The winds of change have blown strong in NASCAR lately, and, judging by the uneasy grumblings, race fans don’t take kindly to change. The character of the sport has changed dramatically over the last decade, and many people are unhappy with the speed or the degree of the alterations. And, in some areas, NASCAR went too far.
But some change is necessary for the health of the sport.
Changes like the now-current racecar were needed. While the car doesn’t go as far as perhaps it could have, it does make the drivers, well, drive. It’s harder to pass with, which many people seem to think is boring, but, well, have you seen races from the early days? The cars were so strung out, it was not unheard of to have a lone car on the lead lap. The racing is closer now, with the margins of victory with the current car so far much smaller than it’s predecessor. It’s a good car. It’s safer. It’s not perfect, but it was a change that was coming. The naysayers will say there is little brand identity, but in reality, the cars look more like a street car than the distorted, off-center cars that were retired after the 2007 season. Times change, cars change, and NASCAR had to keep up with that, as well as do what they could to emphasize the drivers instead of the setups in their cars. It was time.
Although it was a small change, perhaps the most welcome change that came over the offseason was a no-brainer, really. NASCAR was long overdue in making the move to donate money generated from infraction-related fines to charity. Previously, fine money went into the points fund, and indirectly back to the teams that got fined in the first place. Call me crazy, but what incentive was THAT to follow the rules? Now, the money goes to charity. While that probably won’t deter much “creative engineering,” it will make a difference to children, families and animals through the NASCAR Foundation and their affiliated charities. I applaud NASCAR for taking this step.
Certainly not all of NASCAR’s recent changes were so positive. The Top-35 rule, meant to prevent short fields and overused provisional starting spots, has backfired. Now, instead of the same half-dozen guys taking a provisional every week, you have the same 35 guys taking a provisional every week. It has made qualifying, if it can even still be called qualifying with all but a handful of cars already in the field, a grotesquely distorted sham of what it is supposed to be. The best system? That was two changes ago. The old two-round system, with a handful of provisionals for those that truly needed them, was by far the best way to determine the starting grid.
While markets and demographics do change, the schedule “tweaks” over the years have been more negative than positive. While southern California is a market that should have live racing, that population has done nothing to show that they deserve two races a season. If you put all the people at both races together, they might fill the track for one race. Provided that it’s not all the same people at both races. If that’s the case, it’s even worse. California deserves one race; two is questionable. The accompanying move of the Labor Day weekend race from the home it occupied for five decades to the apathetic California masses was possibly the worst decision NASCAR has made in 60 years of competition. And it would be so easy to fix, if only someone would man up and admit it was a colossal mistake.
Change is inevitable in any sport, and NASCAR has been right to move ahead with the times. This isn’t 1982 anymore. But this isn’t the NFL either, and no matter how much NASCAR would love to cash in on that comparison and attract the fanbase the NFL has managed over the last 30 years, the way to do that is to choose changes carefully: keep up with the Joneses, but don’t try to fix what was never broken. Balancing real tradition, not some contrived notion that advertisers try to sell, with progress was what made NASCAR grow and flourish for its first 50 years. Best not to change that formula.