Sunday night marked just the second official weekend of the NASCAR season. In a perfect world, I would have spent it smiling in Ontario, Calif., celebrating the sport’s continued momentum off the heels of a Daytona 500 that exceeded expectations.
Instead, my night became so incredibly frustrating, so mentally frying I was virtually jumping through hoops in order to keep a redeye plane ride out of town.
As I stepped onto the flight that would take me away from the joke that was the attempt at a NASCAR race Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to leave an event I was supposed to cover before it actually finished up the next day. I’m never one to shy away from working overtime; you’re talking to a guy who started out his career working a game six hours after I’d been taken to the hospital for food poisoning. But after the ineptitude and poor decision-making skills of the NASCAR brass left me at the mercy of a track and a sport that was rudderless in direction; frankly, after being jerked around I didn’t have the stomach to stick around to see what happened. In one sense, no writer needed to; the real story had already been told, with the surprise ending that Cup teams, television crews, and millions of NASCAR fans were being played for fools. After nearly 15 hours at Auto Club Speedway, multiple stoppages in the action, two dangerous crashes and a track surface that looked like a creek was running through the middle of it, those clues still weren’t enough for the sanctioning body to give up and officially call the event until the following day.
Once I boarded the plane, I finally heard the unthinkable but inevitable news; the sport had finally postponed the race, angering everyone who had mistakenly hung around for hours thinking NASCAR would follow through and dry the track to go racing. But as I tried to grasp the sheer ineptitude of the rain delay from hell I just witnessed, an unintended but natural consequence began to occur – and suddenly, I was having difficulty coming to grips with emotions I’d never thought I’d achieve in this business. In two-plus years of being at the track full-time, I’d never wanted to leave a race early; after all, this job wasn’t an obligation but a fulfillment of a dream. I’ve always felt my strength in writing and covering this sport in all the various forms I do it comes from a longtime passion of being a fan first; there’s no better way to supplement your income by making money covering what you’ve always loved. And to me personally, looking back at NASCAR’s California debacle, that’s what disappoints me most of all; they did everything possible to burn the passion of one of its most hardcore fans into the ground, to the point where I was breathing a sigh of relief that I was about to be 3,000 miles away – not the weird feeling I’m missing something important I have whenever I’m not at the track most weekends.
Perhaps my biggest gripe over everything that just transpired is that there’s no reason for our sport to be west of the Mississippi five days after our Super Bowl. None. Nada. Zilch. I had mentioned in a Thursday Sports Illustrated column that a schedule change should be in the works for 2009 and beyond, because the sheer logistics of teams traveling to California the week after Daytona just didn’t make any sense. With virtually everyone – teams, the media, NASCAR themselves – based in the Charlotte area, the hardships involved in sending everyone back to home base, then 3,000 miles away within 96 hours of the year’s biggest race just didn’t make much sense. After all, would the Super Bowl-winning NFL team ever be asked to fly from the big event to say, London four days later to play a regular season game? Certainly not; and while I enjoy NASCAR’s differences, this is one area in which we should develop the same philosophy as our stick-and-ball counterparts – give teams time to breathe after our Super Bowl.
The consequences when we don’t do that can be devastating. In the end, there’s no doubt the California schedule – followed by another West Coast race at Las Vegas – is what forced NASCAR’s hand into a rain delay that would never end Sunday. A Monday race forced many of these organizations – many of whom have just one hauler – to not leave the track until Monday night, leaving a sleepless drive for days for truck drivers who would have to drive 3,000 miles back to Charlotte, then a second 3,000 miles to get to Las Vegas. All by Friday morning. It was a logistical nightmare, one the sport was intending to avoid in any way possible; I get that.
But it’s also a nightmare that was completely unnecessary. Not too long ago, it was the quaint countryside of Rockingham, N.C. that hosted the second race on the Sprint Cup schedule, providing an easy trip for the NASCAR faithful, who – weary from a two-week trek down to Daytona Beach – would need to only drive a handful of hours from Charlotte to set up shop for the second race of the season. It’s true the 1-mile track wasn’t always the warmest place to be; and with stands that could fill in the 60,000-range at best, it fell far short of the 100,000-plus open seats California attempts to sell every year.
But with empty seats the norm, not the exception out West, this comparison isn’t just about capacity; it’s about competition, and Rockingham had some of the best the Cup Series had to offer.
Just consider the final race that was held at the track; in a side-by-duel to the line, Matt Kenseth beat Kasey Kahne by a nose – literally – to secure one of the closest wins in the track’s history back in 2004. But even that wasn’t enough to save its final date; and in 2005, we began this current ridiculousness, a California February date that left us setup for a nightmare that we’re lucky hadn’t happened before now. At least for the first three years, there was an off-weekend for the Cup Series between California and Las Vegas, enough for everyone to catch their breath and move forward. But this offseason, that off-weekend was mysteriously eliminated, a “West Coast” swing even more tightly established.
What perfect timing.
With this scenario shooting NASCAR right in the foot, their panic led to the unfathomable no-no of the sport starting the race under green when the track was obviously wet after three straight days of rain – the last of which didn’t move out until two hours before the race was supposed to initially begin. As the cars hit the track another four hours later, even the most casual observer could see in camera shots that the “weeper” grooves located around the track were dripping out water like it was their job; but despite the protests of several drivers and the shock of many intimately involved in the sport, the green flag dropped anyways. What followed was like a poor man’s daredevil act; within 25 laps, five good cars were wiped out, the victim of hitting the wrong piece of racetrack at 200 mph while several others came perilously close to doing the same. Racing is dangerous, but never this inherently unsafe; can you imagine the backlash if Sam Hornish Jr.‘s car – which caught fire in a four-car wreck involving Casey Mears on lap 21 – had resulted in anyone getting significantly hurt? Judging by the damning liquid evidence that caused such a hard-knock wreck, the sport would be lucky to avoid a lawsuit.
But despite all this, the sport clung stubbornly to its false hopes that their logistical nightmares could be averted. Their unwillingness to face the facts of Mother Nature ended with a marathon, five-hour rain-drying process in which the race wasn’t officially called until 2:00 a.m. ET. That type of long-term waiting – resulting in a decision that effectively put that time to waste – does nothing but irritate all those who are supposed to be the sport’s biggest supporters. It sabotages the free time of the dedicated fans, who put their lives on hold all day Sunday for updates and delay coverage which would ultimately prove futile. It insults the teams, media members and TV crews who spend their hard-earned time and money revolving their lives around the sport only to not receive the dignity of a timely, proper decision. And that doesn’t even mention the unnecessary roughness it puts the drivers through… we won’t even go there.
Well, you’d like to think after all this madness that NASCAR will finally give up on two dates in California. But let’s not be fooled twice in 48 hours; with the rumors circulating about Atlanta’s possible reduction in dates, fans will be lucky if the Speedway isn’t a part of the Chase in 2009. However, maybe – just maybe – this unfathomable ending will be enough for NASCAR to put the pieces together and make the second race of the season at, say, Atlanta. Or perhaps move California and Las Vegas apart from each other.
And as for me? The Speedway was already my least favorite track on the circuit; now, it’s the sole track for which I have difficulty ever finding myself supporting. After 115-degree heat in September and 115 degrees of incompetence in the spring, I wound up more than comfortable watching Carl Edwards lead the Auto Club single-file parade from my couch; and when it comes to races at the track in Ontario, I hope the couch is where I stay each race weekend from now on.
For me, that’s the biggest shock. I never thought NASCAR would frustrate me to the point where my passion for it took a hit; but right now, I’m in need of some recovery time.
Let’s hope the healing comes quick and easy for all of us.