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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Winning Back Longtime NASCAR Fans: Part II

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series by Matt McLaughlin on fixing NASCAR’s future. For part one, click here.

Speaking of TV – And who isn’t these days, usually noting that they find the current NASCAR broadcasts absolutely terrible to the point of being almost unwatchable. Of course, everyone needs to be appreciative to a point, because only a generation ago a damn few races were on TV at all – and those that were were shown in part often weeks after the fact. But like so many things, it’s not that much harder to do things well than it is to do them poorly.

A lot of folks, myself included, thought or just hoped that things would improve when ESPN got back into NASCAR broadcasting. That didn’t turn out to be the case. After a tough year, it would behoove ESPN management and “talent” to use the offseason to review tapes not of this year’s broadcasts but tapes from the glory days of the mid-to-late 1980s. Those broadcasts were free of gimmicks and talking heads with little to say, long on information and actual coverage of the racing itself. Today’s race broadcasts were exactly that, coming across too much like People magazine – a curse on this generation – and too little like ABC’s old Wide World of Sports.

Naturally, the primary bugaboo that drives fans nuts is “too many commercials.” You’ve got to pity the poor producers and directors of these race broadcasts, trying to cover about the only sport with no natural “timeouts” or scheduled breaks. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t with ads; while fans are screaming there are too many commercials, network execs are screaming they need to sell more at higher prices to make race coverage profitable. The number one improvement that could be made to current race broadcasts is to adopt the “side-by-side” type coverage ABC/ESPN uses during IRL races. That way at least fans can keep track of what’s going on on-track, while enduring the barrage of commercial messages.

Secondly, I know there are new fans to the sport who might not be the dyed-in-the-wool gearheads that most old-time fans were – and I appreciate they may not know a camshaft from a driveshaft. But if I have to endure one more animated explanation of valve train failure, I might launch a frosty through the HDTV. Networks can use their websites to provide technical data for the uninformed; it’s time to stop talking down to the audience.

Along those same lines, it’s well past time for some members of the broadcast teams to stop serving as NASCAR apologists and to realize that they’re there to report the “big show;” and contrary to what they think, they are not the big show. A lot more honesty and a bit more humility would improve race broadcasts overnight. Stop worrying about biting the hand that feeds; it’s the networks that are feeding NASCAR huge bushels of cash. Believe me, for all their occasional bluster, NASCAR officials aren’t going to upset that gravy train.

It’s the Racing, Stupid! – The core of what ails the last couple of years of stock car racing is what NASCAR officials like to call “the product” – the racing itself. The fact NASCAR officials call racing “the product” is a pretty clear indication of what’s wrong at the heart of the matter. Racing isn’t a “product” – it’s a “sport.” Equally clearly, my dear Mr. France, racing is again a “sport,” not “entertainment.” Most sports – with the obvious exception of baseball and golf – are entertaining by nature. But entertainment is not “sporting.”

If the current “product” is seen as entertainment, then it is acceptable to manipulate the rules to make the “product” more entertaining. By that analogy, I’m thinking of all those dubious debris caution flags that have peppered the endings of otherwise monotonous racing the last few years. I’m thinking about the absurdity that is the “Chase,” used to determine our champion and prolong crowning the victor. In my mind (what is left of it) Jimmie Johnson is the “Entertaining Product” champion of 2007, while Jeff Gordon – who amassed the most legitimate points of any driver this season – is the “Sport” champion.

But let’s leave aside the debate about the Chase for a moment and get back to the brass tacks. Over the last few years, “the Product” itself has sucked on the track. 2007 has entered the record books as one of the most tepid in series history; for every finish like the first Martinsville race or the second Texas race, there were too many quickly forgettable “Instant Debacles” waged in the name of stock car racing.

The problems leading to the current state of affairs are myriad. Some fault must be laid on the current mix of tracks on the schedule. The loss of two dates at Rockingham and one at Darlington removes three dates from a pair of highly competitive and unique tracks. The continued scheduling of two dates at places prone to put on snooze-fests like New Hampshire, Michigan, California, and the inclusion of Joliet now almost guarantees a high ratio of clinkers to classics when it comes to good racing. Let’s face it: when Michigan, California, Joliet and Kansas City were designed, they were planned as “dual use” facilities that would cater to both stock car and open wheel. Well, with open-wheel racing having become an asterisk on the sport’s scene – rivaling curling and fencing in the American conscience – it’s simply time to tear up those tracks and build a facility more suited to racing the “taxi cabs.” Yeah, it’s expensive and the shareholders will bitch, but it’s another case of the long-term good versus short-term profits.

