The Frontstretch: Stories To Watch In 2007 : Part One by Matt McLaughlin -- Sunday January 21, 2007

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Stories To Watch In 2007 : Part One

Matt McLaughlin · Sunday January 21, 2007


2007 may well be a pivotal year in the sport of NASCAR racing. It might takes a few more years down the road and the retrospect it will offer to see how things play out. But clearly, this is a year of big changes, and for a jaded cynic like myself, the whole shooting match that is the sport I've loved for decades hangs in the balance.

Here's some stories I'll be watching this year, and stories I'm guessing many of you will focus on as well:

The Invasion of the Barbarians: OK, Toyota isn't really run by barbarians, it's just their business practices (like those of their fellow Japanese auto manufacturing rivals) would make Genghis Kahn grab for a handful of antacids. Unlike the last time the Japanese invaded our turf back on a certain date that will live in infamy, at least this time we've had plenty of notice in the racing world. Just ask fans of the open wheel series how warm and fuzzy they feel about Toyota’s "We came, we saw, we kicked butt, we blew out of Dodge" tactics that have now sauntered their way over into the world of stock cars.

Toyota says they're in NASCAR for the long haul, which isn't exactly great news to me and many of you who feel like I do that our sport (well, we thought it was our sport before Brian France started throwing his weight around like an out of control Lexus…made by Toyota by the way) should be limited to the home teams. Yes, Toyota points out they make cars here in the States. Bully for them. But saying they are an American car maker is like saying because Rotolo di Cappone is prepared in a bistro in Brooklyn, it is American food.

It's likely to be tough sledding for Toyota at first. Many of their teams have to race their way into the first five races of this season because they have no owner points from 2006 to fall back on. (Or, in the case of the 55 car and Michael Waltrip, they finished so low in 2006 owner points they don't have an automatic bye into the field…so they'll probably have to buy into the field). And if the Toyota teams struggle, it will likely delight many fans. But don't count on that being a long-term problem. Toyota struggled when they first entered the Truck Series, too; they've now won the last two manufacturer's titles over there while claiming the Top 6 spots in the final driver standings in 2006. While money can't buy you love, it sure can buy series domination as long as you carefully line the corporate pockets, too. If there's a bright side to Toyota's domination of the truck series, it’s that their full size truck remains a mere blip on the sales radar in a sea awash with F-150s, Rams, and Silverados. So much for win on Sunday (or Saturday) and sell on Monday.

With Ford and GM on the ropes right now, it seems a bad time to be introducing foreign brands to NASCAR racing. It seems, dare I say it, almost unpatriotic. Sometime this year Toyota should surpass GM as the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. And sometime this year, a Toyota will probably win a Cup race, at which point I predict that a lot of fans will have their interest in the sport fade to black. If you're old enough to recall the glory days of the SCCA Trans Am Series, Mustangs, Camaros, Cudas, Cougars and Challengers used to duke it out for the checkered flag every weekend. Once they allowed foreign makes in and started adding all those ridiculous spoilers (like the Car of Tomorrow), interest quickly headed south….to NASCAR racing, ironically enough.

The Car of Tomorrow: After the Car of Tomorrow debuts in Bristol this March, most fans won't be able to tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Dodge from a Camry anymore. What they are able to tell is that this new car design is about as ugly as the day is long on the Fourth of July. It's hard to find anyone not on the payroll at NASCAR corporate headquarters with much nice to say about the COT. (Unfortunate acronym, no?) With its Pep Boys ricer rear spoiler and its locomotive cattle catcher front end, about the nicest thing I can say is if these new cars were puppies, breeders would take ‘em behind the barn and dispatch ‘em with a single bullet between the eyes. Folks in general don't like watching ugly cars race.

Beyond aesthetics, my main concern is the racing itself. Those new noses with the splitters look fragile. My guess is that out of aerodynamic concerns, drivers will be loathe to engage in any rooting and gouging to make a pass if it might bend up their little play-pretties. Surely, it will signal the end of bumpdrafting at the plate tracks for better or worse. Several drivers who have tested the new cars claim that they are all but impossible to race side-by-side and that is, after all, the hallmark of stock car racing from its glory days, days which are fading into the rearview mirror faster every year. Originally conceived as a way to make stock cars safer, the inevitably awkward product of committee thinking (recall a camel is a horse designed by committee), the CoT now appears to be the answer to a question nobody is asking. Then, there’s the fan reaction; they’ve taken to these new cars like Hindus to hamburgers. Hey, maybe I'm wrong and this will be the greatest thing ever to happen to racing. And maybe I'll find a barn full of low mileage ’70s Plymouth Hemis owned by a farmer eager to get rid of "‘em old cars" after running out of gas on a rural country road.

