The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: The Long And The Short Of It by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday June 7, 2012

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MPM2Nite: The Long And The Short Of It

MPM2Nite · Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 7, 2012


Last week, NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rusty Wallace raised some eyebrows saying he felt that NASCAR needed to reduce the Cup schedule from 36 races down to 32. Then, earlier this week, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. chimed in that he felt shortening the schedule was a fine idea, too. And you know when Earnhardt speaks, that’s going to cause a buzz.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. became the latest driver to ask for a “few more weekends off” in 2013. But will NASCAR actually consider shortening the schedule next year?

I’ve been advocating a shorter schedule for over a decade now and I think it’s high time NASCAR start at least exploring the idea. The current Cup slate, with 38 weekends of competition is the longest in professional sports. The only “season” that comes close is Major League Baseball, whose schedule begins a month after the Daytona 500 and concludes a month before the Homestead finale. NASCAR’s list of races stretches from President’s Day to the weekend before Thanksgiving, with only two weekends off during the whole ordeal.

Once upon a time, that was workable. The sport was soaring in popularity and new tracks were popping up around the country like dandelions on the lawn in spring. All those new tracks were clamoring for a Cup race date because as soon as those seats were built, the arena was sold out. Naturally, the established tracks on the schedule weren’t eager to surrender their dates, either, since all the races in those days were cash cows that typically sold out months in advance of the event.

Area hotels and motels got giddy, seeing the size of the crowds races were drawing and doubled, even tripled their rates often insisting on four-night, minimum stays for the fans. Local cops got in on the action, setting up speed traps to capture unwitting, out-of-state fans who didn’t realize the limit dropped from 50mph to 35mph for no apparent reason.

Everyone was making money and life was grand. Now? Well, not so much.

NASCAR helped contribute to the decline with this ridiculous concept of the Chase. Basically, that devalues the worth of the 26 regular season races while promoting the final ten events that will decide a champion. A difficult economy, gouging by the hospitality industry, tracks charging too much for tickets, food and drink, the price of gas and the shrinking size of the “blue collar” class in America have all contributed to shrink crowds to the point there’s an embarrassing amount of empty seats at these speedways most weeks.

I have a friend here in the area, where I’ve been living going on seven years now. I’d say he’s doing pretty well, has a nice home, some cool toys and put two kids through college, with one in his sophomore year. When I first moved here, he and his family used to attend both Pocono and Dover races each year. Then, they decided to cut back to one race at each track annually. This year, for the first time they decided to go to Dover in September and skip Pocono all together. Like Wallace stated, supply simply outstrips demand at least in this economy and given the lack of quality racing the last few seasons.

Here’s the problem; even with that “pullback” mentality, race fans don’t want to see those arenas they call their “home track” lose a race date. If we’re going to cut back on the schedule, they’d prefer it be at somebody else’s expense… the old “not in my backyard” theory. So how would I go about reducing the schedule?

I’ve talked about my feeling about Cup car races on road courses several times over the years. I know that a lot of you really enjoy those road course races and actually, some of you wish NASCAR would add more to the schedule. I will grant you both road course races last year were pretty exciting. So we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, all you right-turn advocates. I’d still start by eliminating Watkins Glen, New York and Sonoma, California from the schedule. That’s not just because I don’t like them. It’s a matter of economics as well.

Matt McLaughlin has never hid his disdain for road courses. He also hates kittens, puppies, and carnivals. Especially carnivals.

The bigger teams actually have separate cars they run at these two courses. Building two cars that will only be raced once annually is a huge expense that simply isn’t worth it, one that penalizes the smaller teams who have to try to convert over a short track car to road course specifications. The costs of building separate cars for the plate tracks and road courses is one of the reasons that running a full competitive season has swollen so obscenely; now, even the big teams struggle to find sponsors willing to write large enough checks to back a race team. And let’s face it, the NHL doesn’t have a few contests a season where teams get a win for having the best aggregate score in a figure skating competition rather than playing hockey.

You want to see full-bodied cars run on a road course? Watch the Rolex or American LeMans series.

