The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Evolution Of An Ending, Double Duty's Drought And Charlotte Controversy by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday May 22, 2013

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Did You Notice?… O. Bruton Smith is chirping about taking away a race from NASCAR’s home base? This week, he raised eyebrows by initially telling WBTV there’s a 70% chance he’ll be moving the Fall race at the 1.5-mile oval to sister speedway Las Vegas beginning in 2014. Today, as the outcry from those comments reached a fever pitch, the billionaire leader of Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated sent out a strong statement making it clear he feels the local North Carolina government doesn’t share his enthusiasm for keeping multiple races in place.

“We’ve invested $100 million in the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex in the past six years to make it even better for the fans,” he said. “We’ve expanded our fan zone, added pit road suites and built the world’s largest HDTV. We’ve done this during the worst economy since the Great Depression.”

“We’ve done this without asking for a handout from the government, and yet at the same time, our Cabarrus County taxes have doubled since 2005. The politicians say nice things to the media, but raising taxes does not support the tourism business, the area economy or companies trying to grow.”

Will Charlotte, the hometown of NASCAR teams and its Hall of Fame, soon lose one of its races to Las Vegas?.

Clearly, Smith is making a power play with local officials he’s despised for several years. From a noise controversy over ZMAX Dragway to a $60 million price tag, Smith feels the county owes him for keeping the track in the area; there’s no love lost. But the reason these threats are coming, in my opinion, runs deeper. Las Vegas, with its wide swath of entertainment options can withstand a downturn in NASCAR interest more than Charlotte can. Tourists, with more limited money to spend these days, can kill two birds with one stone, taking a vacation and watching a race as the icing on the cake. The difference in attendance, between the Spring Las Vegas race and the Fall Charlotte event was some 50,000 during the 2012 season.

That adds up to money, a more precious commodity these days as profits fall on both the SMI and ISC sides. The competition, while much maligned at Vegas sadly isn’t that much better at Charlotte, either; a decade of “levigation,” repaving, and rock hard tire compounds make racing there a mangled mess. So, while history, tradition, and good ol’ common sense says keep two races in NASCAR’s homeland, Smith sees the forest through the trees… or is it the money?

In the past, NASCAR has been more than accommodating with Smith when he wants to move race dates. The man is too powerful; he owns tracks that occupy roughly a third of the schedule. So if he wants to move, he’ll move, and it’s as simple as that. The local government should pay attention here, because this time, I actually think he might mean business.

Did You Notice?… The way in which racing needs to band together to survive? IndyCar is having one of its most competitive seasons in recent history but is submarined by TV ratings better suited for ESPN8 – the Ocho. NASCAR, whose ratings have declined after a strong Daytona 500 start, has spent the last month of 2013 looking for a bit of a boost, with the Gen-6 chassis still a work in progress and a lack of fresh storylines to keep the public entertained. Both series could deal with a national injection of news that keeps them in the spotlight.

That’s where the Indy 500 – Coca-Cola 600 double comes in; at least, that’s where it used to. There was no better story that captivated the public during the month of May, in the mid-1990s through early 2000s then drivers trying to accomplish 1,100 miles of racing in one day. No man who attempted won either race, let alone both but the tries of Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and John Andretti were the type of edgy, next-level push that attracted attention to a sport at the right time.

Yet it’s now been nine years since anyone went “double duty,” the result of Indianapolis changing its start time to increase the level of difficulty of making both races. But during an era where ownership and finances are tough – just two drivers total will fail to qualify for these races in 2013 – you’d think parties from both sides would find a way to work together, to make this type of risk a reality again. Kurt Busch, who recently tested an Indy car and got up to speed quickly, could be a viable 2014 option. Tony Stewart, suffering through one of the worst years of his career, might finally be up for doing something different. You also have Robby Gordon still kicking around, AJ Allmendinger jumping back and forth plus Sam Hornish, Jr. with that same Penske connection.

The big names are there for the taking. What’s needed next is the desire to make it work. New leadership for INDYCAR, led by Derrick Walker, is on the way, and he’s well-liked and motivated to shake things up. Will NASCAR work with them and get some deals done next year so Busch, Allmendinger, and other drivers have an opportunity to bring back tradition? It only helps the publicity for both series, a win-win for all sides as drivers are motivated to go after it. Nine years of missed opportunities is nine years too long…

Did You Notice?… A topic our own Danny Peters spoke about yesterday I’d like to expand on – the lack of first-time winners in Sprint Cup. Yes, David Ragan had an upset special last month at Talladega, driving for underdog Front Row Motorsports but that was his second career victory in the sport; he captured Daytona, in July 2011 driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Ragan’s triumph then was part of a special season, where no less than five drivers broke their Victory Lane cherry: Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.

The problem? Cup hasn’t seen a new first-timer since. In the meantime, those five “breakthrough candidates” have combined for just two more victories in their own right (Ambrose took the checkered at Watkins Glen last August) and a grand total of zero Chase appearances. The evolution of talent, just like with NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year Award these last few seasons appears to have come to a grinding halt. Even now, with Stenica invading stock car Sundays – along with the National Enquirer there’s just one other driver, Aric Almirola, with the equipment to break through for a first career Cup victory outside of Daytona and Talladega. Everyone else, comfortable with their long-term contracts, are faces fans have seen week in, week out for years.

While there is some young talent in NASCAR, nobody has stepped up to dethrone the aging champions as has happened in the past.

