The Frontstretch: Breaking The Cookie Cutter Mold by S.D. Grady -- Thursday March 6, 2008

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Breaking The Cookie Cutter Mold

Sitting In The Stands : A Fan's View · S.D. Grady · Thursday March 6, 2008

 

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Once upon a time, in a world not of our own, John Q. Fan sat down in his beige living room and turned on his television at precisely one o’clock on Sunday afternoon—just as he had for the last twenty years. At the first camera shot, he knew that in three seconds the singer would open their mouth to perform the rendition of the National Anthem. A helicopter flew overhead, eliciting the predicted sigh from the crowd. Then, forty-two drivers and the winner climbed into their cockpits, flipped the switch on the dashboard, and began the four hour long parade – just as they had for the past twenty years.

John Q. leaned into the turn with The Winner, feeling the bumps in the pavement; which had not been ground down last year, or the year before that. He waited with baited breath for the winner to pull down pit road for the first of three pits. This time through, there would be two rounds out; the second stop always resulted in removing the rubber in the left rear, and he knew that with his third beer would come the two-tire stop. Maybe his heart beat a little quicker with the sound of the engines, but very rarely did his face turn red in anger; there was no need.

This week, The Winner would take the checkered flag, and unless the records were inaccurate, The Winner would most likely continue to do so in the coming weeks. Every Sunday, the same competitors came to the same track with the same equipment and ran…the same race.

Thank God I don’t live in John Q’s world!

The Sprint Cup Series provides the medium for the best automotive drivers out there to determine a champion through thirty-six weeks of competition. It’s not who is the gutsiest plate pilot, or short track muscle man, or road course guru, or even intermediate track master that wins the season-long hardware; instead, it’s which single team is capable of taking any configuration of pavement and turn, placing a 200mph machine on it, and bringing their car to Victory Lane in the most consistent manner throughout a single season.

However, this cannot continue to happen if the powers that be decide that reconfiguring track after track on the circuit in an effort to improve “the show” is the best way forward for the series. Last week, Gillian Zucker stated that the idea of reconfiguring the Auto Club Speedway into a restrictor plate track was a great idea! Why? Because it would provide better racing.

When it rains, it pours at California… but a finicky Mother Nature shouldn’t be grounds enough for changing the track’s configuration.

Upon hearing this, I hit my head against the nearest hard surface. “Stop it! Right now!” I cried to the deaf track owners and NASCAR officials.

It’s like a contagious disease has been unleashed upon the moneymen in this sport. Anytime the fans, drivers, teams, or a passing tourist mutter something derogatory about their facility, it’s like the floodgates of Fort Knox open. Worried promoters dig up concrete, add another layer of paint, and tack a few more dollars on to the ticket price.

Well, somebody needs to get thicker skin and stop wasting our time and money.

NASCAR simply wouldn’t be NASCAR if each location upped their banks to 24 degrees and put down new asphalt each Spring. Where would the finesse of keeping your foot on the gas for four hours in Talladega go … or withstanding the fourteenth rear-end collision at 90 mph in the hairpin turns of Martinsville? How would we come to know that being able to slide your 3500 lb stock car into a tiny pit box means nothing when you’re turning right at Watkins Glen? Would it matter that only certain crew chiefs seem to know where that extra half-gallon of gasoline hides on the “boring cookie-cutter” tracks that end so often in a gas mileage chess game?

I’m not saying that I find watching the type of racing at California riveting for the usual three and a half hours, but there is value in viewing a race where pit road competition edges out on-track handling in importance. Teams have to reconsider, adjust, juggle, twist, and take the bigger risk in order to reap the benefits. The race at Las Vegas varied from California in that the teams had to battle a hard tire and grippy track surface, resulting in a lack of control and many dramatic wrecks. This upcoming weekend, we can look forward to 500 miles of straight out racing at Atlanta, and then followed up by 500 laps of brutal mixing bowl action at Bristol. That is variety; that is interesting. What will be the result of each meeting? It’s unpredictable … exactly the type of answer you want to have each week.

Don’t get me wrong; there is a place and time for change. The addition of the SAFER barriers was a much needed refit for all of the tracks on the circuit; and occasionally, the construction of a new infield tunnel results in new pavement being laid. Grinding of the racing surface has appeared at more than one location, stretching the lifespan of the worn asphalt.

But, before the track promoters attempt to turn their track into “more of a Charlotte” or “a third restrictor plate track”, they need to stop and consider what benefit their location already provides to this unique sport. In no other major league does the playing field vary as much from place to place as in NASCAR. This raises our sport into a higher level of competition; it is not enough to just be the fastest, or the smartest, or even the luckiest. The Sprint Cup Series requires the winning team to be all of these things in all places.

At some point, a decision will have to be made to retain the value of each track; but the “boring” ones must be kept…just as they are. Ticket sales and television ratings cannot be the determining factor in choosing venues — that simply undermines the basis upon which NASCAR was built.

Variety is the spice of life. Eating vanilla ice cream for every meal can become uninteresting. But by providing the NASCAR viewers with chocolate, strawberry, pistachio (yuck!), coffee, peppermint stick and peach sorbet, we will look forward to that vanilla Sunday all the more when it is served up once again.

Unless, of course, you’re John Q. But do you really want his fantasy to become reality?

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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