California is a track that particularly galls me. Other than a few Truck Series events, I can not recall a single race worth watching at the joint. It’s time to dig it up and replace it with a 3/4-mile track patterned after Richmond – or better yet, replace it with a 3/4-mile dirt track patterned after Richmond. Now that would be something to see. As for Joliet, how about a 1-mile circular track with graduated banking reaching to 40 degrees at the top of the corners? Kansas City? A 1-mile track configured as a figure eight, with the frontstretch bridging over the backstretch. That ought to drive the chassis guys crazy; but it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Some blame must also go to the hideous new cars, which have not solved the problems they were designed to eliminate. Everyone says these new cars are tough; I don’t know about that, but I agree they are tough to look at. And drivers, by and large, are still afraid to beat and bang with the things, fearful of upsetting their aerodynamic perfection. I hate aerodynamics; frankly, I feel a rule forcing any crew member found within three miles of a wind tunnel to wear a pink party dress for the rest of the season would be good for the sport.

But wind tunnels should have been a thing of the past, as the CoT was supposed to eliminate the “aero loose” condition that is ruining racing. The problem is simple: when a faster car attempts to pass a car ahead of it, the loss of air off the nose makes the car “loose.” (Simple explanation; the car wants to go straight even as the driver turns the steering wheel). That makes the driver unable to pass, creating a disappointing single-file stalemate. It’s a problem that has been deviling stock car racing for a decade now – and it’s time to eliminate it.

Much of the problem is there isn’t enough “stock” left in stock cars. These are aerodynamically tweaked rockets, with suspension geometry unlike anything that has been run on the street since the days of the horseless carriage. With the exception of the necessary safety equipment, stock cars should be simply that – “stock,” complete with outside rearview mirrors, stock front valances, stock suspensions and production-based fuel injected engines. Ideally, they would be virtually indistinguishable sheetmetal-wise from the Mustang you can drive off a dealer’s lot, or the new Challenger and Camaro you’ll be able to purchase soon. In my opinion, a fender removed from a Mustang rental car in the track lot should bolt perfectly to a Cup car, and the windshield and side windows should drop in place as well. As for the engines, horsepower should be capped at whatever level the competition department can beg past the warranty department in mass produced cars sold by the thousands at prices under $35,000. That would get the old time Ford, Chevy and Mopar stalwarts back in the stands; strip off the exhaust systems, paint some numbers on the side and race those summabitches while Al Gore has a coronary over the carbon footprint of the sport.

One important deviation from “stock” would be the rubber bolted to these cars. Radial tires have been a decided detriment to stock car racing; Goodyear introduced radial tires to the sport not only because they were faster, but in an attempt to drive upstart tire company Hoosier from the sport. However, the bias-ply tires – last used in the late 1980s – were more predictable and forgiving. Drivers could race harder on bias-ply tires, and speeds were both reasonable and safer. Oh, Goodyear might get upset, but let’s look at things logically: how many of you go out and buy tires that need to be replaced every 50 miles and can’t be operated in the rain for your wife’s mini-van? The idea that racing improves the breed when it comes to street tires is as outdated as tailfins and whitewalls.

Finally, it’s time to revamp the points system and payout structure of our sport. Each race is currently not 1/36th of the season. Each race is a unique event in and of itself, and it should be viewed only as such. Every effort should be made to see that that week’s unique event is of the highest possible caliber, and there should be a massive points difference between the first and second-place finishers’ tally. But that’s not enough. Two cars racing for the lead is all well and good (and a bit of a rarity lately) but there needs to be good racing throughout the front half of the pack. Points payouts between each position should be made significant enough that we see the old-style dogfighting (not literally, Mr. Vick) over each spot we once enjoyed.

And we cannot stop there. The current payout structure rewards teams with the big checks at the end of the year. That system was designed back when NASCAR was struggling to find enough teams to run the full schedule after the car manufacturers withdrew from the sport in the early 1970s. Now, there’s too many teams that want to run the full schedule week in and week out. Make the purses to win races or finish in the top 10 much larger, while at the same time making the year end payout for the top teams much smaller. $100,000 and the pride involved ought to be plenty of incentive to win a title – and if a driver wants to fly in a private jet and keep an 80-foot motor yacht at the marina, he can damn well get out there and run for all he’s worth each and every week to earn the big check, to the considerable delight of the fans who bought tickets not for the season but for that one particular event. It’s those old-time fans who used to fill up the grandstands, remember? Crew chiefs often remind today’s drivers to keep the “Big Picture” in mind when trying to get them to give up positions or a chance at a win for a safe and sure points day. Well, the “Big Picture” here is that the sport is all the poorer for conservative racing, and it’s beginning to show up in NASCAR’s bottom line.

You want the old-time fans back? Limit the cost of the sport on both sides of the catchfence. Make a set of easily understandable rules and stick to them. Give the drivers and teams incentive to finish as best they can each week in cars similar to what fans might have parked out in the lot. Then clear out the bottom 10 rows of the grandstands, stand back, and let them summabitches race.

Want to join Matt M. on our Frontstretch staff? Now’s your chance to join one of the fastest-growing racing websites on the internet, matching wits with some of the most respected writers in the business today. Frontstretch is actively seeking 3-5 new staff members for the 2008 season, and you can audition now.

Editor’s Note: The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close – which means it’s time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from AJ Allmendinger to JJ Yeley. Be sure to keep coming in every weekday this offseason for even more original content on Frontstretch!