That’s problematic when a sport is looking for new storylines to capture the next generation of fans. In the 1980s, we had the perfect transition, the careers of Petty, Pearson and Yarborough fading just as Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, and Dale Earnhardt hit their peak. In the ‘90s, Earnhardt gave way to Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, even Bobby Labonte while some others stuck around, providing the perfect blend of old and new. Even last decade, as NASCAR reached its peak Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards came of age in their 20s to battle with the establishment – then overtake them.

But now, as many drivers of that age are closer to 40 than 30, paired with men like Tony Stewart, Gordon, Greg Biffle, and Kenseth that already are, a big question begins to loom over NASCAR Nation. When will the next transition come? With so many of these superstars signed to long-term deals, and Stewart owning his own program when will evolution continue once again? Ownership has opted for stability, raising the price to play so no one else enters the game. Drivers don’t want to retire, men like Gordon saying they’ll be gone at 40 only to see the dollar signs paired with dreams that won’t die until age 50… or beyond. As long as they’re successful, backed by the men and boardrooms that brought them to the racetrack you can’t tell a veteran driver their career is over. But that also means no new faces can come in, a fence erected over Victory Lane preserved for a select few to enter through.

And, just like the circle of life, there will be fewer fans to follow them as we all age until the wheels of change start turning again.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

- With 15 races left until the Chase, check out the list of drivers 39 points or more outside the top 10, almost certainly in need of wins and the “wild card” to make the postseason. We’ve got Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, and Denny Hamlin. Oh, and did I mention Kevin Harvick is sitting outside the top 10 already with one win? If the Gen-6 chassis allows it, the strategy in July and August for these drivers to go no-holds-barred to grab these victories is going to make for exciting competition. Look for Busch and Ambrose, in particular to step up these next few weeks. Ambrose won the pole at Michigan last year and could be a surprise contender, then goes to Sonoma where he’ll be a heavy favorite as one of the sport’s top road course experts. As for Busch, he nearly won the All-Star Race Saturday night, could be a top contender in the 600 and also ran top 5 at Sonoma last June. The more those two compete, the more pressure gets put on Stewart and Hamlin to step up… and the better the racing will be.

- Looking for a darkhorse this weekend at Charlotte? Joey Logano has the best average finish for a driver with three or more starts (10.1). He ran a surprising second in the All-Star Race, has been a factor on other intermediates this season (see: Fontana) and knows a win – or more – is the only way to the Chase at this point. If the No. 22 can hold it together, a problem at Penske Racing as of late he’ll be a factor down the stretch of the 600.

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Carl D.
05/22/2013 07:29 AM
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I’ve always thought of Bruton Smith as a dog who barks a lot but will bite you in a minute. Anyone who doesn’t take him serious when it comes to business does so at their risk. I don’t always like the things he does, but at least he’ll look in you in the eye and tell you what’s coming before he does it.

I’m not as worried about the evolution of new talent as I am the resources to put them on the track. With TV ratings and race attendence falling, and team sponsors a dwindling commodity, will there be a any quality rides available? Only if your last name is Dillon, or maybe Pastrana.

There won’t be a dark horse winner at Charlotte this weekend. This week the race is Kasey Kahne’s to lose. You heard it here first.

Greg
05/22/2013 08:27 AM
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The economy? We haven’t seen anything yet..but we will soon.

Taxes ARE going to go up…FOR EVERYBODY. Jobs are almost non-existent and when the “Affordable Health Care” act kicks in next year….watch out.

Just don’t complain about it or the IRS might call you ok?

Nascar, with their gimmicks and bias, are in for a very rude awakening.

Tony
05/22/2013 12:16 PM
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The reason the same guys are around is because they got these rides when they were in their 20s. In the 70s and 80s that didn’t happen. Also, with how safe the cars are, there have not been many career ending injuries or the threat of to force drivers with families to retire.

Bill B
05/22/2013 12:31 PM
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Remember all the talk about “young guns” and the influx of new drivers in the mid-2000s? Well, those young guns are now middle-aged guns but they aren’t going anywhere. Most are now at the traditional peak of their careers. Things have a way of ebbing and flowing. Don’t worry, eventually there will be changes.

It sounds like a lot of fans aren’t being realistic. They want new faces but that’s not the way things work.

What do you want drivers to walk away from million dollar jobs so fans have new faces to talk about?

Steve K
05/22/2013 12:46 PM
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Here is a list of 25 prospects:

http://www.motorsportsanalytics.com/prospects.html

Add Kyle, Logano, Wallace Jr, Stenhouse, and Bayne. The future of NASCAR driver talent is just fine.

fuzzy
05/22/2013 01:18 PM
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Steve K ,you left out the princess , shame on you !

Moe Foe
05/22/2013 02:40 PM
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The ratings fiasco falls squarely on the broadcasters; Fox and ESPN. They are not showing the race that is enfolding in front of them.

I went to Las vegas in March of 2004 and sat in the bleachers between turns 3&4; not the best view in the house, you must admit, but from those seats, I thoroughly enjoyed a day of racing. I couldn’t even see the finish line (look, My dearest bought the tickets as a gift, so don’t nag me about poor choices, ya hear?), but the racing was interesting.

This is what’s missing from the shows presented as races on TV. That was what I saw when NASCAR finally started to get shown in the Pacific Northwest. The shots were all high up in the grandstands, where we could see the race (hint: a single car doing laps is NOT racing. Racing is between two, or more, cars), not in car, bumper cam, hood cam, wall cam, Gopher cam for crikey sake! They got too many toys, just show the race

When the broadcasters finally figger out how to show a race (there’s lotsa good examples on YouTube), the ratings will return, along with the fans, which will bring the sponsors, which will up the competition, which will improve our sport.

Ya see? It’s the fault of TV. We have good racing, we just ain’t seein’ it.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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