The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Summer Doldrums by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday July 30, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Summer Doldrums

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday July 30, 2009

 

…‘Cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues…

This isn’t an easy time of the year to be a stock car racing fan. For one thing, it’s so danged nice out it seems a shame to spend an entire Sunday afternoon cooped up in your house. There are back roads to ride on your motorcycle, near constant car shows, crystal blue lakes full of fish, the Jersey shore, backyard barbecues, family gatherings, girls in their summer clothes, and countless other pleasant diversions available to everyone during the summer.

Secondly, the lineup of races during June, July, and August are less than scintillating. Chicago and Indy were both borefests that could only have appealed to masochists. Look at the rest of the lineup. It includes such tracks as Michigan, Loudon, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma, all joints with a classics to clinkers race ratio bad enough to send a major leaguer to an AA franchise and some fans straight to AA. Sure, there’s the Bristol night race, the Redneck High Holy Days (calm down, I count myself among the congregants) next month — and that’s worth looking forward to even if some fans feel the new Bristol is “Bristol Lite” due to the reduced carnage. But overall, if NASCAR had designed the summer stretch of races to purposely turn off fans tempted to get outdoors, they could hardly have picked a sorrier slate of events.

A few years ago, I took the summer off this job… and it was one of the best summers of my life since my teens. This year, I’m already fed up. I’ve decided to take the back-to-back weekends of Watkins Glen and Michigan off so I can spend some time with my family and the Harley undistracted. And this year, it’s going to be different. I vow to genuinely skip those races entirely, not sneak off to some back bedroom to check them out. (Oh, I might watch the last half hour of the races in the background with the sound muted… old habits die hard.) You’re going to have to trust me. If there’s one thing harder than watching bad races, it’s finding something interesting to write about them on a deadline.

The Chase has also deadened interest in the upcoming summer stretch. By this point, we pretty much know who’s going to be in the playoffs and who’s not. (Two drivers in the latter category of note have their names rhyme with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick.) The last real item most fans are watching is whether mercurial Kyle Busch will make the Chase or not after a strong start to the season followed by a recent meltdown of Three Mile Island proportions.

My guess is that if Kyle misses the cut at Richmond this Fall, the cheering will be louder than if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. passes Jeff Gordon on the last lap and crosses the start/finish line upside down and on fire while AMP Energy rains down sacks of fifties onto the crowd. But other than that, people just aren’t interested into anything the sport has to offer this summer.

So, what can NASCAR and the networks do to increase interest? Here’s one thought. During the summer, most network programming is either reruns or less than entertaining reality fare. Also during the summers, the most enjoyable alternatives to races occur on the weekend once you get past the 12th grade. So, let’s stage some of these races under the lights on Wednesday night. By the midpoint of the workweek most hard-working folks (folks who go to work, not the office) are getting bushed anyway. Schedule the races so a succinct fifteen-minute pre-race show comes on at 6:45 ET and the race itself starts at 7. Put together race distances along with that which have the events ending by 10 and the post-race wrapping up by 10:30, leaving fans the option of retiring early (by my standards, at least… I don’t have chickens to milk in the morning) or watch the local news to see who’s shooting who in the local metropolis. That frees up fans’ weekends during the busy summer social season.

What about ticket sales for a Wednesday night event? Truly devoted fans, the sort that actually still go to races, will schedule their vacations to encompass the date and still have a free weekend on either end to hang out. Besides, attendance at Saturday and Sunday races hasn’t been anything to write home about lately anyway. And running against reruns of Everyone Hates Seinfeld and His Friends sitcoms could only improve those struggling TV ratings.

While we’re at it, let’s make one of those Wednesday night “Hump Day” specials a dirt track. The Cup schedule needs at least one dirt track event more than it needs two road course races. These drivers are supposed to be the best in the world, right? Let’s see how they do when the track gets a little rutted or greasy. The greatest names in the sport — right up and including Dale Earnhardt, Sr. — ran regularly on the dirt. These “Cars of Tomorrow” are supposed to be so tough, right? Let’s see how they fare when the bamming and framming reaches “Come to Jesus” levels. I’m sure Tony Stewart would welcome a Cup date at Eldora, with another option the dirt track outside of the big track at Charlotte. I don’t know if there’s enough left of the Hillsborough Speedway to salvage, but it was one great track … and let’s not forget, we could always dig up the deteriorated asphalt at North Wilkesboro and return it to a dirt track. Hell, why have one dirt track event? Let’s run all of July in the dust. I’d be watching.