Two down. Next up, we’ll tackle the issue of reducing the supply in a region to meet the demand. Let’s look at “regional” groupings of tracks; I’ll start with my home base here in the Northeast. Pocono, Dover, and New Hampshire each have two race dates on this year’s schedule. All are within reasonable driving distance of my home here at Eyesore Acres, though I’d rather eat bugs for Thanksgiving dinner than go to another race at NHMS. Starting in 2013, I’d award one of those tracks two dates and cut back the other two to one date apiece. So in 2013, NHMS and Dover might have one race each while Pocono would have two. In 2014, Dover would have two races while Pocono and NHMS would have one, and finally in 2015 NHMS would get two dates and the other tracks would get one event.

Kyle Petty once said that they should raze NHMS, fill it with water and make it a bass lake. Matt McLaughlin would be more than happy to help him stock it with fish.

The next regional grouping that comes to mind is Texas, Talladega and Kansas City. There’s also a “West Coast trio” of California, Phoenix and Las Vegas, but in that group Phoenix has two dates a year while Vegas and Fontana have one. In this instance, Phoenix will still have two races, but that “extra date” would alternate between Vegas and California the next two years. I’d make that same sort of arrangement for Michigan, Indy, and Kentucky. Though they are in relatively close geographic proximity, I’d keep my hands off Richmond, Martinsville, and Bristol.

We need at least (and preferably more) those six short track dates on the schedule.

Now, by paring regional groups of three down to four races a year I’ve actually eliminated more events than I have to — my ideal number of races would be seven months’ worth. To address this problem, I’d restore a race date to North Wilkesboro to rectify a calamitous decision NASCAR made many years ago. I would also add a race, preferably within the final ten to Rockingham, another cherished venue NASCAR abandoned. And of course, I’d move the Darlington race date back to the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, so we can have a real Southern 500 again.

North Wilkesboro might need some renovations if it were to host a Cup race again. And by renovations, we mean pull the weeds out of the frontstretch.

Any race in July or August at a track with lights (and those without them would strongly be encouraged to add them) also would be run on Wednesday nights, with qualifying that afternoon to turn those races into one-day affairs. Race distances would be reduced to the point we could run those Wednesday night races in a three-hour time slot, 8:00 PM – 11:00 PM EST, including ten minutes of pre-race and fifteen minutes of follow up after the event.

Why the change to midweek events? I want my Saturdays and Sundays off during the summer to ride down the shore, dodging shoebies in their minivans yakking on the cell phone. Wouldn’t you like your weekends free, too?

Oh, and I’d add an (obviously non-points) “Seniors Race” at Martinsville open to any retired Cup driver who won a race during his career and still physically capable of racing 100 laps (just 50) miles to the schedule. Guys like Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Rudd could have at it again with men like Petty and Pearson if they chose to participate. The Seniors Race would be a 90-minute TV package on a Tuesday night.

As for the Bud Shootout and the All-Star Race? GONG! Thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts.

More radical cuts in the schedule might be necessary in the future. Tracks that can’t sell seats or venues that produce too many boring races as decided by a fan vote would get the axe, encouraging track promoters to market their races better or improve their tracks to a greater extent. Ideally, I’d like to see the NASCAR Cup season end on Labor Day weekend, a two-day affair consisting of a Truck Series/Nationwide doubleheader on Saturday and the crowning of a Cup champion on Sunday evening.

There’s an old saying amongst us gearhead types, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well NASCAR, it’s broke — so fix it.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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Bill B
06/07/2012 07:21 AM

If there are races to be cut, I’d definitely take them from 1.5-2 mile tracks. There are just too many of them during the season and they haven’t been producing very good races.

06/07/2012 07:59 AM

NASCAR’s still around?

06/07/2012 10:18 AM

Yes we will have to agree to disagree on the road courses. I like the diversity. I would like to see a road race in the Chase myself. Everything else I am good with! I wont hold my breath waiting for these changes however.

06/07/2012 10:31 AM

Yes, shorten the schedule.

NO, do not remove the road courses. If anything, add a couple more. Remove a race or races from Kansas, Chicago, Pocono, Loudon, Vegas or Texas please.

06/07/2012 10:51 AM

i like the idea of rotating tracks. probably not the best for track economics but something drastic is going to have to happen to turn this around. even better i like an idea like a 200 lap/mile even (with few exceptions) 20 or so guaranteed starters based on qualifying times the remainder of the field filled out by qualifying races. (would be as exciting as hell, but ill not hold my breath.)
So, on Matt’s idea… i think some tracks deserve two dates, some deserve at least one race every year, some tracks can live with races every other and some tracks need to go away. daytona, talledega, bristol, richmond, martinsville, darlington and phoenix can have two dates, the road courses can stay, the rock comes back, dover, NH, ATL, texas, kansas and vegas get one per year, the rest… can rotate. Michigan, Chicago and CA need to be bulldozed and replaced with (short) tracks that would provide watchable racing. Indy needs to stick to what it’s good at… open wheel.

