pitiful competition year in and year out that they just need to be scrapped. Nobody wants to give up a race date; thus, as I’ve suggested before, the tracks should be split up into regional groupings of three apiece. (Dover, Pocono, and New Hampshire for instance.) Each year, one track in the group would get two race dates and the others would get one. And this road racing idiocy needs to be ended. I’m tired of the argument that stock car racing started with bootleggers running loads on public highways; if that’s the case, I guess the NHRA should be running a few nationals on public streets annually. Also, the two non-points events should be run on the same weekend as the Daytona 500 and the World 600. Ideally, I’d like to see a schedule of 24 points-paying events, one that started in March and ended in early October.
Shorten the Races — The Daytona 500 and the World 600 would be the exceptions, but I think every other race needs to be shortened by at least one third. By their own admission, the drivers and teams don’t even start competing for real prior to the final quarter of the race. Watching cars run in a processional parade for three hours prior to a half hour of actual racing isn’t much fun to watch. Americans’ attention spans are shorter in this age of informational glut and nearly unlimited entertainment options, as evidenced by cable TV networks with 600 channels, YouTube, and Tweets. Races should come on the air by 1 PM ET and end by 4 PM. Sing the song, fire the engines, and start the race.
Reduce Horsepower — It might seem counterintuitive, but higher speeds make for worse racing. If the drivers are balanced on the edge of a razor blade trying to control their cars as they hurtle through corners, you’re not going to have the side-by-side racing which proves the hallmark of our sport. Reduced displacement, lower compression ratios, limits on camshaft lift and overlap, smaller carbs (dare I suggest fuel injection to drag NASCAR kicking and screaming into the modern age…for the millionth time?) and increased weights for internal components could all help limit horsepower to a more reasonable target area of 500 HP without completely stifling an engine builders’ creativity. Getting these pushrod OHV engines to turn at close to 10,000 RPM is an expensive enterprise that is killing the sport. Hell, I’d prefer crate engines to the current madness if it contains costs. And one more time, NFRP! In case, you didn’t get it, the first word in that acronym is No and the last two are Restrictor Plates. You figure out the other one… I’ll be polite and say it rhymes with “chicken.”
Revamp the Cars — Since bringing its Frankenstein of a race car — the Car of Sorrow — kicking and screaming, spewing pea green projectile vomit all over itself and onto the scene, NASCAR had steadfastly refused to allow changes to be made to the ugly little bastards. If you’ve read my stuff for more than a week, you know how I feel about the Car of Horror… but I’m willing to be reasonable to an extent. Team owners have now spent a ton of money on these new cars, and we can’t just scrap the CoT in this current economic climate with sponsorship dollars so hard to come by. So let’s start by tweaking the front clip, allowing a conventional suspension system… not this coil-bound nonsense teams currently run. Folks I talk to who are a lot smarter than me tell me lengthening the noses of the cars, even just a few inches, will dramatically reduce the aero-push condition that makes passing all but impossible these days. And for God’s sake, let’s send those rear spoilers to charity to be used as picnic tables for Munchkins. Put a blade type spoiler back on the cars…
As a car guy, aesthetics in vehicle design are as important to me as cold beer and 99 cent burgers (the breakfast of champions.) Yes, some people are going to debate my tastes, as I regularly drive an old Pontiac with a screaming chicken decal on the hood. But while beauty is skin deep, ugly goes right to the soul. I’d estimate that the life cycle of a new race car is about three years (unless it’s running in close quarters with Michael Waltrip while trying to lap him.) So let’s start phasing out the CoT just as it was implemented — starting at the short tracks — while working our way back to more conventional-looking and acting race cars with Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger bodies. I want those bodies to be virtually indistinguishable from their street counterparts, right down to the grilles and outside rear-view mirrors. Yeah, it might seem insane, but sometimes objects in the rear-view mirror really are closer than they appear.
Revamp the Points System — If a driver who finishes second is only going to lose 10 points to the winner, what’s the risk / reward ratio to making a no guts, no glory pass on the last lap? In a perfect world, I’d like to see the emphasis of winning a title diminished and the emphasis put back on winning races. But that’s not going to happen now that NASCAR has embraced the Chase, a cancer on the heart of racing. So, let’s change things to make winning a race at least 100 points more than finishing second. A win should earn far more points than a top 10, and a top 10 finish should earn a ton more points than a finish outside the top 10. Any finish outside the top 20 should earn no points at all, and at the end of the season drivers should be able to drop their worst three finishes from their tallies.
Leading laps should carry a lot higher award, as well. The driver leading the most laps should get 25 points, the driver leading the next highest amount of laps should have 15, and the driver who leads the third highest amount of laps gets 5.
Finally, any driver winning a race should get an automatic bid into the Chase, and any driver who fails to win during the regular season shouldn’t race for the title. You want to talk about turning up the intensity in the final few races before the Chase? Consistency is good in investment strategies, choosing a mate, and raising rug-rats… it just makes for crummy racing.
Reopen the Garage — It’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years, but it seems the downturn in our sport coincided with NASCAR deciding the garage area was off limits to fans, thanks to Tony Stewart’s caterwauling about claustrophobia. I still had regular access to the garage area, but I felt the fans were being slighted. No, I’m not suggesting that the gates be thrown open to all who wish to enter, but there should be some fan access to the inner-sanctum — be it by lottery or any other method other than who is willing to pay the most bucks, as long as they handle themselves with a degree of decorum.
These drivers need to understand (as they once did) that the fans buy the sponsor’s products. The sponsors spend some of that money backing race teams. The sponsors make the drivers millionaires. Without the fans (and they are leaving in record numbers), the whole business model is just more sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. Hey, let the track promoters tell fans if you buy a ticket, 50 of you will be allowed garage area access and we will let you bring one guest. You’ll get five minutes of one-on-one time with your favorite driver, a tour of a NASCAR hauler, suite access for the race, a chance to attend the driver’s meeting, and a T-shirt autographed by all 43 competitors. 50 winners among all the tens of thousands of tickets sold doesn’t give a fan a great chance of winning… but state lotteries aren’t going broke because the odds suck. You buy a ticket, you have a shot.
For one weekend, you get a chance to feel like the principals in NASCAR give a crap about you. And maybe five lucky winners during the season get to attend the text “Town Hall” meeting to address the future of the sport.
After they’re frisked for rope, of course…
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