There seems to be as many theories about what’s ailing the once proud sport of NASCAR racing as there are empty seats at most tracks lately. The fans, the ultimate arbiters of what’s right and wrong with the sport, have a lot of different theories on what’s gone wrong. They rail about the Chase, the new cars, cookie cutter race tracks, points racing, bland competitors and on and on. Given my occupation, I’ve spent (some might argue wasted) considerable verbiage on the topic as well.
As the late Jerry Garcia once sang, “Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Today I had one of those “Eureka!” moments and oddly enough it came while browsing yet another bloodless press release from the NASCAR folks down in Daytona Beach.
For those who might not have caught it, the 2012 Cup schedule was released with much fanfare on Wednesday. A few dates were shuffled around. Basically, Talladega and Kansas are swapping dates so that that Kansas track management has more time to complete a plan to repave that track. Dover moves back to the first weekend of June. The Texas date had to be shuffled to allow for an Easter break. Oh, and as previously announced the season will kick off a weekend later in 2012. Purportedly, that’s to eliminate the awkward weekend off three weeks into the season. In reality, NASCAR knows the NFL championship game would stomp their asses in the ratings. No, the Chase hasn’t met its intended goal of relegating football to second place in the national psyche quite yet.
There wasn’t much about the announcement to get excited about. Even I don’t commit the Cup schedule to memory any more. Like most of you, I’ll pick up a pocket size NASCAR schedule at the local beer distributor next February. If you were hoping for some major shakeup to the schedule, say dumping a date at Chicago and New Hampshire to restore race dates to Darlington and Rockingham, it didn’t happen. We all knew it wasn’t going to happen anyway.
Somewhere in the midst of the less than scintillating press release, though, there was a brief quote from Brian France who, as head honcho was forced to leave his barstool to pretend to be excited about this crap. Here’s part of what our dear friend Brian had to say, noting while there were changes to the schedule some things would remain “the same.”
“One thing will remain constant, however, and that’s the intense competition we see week in and week out from our drivers and race teams.”
Holy Soundbites, Batman! Brian France isn’t an idiot after all. He’s not even a Delta-Epsilon subidiot as feared. He’s in the family business. He knows what race fans want after all! We want to see intense competition every week like the old days. Intense competition. By God, he gets it after all.
Unfortunately, the fans don’t often get it… intense competition, that is. What I’ve been seeing this season (and for the last several years) is fuel mileage racing where MPG not MPH wins the day. (That’s not acceptable to car guys. Let’s face it; back in the day you never pulled up beside another cat at a traffic light and hollered over to him, “My car gets better fuel mileage than yours.”) I’ve been seeing polite, processional racing with the cars several lengths apart and the tenth-place driver already 10 seconds, the length of a straightaway at most tracks, out of the lead already 35 laps into the event. I’ve been bored to tears by numerous races where none of the drivers actually seemed to be racing until the final ten or twenty laps.
I’ve watched cars that were dominant out front reduced to also-rans as soon as they lost the lead and the clean air out front thanks to the aero-push phenomenon. It’s happened so often I think we need to give it a new nickname, “The Jeff Gordon Principle.” I’ve watched drivers who have won races who one would think would be somewhat excited rattle off a list of their sponsors in monotone acting about as excited as I would be if I won a free order of fries at McDonald’s. (And I don’t even eat French Fries.) I’ve watched the races turn from the much anticipated highlight of my week to three or four hours I waste out of force of habit after all these years.
Yeah, intense racing. That’s what we need. That’ll fix things. The problem is Brian France seems to think we’re getting a healthy portion of it every weekend right now despite the preponderance of the evidence to the contrary. Hey, cut the guy some slack. He was stationed out in California back in the day trying to cut media deals for NASCAR. France probably missed all those races while he was out west so he doesn’t have a clue what a good race looks like. Maybe he used to drive out to some filling station in a remote portion of the Nevada desert and get himself all worked up into a lather betting on whether the cars approaching the gas station would run out of fuel before they made it. Maybe he thinks the wide gaps between race cars during an event are part of some new safety initiative by NASCAR. Maybe he’s worried that if the tracks sold all their seats, we’d have more parking debacles like Kentucky.
Or maybe during those rare races he does attend, France is too busy tweeting, trying to set up ownership of an NFL franchise in L.A. to glance up at what’s actually happening on track. Somewhere along the line, there’s been a fundamental disconnect between the fans’ expectations and the pabulum we’re being force fed week after week.
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