TV Ratings: NASCAR officials tried a hundred ways to Sunday to put a positive spin on it, but there's no discounting the fact TV ratings were down for all but two races run in 2006. In some cases, they were down significantly, and the much ballyhooed Chase didn't spark a ratings bonanza, either. The official party line is now the disappointing ratings were a result of NBC's lame duck status as a "network partner" and their lack of promotion for the races. To paraphrase old Tricky Dick, NASCAR isn't going to have NBC to kick around anymore this season. (And the huddled crowd let out an exultant Hallelujah.)

Like most fans, I am eagerly looking forward to the return of ESPN/ABC to stock car broadcasts. It was the then fledgling sports network's attempt to find original low cost sports programming back in the early ’80s that by and large put stock car racing on the map, at least as far as television. The arrangement helped both partners. ESPN and NASCAR both soared in popularity, and the ESPN broadcast crew became like family members you invited into your home on Sunday afternoon and greeted warmly as opposed to the FOX crew who seem to kick down your front door, raid the fridge, rape the dog, and hold you hostage. I still have countless videotapes of races broadcast on ESPN back in the day, and if the production quality and high zoot graphics look a little dated these days, I still hold that any one of those broadcasts was far suprerior to the inane DW/Hammond/Myers/McReynolds Hee-Haw comedy hours that FOX presents in place of race coverage.

But with all due apologies to Mr. Jonathon Bon Jovi of North Jersey, I still ain't convinced you can go home. Certainly ESPN/ABC made an excellent move in rehiring Neil Goldberg, who was the behind the scenes magician in the truck who added that special magic to ESPN races. But to what degree Mr. Goldberg is going to be allowed to practice his delightful craft is open to question. There's several rungs up the food chain from Neil that will be weighing in on what we'll see as well. Let's face it, ABC is a corporation, not a charity. They've committed to spending the big bucks to reacquire the rights to NASCAR race broadcasts even knowing NBC had found such an endeavor a money-losing proposition. If you're thinking ESPN is going to broadcast the second half of the races commercial-free to delight the fans, you've got another thing coming. And if you think high dollar advertisers don't have some sway as to what you see as far as the race broadcast itself, you must never have contemplated why the UPS Ford got so much camera time even while DJ was running in 30 somethingth place all race long.

Well, maybe old Jon (who I've always considered sort of B grade Boss with better hair but lamer tunes) is right and you CAN go home. 46 years roaming this earth, a majority of them as a fan of stock car racing, have taught me to hope for the best and expect the worst. If you don't expect much, you can't help but be impressed. But if you're expecting ESPN broadcasts to resemble the glory days, I'll meet you on your front porch in that lonely cool before dawn…

Either way, there's no guarantee that the new broadcast partner will be the magic bullet that fixes ratings. It didn't happen with ice hockey or basketball. What can fix the ratings is the product itself, not how the product is broadcast. Lacking compelling races week in and week out that leave fans gasping on the couch trying to assimilate those final few laps is a far cry from a side-by-side race to the finish that leaves them eager to tell co-workers on Monday morning, "You don't know what you're missing…" Unfortunately, I predict NASCAR will continue down that steep downhill slope to the artic cold of the "last hot thing."

A Thinning of the Herd: As noted above, its going to be tough for many teams to make the races this year. With the possibility of 55 cars showing up to compete for 43 spots, you're going to have a lot of unhappy team owners watching their crews pack up the equipment prior to the big show. And if the team owners are going to be unhappy, one can only imagine how big-buck sponsors whose rolling billboards and poster boys aren't in the race are going to feel. (Well, the bad news is Mikey missed the race, but the good news is that the ratings were down 20% over last year, so less people didn't see him race. Oh and we could use another multi-million dollar check post-haste Mr. NAPA, sir.) With the current cost of racing (and I fail to see how the CoT will lower that cost) a team without a sponsor isn't just endangered, it’s as good as extinct. With the current high dollar contracts, any driver with a pulse or a good PR person will look for a way out if they start missing races; obviously, some teams aren't going to make it, either. With some high profile organizations like Robert Yates Racing already reeling on the ropes, time is short for those teams to turn things around. Who will fall by the wayside? Stay tuned.

Editor’s Note : Look For Part II of Matt McLaughlin’s Season Preview to be posted on Tuesday, right here at FS.

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

M. B. Voelker
01/22/2007 08:27 AM

If Nascar is so abhominable why are you putting so much effort into it instead of following and reporting on a sport that is run the way you want it to be?

In fact, if your way is so vastly superior to Nascar’s way why haven’t you found eager investors and sponsors ready to back your efforts as you start up a racing series that will blow Nascar out of the water?

01/22/2007 10:07 AM

so negative, come on Matt, i used to enjoy your work. it is ok to have an opionon but you have to get your little digs in on most every story? lighten up a little, please !

