Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 12, 2011
As much as I hate tired, trite clichés, one that I do believe in happens to be the simple phrase, “Less is More.”
It is an axiom that has proven to be correct in the automotive industry time and time again. The 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner – a stripped out Satellite with a 383 engine and some non-color cartoon stickers — was expected to sell a little over 2,000 units its first year and sold over 45,000. The Toyota Prius is essentially a battery in a box with little in the way of creature comforts, style, or power – but it has developed a rabid following, establishing itself as the poster child for the cause du jour of guilt-ridden/eco-conscious drivers everywhere.
One other place in the realm of autodom where this mindset makes sense is in NASCAR, where there have been rumors circulating that the Nationwide and Truck Series may see their schedules whittled down by a few races. But while toning down the numbers might fly in the face of convention and popular thinking, since it would be limiting the exposure of those divisions, I think it may actually work to the advantage of the Nationwide Series as a whole.
First of all, let’s remember what the whole point of the sport’s second-tier division was to begin with: to serve as a stepping stone and driver development path to Sprint Cup. Before it was called even the Busch Grand National Series, Nationwide was known simply as the Sportsman Division, running that way from 1950-83 and serving as a competitive minor league arena for all despite a limited schedule. During its heyday, from 1994-96, the series ran as little as 25-28 races a year, yet there wasn’t much in the way of weeping, wailing, or gnashing of teeth that there weren’t enough events to go around. On-track, through the years full-time series regulars like Johnny Benson, Jr., David Green, and Randy LaJoie won championships while countless others cultivated Cup careers that would last for decades. Sure, there was Cup driver participation and competition: Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Harry Gant, and Dale Earnhardt were all fixtures and won many races during this time after ascending to the sport’s top tier – but that’s also not a bad group to be learning the ins and outs of how to race at this particular level, either, and they weren’t competing for entire seasons. That shorter version of the schedule played out in standalone races at short tracks across the Eastern United States, naturally limiting the Cup driver entries whenever weekend conflicts would arise.
Of course, the face of the Nationwide Series has changed markedly since those days. Since about the middle of the 2000s, those standalones all but becoming extinct the racing became little more than an extended Saturday practice session for the Cup stars. Martin Truex, Jr., driving for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the last full-time series regular to win the season championship in 2005. And you have to go all the way back to 2000, with Jeff Green to find the last driver capturing the title for a standalone Nationwide team – Greg Pollex’s No. 10 Chevrolets rattled off 25 Top 5’s in 32 races. Since then, it has been a festival of Cup competition with Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and now Brad Keselowski winning the majority of the races… and all the championships.
That latest example of that ugly transformation is, of course, schedule-related. Lucas Oil Raceway Park (i.e. IRP) has lost its date next year to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 2012, creating the “less is more” opportunity to begin with. Yes, The Brickyard carries a bit more prestige and panache about it, but the race across town was always one of the best of the year – and one where the Nationwide teams are actually on a level playing field. Considering the large gaps in the stands that exist now at the big track in Indy for the Brickyard 400, how many are going to show up to bake their brains out in the sun, watching a 15 second per car gap between those who are Cup Series program offshoots and those who are little more than field fillers?
And then there’s the matter of who’s actually winning these events. Last year, Kyle Busch won 13 of 36 races, with series champion Keselowski taking five wins and Carl Edwards four to lead a long list of Sprint Cup regulars. To make it simple, by comparison two Nationwide Series drivers won a race. Justin Allgaier took the checkers at Bristol, fighting through the field in March while road course ringer Boris Said won in a one-time Montreal appearance, respectively later that summer. With the new eligibility requirements of declaring a series affiliation in place for this year, we can rest assured that a Nationwide Series regular will be crowned champion this season… but at what cost? Driver development is still playing second fiddle to a handful of Cup guys who may not be scoring the points, yet remain capable of taking all the other trophies with ease.
And by capturing all those events, taking the top prize money, and commanding the scarce sponsorship dollars that exist in an economy perpetually teetering on the brink of disaster it leaves others with dimming prospects to keep their rides. Even Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne still starts most races with no sponsor on the side of his car, save for a really generic website address that probably isn’t generating enough dollars to buy more than a set of tires a weekend. Remember, we’re talking Trevor Bayne, the winner of the biggest race in the United States this year – as well as one of the top three events held worldwide each season.
That knock is not meant to be a derogatory one towards those who form the basis of the series – after all, it’s simply the state of the sport and the level of competition today. So how do you fix all this mess, and why does a shorter schedule help? If there were fewer races on the docket, these smaller teams could consolidate funds, effort, and focus, picking their spots to run where they stand a chance to finish the entire distance. Bringing better-prepared equipment to the track, they could also place somewhere in the running order to make it worth their while financially to get there.
We’ve already seen that attempting to limit Cup drivers from running wild with Hulkamania-like domination has had some limited effect with the new points rule exclusions; dialing down the commitment needed from Nationwide regular teams by reducing the number of races would also accelerate that process. As it stands, the schedule is filled with “companion events” on cookie-cutter tracks that are neither compelling nor memorable… plus, they don’t even draw a major at-track audience to watch them.
That means the 2012 Nationwide schedule should actually become a two-part project: less races, in more different places to see these drivers then at your local Cup track. It’s time to shy, shy away from ovals where aerodynamics don’t mean as much as, say, the one where drivers find themselves entering a flat corner at speed with a groove and a quarter with which to work through. There are plenty of shorter tracks that could replace what have become companion races to Cup events for much of the schedule; and more localized races, close to Charlotte would reduce the expenditure for teams considerably. There’s a certain one-mile track in the sand hills of North Carolina, in particular that is going to receive a Truck Series race next September which would be an easy example. Rockingham would help to provide identity as well as differentiation for a series that badly needs it.
Because let’s face it – does it really do the sport a whole lot of good to see Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, or Carl Edwards setting sail on the 1.5-miler of the week 35 times a year? There really is no redeeming value to it either competition-wise or to the health of the series itself. If NASCAR knocked off a Kansas here or a Chicago there, would it really have any more of a negative effect than those races filled with Cup stars?
It’s safe to say that more is not the answer. It’s simple supply and demand: NASCAR saw its largest growth, rabid popularity and minting of the die-hard “core fan” during a time when the Nationwide Series ran right around 30-31 races. They also did it when contracts didn’t dictate 43-car fields or a half-hour of hype for a race with an outcome that isn’t exactly in question. So trim some fat, tighten the game up by moving back to unique venues, and a series that once celebrated doing more with less will return a tangible dividend of better racing, more qualified competitors, and reduce the strain among the smaller teams that were once the backbone of the second most celebrated racing series in American motorsports.
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