Southern California is home to one of the most famous parades in the world that takes place every New Year’s Day in Pasadena. Sunday, it was home to another very visible parade, as several million NASCAR fans watched while 43 drivers paraded around the Auto Club Speedway while counting down the laps to the midway point of the 400-mile event. The race started with everyone involved knowing that there was a very real threat of rain shortening the race and the result was a concerted effort by the drivers to not put a wheel wrong nor put themselves at risk, ensuring that the crossed flags would be seen before the skies opened. While their efforts were successful, as evidenced by the total of 129 laps being completed, the product that was foisted upon the fans was a sham at best.
Anyone who has been a fan of auto racing at the highest levels for very long has heard the mantra before: we were just riding along, biding our time until it was “go time.” We settled in and logged some laps before we got ready to race over the last 100 laps. Well, there is a time to race and a time to use your head. Fans who are in favor of shortening races point to this attitude as one of the biggest pieces of evidence supporting their cause; the drivers don’t race hard until the final few moments of the main event.
The Auto Club 400 was not just the latest in a growing list of races where fans were subjected to drivers dialing it back during the middle stages of the race, but it was a glaring example of just what the drivers can do if they choose to “mail it in.”
“I think everybody was thinking about halfway,” David Ragan observed. “We don’t want to be here on a Monday, but this race track is a product of green flag racing. You’ve got five lanes wide and it’s two miles long, so you’ve got plenty of room where you don’t really have to race one another hard. You can really just kind of race yourself, so it was fun to go on that long of a green flag run. It was a lot of fun and I’m glad we got to halfway.”
Ragan wasn’t the only one who did his best to play it safe. Greg Biffle was asked if the track lends itself to green flag runs or if the rain in the forecast made a difference. “The track kind of lends itself to that,” said Biffle. “but nobody wanted to see the caution come out either because we knew it was gonna be tight (reaching the halfway point). If we would have had a 15-minute caution, we may not have made it.”
You can’t blame the drivers or crews for wanting to get the race in and head home rather than having to spend another day 2,500 miles from their families, but that isn’t the professional way to handle the situation or the proper thing to do for the fans in the stands or at home. People pay a lot of money to attend races and they deserve to see the best drivers in the sport racing to the best of their ability, not logging laps to make sure they get to halfway.
In the end, the drivers need to be pushing their equipment to the limit and racing hard the entire race, not just when the laps wind down. If the drivers can’t be expected to do that on their own, then NASCAR needs to incentivize them to race the entire distance. For many years, there was a halfway bonus every race that paid a nice chunk of change to the driver who crossed the finish line first at the halfway point. That bonus meant to much to Dale Jarrett that he ran himself out of gas at Indianapolis during the Brickyard one year and very well cost himself the race. Perhaps the time has come for NASCAR to make racing the entire race worthwhile to the drivers.
Monetary incentives can certainly get some people’s interest but, for the most part, racing in the Cup Series these days is about points. So the thing that NASCAR needs to institute, in order to inspire drivers to lay it on the line throughout the race, is point payouts periodically during the event. Whether that is every quarter of the race or every eighth can be determined over time, but something obviously needs to be done and at least quarter distances will incentivize drivers to push their cars for the entire duration. The points to be paid can be for the top 3, the top 5 or just the leader, but they need to be significant. Pay the leader three points or five points for leading at the quarter, half and three-quarter points of the race. Is that a large amount of points considering the current point system? – You bet. Will that motivate the drivers to race harder for the entire distance? – Very possibly.
It is a shame that multimillionaire drivers in multimillion dollar cars don’t race their hearts out every lap for fans who spend hundreds to thousands of dollars to watch them race. One of the most disturbing things about the end of the 2011 season was how hard Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ran every lap of every race over the final three or four races of the season. It was fantastic to see but the question on everyone’s lips should have been: Why don’t they race like this every week? No one mentioned that, understandably as the sport relished in the glow of such a fantastic finish to the season but it’s a valid point.
Is it realistic to expect drivers to run 200 to 500 qualifying laps every week? – Of course not. Pushing the cars to the maximum for an entire race would result in all 43 cars being torn up at some point in time. However, racing hard and doing everything possible to move forward and gain as many places as possible should be the goal of every driver whenever they strap into their machines. Driving around and logging laps to make sure they don’t have to come back on Monday is not what the fans want and definitely not what they deserve. Every driver in the garage should be ashamed of themselves after the race this weekend and honestly, they should donate their paychecks for this week to charity because they certainly didn’t earn them.
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