The start of racing at Pocono is one of the few times you’ll see side-by-side racing around the track these days. But if it held two 100-mile sprint races … now, that might be a whole different story altogether.

Here’s another off the wall thought. Folks tend to complain the summer races at Pocono and Michigan seem to drag on forever. The middle stages of the races seem particularly mindless and devoid of any entertainment value. To fix that, we’ll make these two races “Two-fer Sundays.” We’ll stage two 200-mile events (or possibly even 100-mile events) on the same day. After the first event, full points will be awarded. The cars will be given twenty minutes to cool down, time where the crews can make protracted adjustments and the drivers can get a cool drink. Then, we’ll line them all up in the reverse order of how they finished (with anyone who DNF’s the first race at the back of the pack in their backup cars) and do it all over again with another event that pays full points. That would shake up the standings. Hell, if I had a vote they’d do the two-fer at every track every weekend. If your favorite driver didn’t win the first race, you’d have a chance to see him try again in the second.

Finally, the issue of starting times should be addressed. Every race should have taken the green flag by one o’clock at the latest. Noon would be better. The way God and Benny Parsons intended this sport to run, by four o’clock EST at the latest the merriment should be over. That would give fans on the East Coast a chance to attend Sunday Services, come home to a leisurely family breakfast with the kin, then tune into the race. If the race was over by four, there’d still be time for a barbecue, a nice ride, or just sitting and relaxing on the porch with the usual suspects over a cold one. And as for fans on the Left Coast? I can’t tell you how many of them used to tell me they felt blessed to be able to watch the races and still have almost a full afternoon ahead of them to enjoy other pursuits.

Those are my ideas. I invite yours. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: stock car racing’s summer stretch has gotten to be more of a trial than a triumph. Something has to change if NASCAR expects anyone to still give a flying fig by the time the Chase rolls around.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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janice
07/30/2009 06:56 AM
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matt,

i go to an office and i do work.

i’m still trying to figure out how long that pre-race show was on espn last weekend. regardless, it was way too long. i forget where they’re racing most of the time anyhow. that’s how passive i’ve become. i use to always know where and when the race was.

Bill B
07/30/2009 07:52 AM
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I work in a office so I guess I don’t work according to Matt. Woohoo, I’m free!!!!

I’d love to see a race on Wednesday night but I can see why it won’t happen. Whether you like it or not there are west coast viewers so starting a race by 7:00 pretty much means anyone west of the Mississippi will be lost (why do you think Monday night football starts so late?). Also forget about attending the race unless you are willing to burn two days of vacation because most people will not get home before 2AM even if the race ends at 10 PM. So, on the surface it sounds like a good idea but it is impractical on so many levels.

As for the dirt track that would be cool but is it feasible. Could they take this crappy COT as is and race on a dirt track with it? If so it would be great but if they need to build a special car just for one dirt track race then once again impractical.

All they need to do is schedule more races at short-tracks. They are far more interesting to watch than the 1.5+ mile tracks. Just compare the truck and NW races at ORP to the Indy race last week.

girls in the summer clothes… great Springsteen reference

dawg jj
07/30/2009 08:51 AM
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Get off it Matt, you ride this “I hate the road courses” more than you ride your Hog. While you obviously don’t like them. For many of us the RC’s with their Ringers, are a welcome change from the Cookie Cutters. Other than that, you’re spot on. From a brother, Ride Safe.

DoninAjax
07/30/2009 09:02 AM
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Matt, don’t you wish The Boss’ song was “Born to Ride” instead? I’ve got all his ALBUMS!

Marilyn
07/30/2009 09:14 AM
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I think your idea’s are great! Bring um on, stop the boredom of what we got. Miz it up a little, it beats running around the track single file.

M.B. Voelker
07/30/2009 11:23 AM
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Another set a non-workers here — we own a small business hit hard by the economic upheaval so I guess that 40+ hours don’t count.

You’re on the wrong track with the idea that “real” race fans should dedicate a vacation to going to a race.