01/22/2007 11:21 AM

I think Matt has some good points. Spec racing series’ don’t play well in America, nor does the incessant promotion of one or two mediocre drivers (read big money sponsors) among the 43 that race each week. SCCA and ASA are proof positive of these opinions.

As a 30 year Nascar fan, I can tell you that the commercialization and exploitation of the sport has driven us conventional fans to the point of utter frustration. Perhaps a new breed of fan will be born in this era of racing as “entertainment”, but I don’t believe the newer fans will stick around like us die-hards have. It’s a pity really, seeing an American icon driven to the same level as the WWE and NBA.

This year will make or break many of us. If I see Nascar attempt to alter the outcome of another race (insert debris caution here), I’ll surely be gone.

01/22/2007 03:45 PM

Right on, Matt!

James McBeth
01/22/2007 09:28 PM

I’ve been following Matt since I started following NASCAR in the latter part of the 90’s. I can’t say I agree with all of Matt’s opinions but he’s usually on the mark. I will say that I could care less what the COT looks like or where the manufacture’s live. I just want to see some good racing every Sunday and want to follow drivers and teams that are easy to care about – regular folk like you and me.

I do hope that ESPN brings back a bit of the magic they brought to the track on Sunday’s. I’ve always felt that their final broadcast represented the highpoint of NASCAR for me. Their expose’ at the end of their final broadcast (to the tune of Kenny Rankin’s rendition of “Groovin’”) brought tears to my eyes. And, if you recall, the very next NASCAR race – broadcast by the infamous FOX team – feature the demise of the driver of the 3-car. It’s been all downhill from there for me. Like I said, maybe ESPN can help return NASCAR to the glory days. But with the current mindset of the top dogs, where they take away races from two of the absolute best stock car race tracks in the country (Darlington & “the Rock”), I don’t hold out much hope. But I’ll try to keep hope alive – like Matt, I’m not ready to give up quite yet. I keep watchin’ cause, someday, I’ll see a Ricky Craven slippin’ and slidin’ all over the outside of turns three and four on the final lap to stick his nose just past a “Young Gun” for the win! Wow!

01/23/2007 06:10 PM

Yes, I tend to be pretty acidic at times but the venom is born of passion and four decades following the sport. Brian France is trying to hand me (and you) a turd and call it a Babe Ruth bar. I ain’t biting. As another poster responded above I too believe that this is a pivotal year in stock car history, a year that will make or break the sport. With Toyota,the CoT and too many boring races I fear the worst but hope for the best.

To my newest fan MB I guess I should point out my six main pet peeves in life.

1) Folks who use cell phones while driving.
2) Japanese motorcycles styled to look like Harleys.
3) A NASCAR “love it or leave it” attitude.
4) People who write “Nascar” rather than “NASCAR” (It’s an abbrev for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. Do you write your check April 15th to the Irs for fear the Fbi will arrest you if you don’t?)
5) Warm beer
6) The loss of the real Southern 500.

I have a lot of hours, a lot of tears and a lot of bucks (paid out of my own pocket, not freebies in the day) invested in this sport and I hold that I have the same right to express an opinion as any other fan.

But perhaps someday you’ll get your wish. I gotta say since I moved to the farm out here there’s a lot of days racing just doesn’t mean as much anymore. I’d rather be working on an old Chevy in the garage even while the clunking heater struggles to keep up. Some spring and summer evenings I just sit on the porch and watch the fireflies. Late last night I took a walk out to the back of the property though it was 18 degrees and I could see every breath but I just stood there amazed looking up at the vast sea of stars above me, a sight you never see properly until you move to the country.

If I’m acidic you should read some of my mail. Compared to some former fans who have left the sport I am polly-frickin-Anna and I’m talking long time fans who have attended tens if not hundreds of races. And if I’m considering retiring to the farm after a life that has revolved around stock car racing since I was 5 NASCAR has a real problem with a lot of long time fans with me who are still keeping the faith but filling the bucket to douse the fire and whistling to bring in the dogs.

01/23/2007 10:07 PM

>>they’ve taken to these new cars like Hindus to hamburgers.<<


Matthew, Matthew, Matthew. “Carma” is gonna get ya for sayin’ stuff like that!

01/24/2007 10:07 PM

Thanks for your article. I’ve followed NASCAR since the mid 50’s and I’m very disappointed with the changes taking place the last few years. We never needed a “chase” to make racing exciting. The Championship was exciting, but racing was the primary excitement.
As far as the COT, it doesn’t make much difference to me. Without decals, I can’t tell the difference in todays cars. They sure don’t look anything like cars on the street. I’d love to think some time in the near future we could see real stock cars race competively without outside interference (i.e. debris cautions) determining the outcome.