John C
06/07/2012 12:29 PM

Most other sports do not try and compete with the NFL. What makes Nascar think that it can? They cannot. If they could they would get better network televsion coverage during the Chase.

Why were people surprised when Steve Addington admitted that they were trying to get the team in good position for the Chase? I thought Jimmie Johnson won 5 championships doing that. It is time to call the first 26 races of the season for what they really are: “Nascar’s pre-season”. You can draw up a list of 8-10 drivers, most of whom, but probably not all, will make the Chase on consistency. That does not leave much for the rest.

06/07/2012 12:31 PM

Those are some drastic changes and I like most of them except running during the week if I were to attend any of those events. Racing for me has become more about tailgating than racing lately due to the crap we have to suffer through during the race. It would be hard to take the time off and get some good tailgating in on a Wednesday especially if you had to travel very far to the event.

Funky D
06/07/2012 02:29 PM

I also disagree about the road courses. As a matter of fact, running the July race at Daytona on the road course might be intriguing.

I would completely nuke the schedule and start from scratch using the following principles:

1) Daytona, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, & Richmond would keep 2 dates each.

2) All other tracks get 1 date each.

3) North Wilksboro, Rockingham, and Iowa get added to the Cup schedule.

4) The season would still begin at Daytona and end at Homestead.

5) The Southern 500 gets moved to Labor Day weekend like the Good Lord intended it.

06/07/2012 02:53 PM

I could go along with most every suggestion, especially ending the Season on Labor Day weekend. Where I run into a problem is the midweek racing. Like MilChad if I go to a race it has evolved into more emphasis on the tailgating/campout part than the actual racing part. I also, and perhaps there is too much Old South in me, would not be fond of Wednesday Evenings because, though I do not, I have a number of friends who are NASCAR fans for whom Wednesday nights mean Church.

I really like the Seniors race idea, however. The addition of Seniors competition did wonders for the PGA, but I would restrict the NASAR version to a one-off event as you suggest.

Deuce Grizzardstein
06/07/2012 03:02 PM

Why don’t they just take a year off…

That would build a bit of demand…

Or maybe not…

Greg Maness
06/07/2012 03:18 PM

I have long had the idea of reducing the schedule, but with categorizing the tracks with how many race dates they receive. GROUP A — these tracks get two races per season (Daytona, i.e.) … GROUP B — these tracks receive two races in odd-numbered years, but only one race in even-numbered years … GROUP C — these tracks receive two races in even-numbered years, but only one race in odd-numbered years … GROUP D — these tracks receive one race per season each season. I believe a nice 30-race schedule could easily be achieved with that method. On another subject … reducing race lengths … I would like to see a rule where when a tracks has two races per season, their races must be of different lengths (like most were in the 60s). Who does that now … just Daytona and Charlotte? I.E., Darlington — move the SOUTHERN 500 back to Labor Day … and bring back the REBEL FOUR-hundred (though I guess it would need a new name!).

Kevin in SoCal
06/07/2012 03:58 PM

Any track of 1.5 miles in length should get one date a year, or be in the floating pool of getting 2 dates some years, and 1 date other years. Every race track capable of supporting NASCAR should get at least one date, and that includes Fontana for the haters. Charlotte should also be kept with two dates, because its the “home track” and the crewmen will love having the time at home. The others, such as Texas, Kansas, Michigan, would be reduced to one race to make room for Iowa, two dates at Darlington, and possibly North Wilkesboro or Rockingham.

06/08/2012 01:15 PM

Easy solution: Every track gets one race a year with the exception of Daytona and the short tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond). Add Iowa and you end the season in early October.

I’m all for adding Wilksboro, but it’s growing weeds so that’s a bigger problem than just getting a race there.

06/08/2012 02:47 PM

“Fill it up & plant bass”… I thought Kyle Petty said that about Darlington

06/08/2012 05:06 PM

I thought it was Bristol myself.