Nascar needs to do the opposite — bring more people to the races by making it possible to attend without blowing the entire vacation budget for a full year.

Andy Hillenberg’s got the right goal — a family of 4 able to see a race for $100. Since Nascar is a higher level than is currently running at Rockingham I’d be willing to double that.

Nascar should be trying to make it possible for a family of 4 to show up at the track at a reasonable hour, get in their seats shortly before driver introductions, see a race, and go home for a couple hundred bucks rather than making it a grueling, 10-day marathon of camper rental/hotel bills, traffic, eating out, standing in lines, and otherwise consuming every penny of a full year’s vacation money.

You don’t have to camp out for a week in the parking lot to see a football game. Why should that commitment of time and money be the gold standard for being able to watch a race?

don mei
07/30/2009 11:35 AM
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I love road courses! Heading up to Montreal from Connecticut to see the Nationwide race. You can be damn sure if Indianapolis was on the road course it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than the snoozefest on the oval! I do agree with you on two 100 Mile events. Nothing new there. World Superbike has been running their events that way for years and its got a lot of pluses.

ginger
07/30/2009 11:38 AM
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Matt, after I read the second paragraph, I decided to buy a Harley and take up drinking. I don’t look forward to the summer schedule.

MilChad
07/30/2009 11:45 AM
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Let’s bring the Pony Cars to the Cup level. How cool would that be?

HenryM
07/30/2009 01:16 PM
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Matt,

The ARCA Re/Max series runs at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds on Sept. 7, 200 laps on a 1/2 mile horse track. It is a hoot! They also run on Aug. 23 at Illinois State Fairgrounds (Springfield), 100 laps on a mile horse track. SPEED used to cover them but I do not think that they do any more.
Max
07/30/2009 01:52 PM
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The 36 race season is too long – bottom line. You could cut out the duplicates at Pocono, Michigan and California for starters.

It is very obvious to me that bigger and more is not always better.

This applies to the business world as well as the sports world.

In fact, the line between the two is becoming very blurry anyway.

Cut it back and start ‘em at 12:30 eastern.

bill
07/30/2009 02:35 PM
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You really love your racing dont you Matt
What was wrong with Sonoma or Louden this year?
Too exciting for you?
Quit crying you baby!

dewiz88
07/30/2009 05:42 PM
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Matt, I think its the cars that are boaring. I will agree on the pre-race shows. Who cares what they think is going to happen. Night races are the best. You don’t have to sit out in that hot sun all day long and try to drive home sunburnt.

john
07/30/2009 06:43 PM
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Both road course races are exciting and tons of fun to watch.

Sorry.

Keith
07/30/2009 07:06 PM
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Matt I always thought that Wednesday night races in the summer were a great Idea if the series was off the next weekend. But the races should be local to the Charlotte area and would not cost the teams alot of money maybe like a race at The Rock and North Wilkesboro and make them 1 day shows open to any Na$car approved driver to help fill the fields and not a points race just lots of cash for winning. It might get some of us old fans to pay more attention.

Joe
07/30/2009 08:12 PM
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There will be no logic in NASCAR, Matt, you know better

(btw, i’d watch two 22 car feature races at Eldora for a cup race)

midasmicah
07/30/2009 08:56 PM
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You’re right about one thing. After 20+ years of the Sunday ritual (Saturday night should have been left to the outlaws and modifieds) it is a hard habit to break. I’m finding it easier and easier this year to find other things to do. If nas$car is trying to alienate their core fanbase completely they’re doing a fine job. But yes, it’s a hard habit to break.

Ed
07/30/2009 11:47 PM
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Bring on the dirt track! NASCAR used to do it and it would be much better than California, Michigan, Chicago, Louden, and two or three others. I need something to get me interested again. Cookie cutters, the “Chase” and zombie drivers aren’t doing it.

Michael T.
08/02/2009 01:23 AM
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Matt, again, where’s the consistency? Your arguement against road courses is that other major sports don’t change the type of field they play on, so why does NASCAR have to deviate from ovals? Then you turn around and say it’s ok to run top tier, professional racing on dirt for one weekend out of 36. How does that make sense? You don’t like road courses because they are different, but you want something different to spice up the middle of the season. You are still and probably always will be in the minority when it comes to road courses.