Quick, name the track that hosts the IRL’s season opening race.
Did it take a second? Still don’t know? Heck… I had to look it up myself, as I’m not a die-hard IndyCar enthusiast.
The answer to this question is not as important on a factual level so much as it is on a subconscious one. In NASCAR, where the Daytona 500 has served as the starting block to a new season for 25 years, everyone, even my mother who only catches a glimpse of races on random trips through the living room, knows that Daytona kicks off the traveling road show known as the NASCAR season. In an otherwise barren gap on the sports landscape (the Super Bowl has just concluded and March Madness is still a few weeks away), Daytona has carved its own neat little niche in February where the sport of auto racing can take center stage on a national level.
So where am I going with this, you ask? (What’s the point here, Matt, land the plane). Well, a nasty little rumor has surfaced this week that NASCAR has had discussions to move the date of the sport’s most significant, prestigious, and hyped event, the Daytona 500, to November, where it can close the season and square off with the NFL.
Just a rumor, you’re thinking; no need to cry wolf. Oh, how you are mistaken.
Reminisce with me to a period, not long ago, in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was an exceptional time to be a NASCAR fan. Bill France Jr. had led the sport out of the tribulations of the mid ’70s, grown it through the ’80s and had finally hit paydirt. A sleek, black No. 3 Chevrolet menacingly stalked racetracks across the country. Not to be undone, a couple of cocky kids named Davey Allison and Rusty Wallace rose on the scene to challenge Dale Earnhardt‘s supremacy. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro were alive and well, celebrated as racetracks that offered unmatched entertainment. The Cars of Yesterday were unique, not generic; Chevys were Chevys and Fords were Fords. On-track altercations spilled over into the garage without fear of suspensions and points-dockings; the racing was wild, the characters unruly, and the venues were stages taken from some old movie that captured the not-yet-tame world of the Winston Cup Series.
Bring it back to now. Here we sit in 2007, wondering just how we got so far away from those magical days. Ironhead is gone, as is Davey; Rusty wears a suit and tie while attempting to speak the King’s English; Rockingham, Wilkesboro and the Southern 500, the freakin’ Southern 500, are no more; a Chevy is a Ford is a Dodge is a, Toyota? Identity is now in the decal alone, and personalities have been neutered to project the clean-cut, wholesome image the sanctioning body craves. Just as disappointing, new racetracks have no discernable features, only grandstands built to the heavens to accommodate a generation of fans who only know of parade-style aero racing.
I could go on and on, waxing poetic about the good ol’ days and how they are now but a speck in the rearview mirror. But I won’t, because the point has already been made: If you think NASCAR wouldn’t dare move its signature event because, “Ya just don’t mess with a race, an event, a spectacle, a tradition like the Daytona 500!” think again, as there is no tradition sacred at this point in the sport’s evolution.
Being a unique entity is taboo in the eyes of NASCAR CEO Brian France. To find (financial) success, NASCAR must align its practices with those of other sports; the characteristics that set stock car racing apart and mesmerized a legion of followers in the first place have long been thrown aside. If five extra dollars can be squeezed out of the Daytona 500 by staging it at season’s end, the idea will be given serious consideration.
Unfortunately, what will not be considered is the legitimacy of the newly crowned champion or the actual legacy of the event. Do we truly want the points battle decided by the Big One? Is pack racing with horsepower-sapping restrictor plates the bar that tests a driver and team’s mettle? Luck in avoiding a big wreck will never trump a driver and team’s skill, moxy and savvy in my book, yet that’s exactly where we might be headed.
There are larger questions that should be addressed if, in fact, the sanctioning body is seriously considering moving the Daytona 500. But in examining the changes already implemented since Brian France’s ascension to the NASCAR throne, my fear is that when the decision is made, it will be with dollar signs in mind – not the integrity of a sport losing its soul.
By the way, the IRL opens their season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the very track that would most likely take Daytona’s spot on point. Wonder if anyone besides the diehard NASCAR fans will be able to remember that?