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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Previewing NASCAR’s 2008 Summer Stretch

As I noted last week in this space, the second third of the Cup season kicked off Sunday at Dover. And while officially, summer is still a few weeks off, the de facto summer is now officially in session. What do fans have to look forward to in this next string of 12 races? Sadly, not a whole lot. A combination of the new cars, the points system and tracks that usually offer less than scintillating action might just form the perfect storm to make this a tedious few months for even devoted fans to endure. And for the growing number of fans who are on the fence about sticking with the sport, these next 12 races might just be enough to make them decide their valuable spare time is better devoted to other activities – like watching the paint dry on the corner fire hydrant.

Looking at the next 12 races on the schedule while trying to muster some enthusiasm, one needs to look on the bright side. The Bristol night race is one of the most anticipated races of the season for most fans, but that event isn’t until August 23rd, which seems an eternity away right now. I might be in the minority, but I actually enjoy the racing at Dover and the two Pocono races on the schedule. Of course, in that respect, I can be accused of geographical bias, as those tracks are the two closest to my rural Chester County home. I won’t argue with those who accuse me of bias in that regard – I’ve had a lot of fun at both tracks and seen some great races, though truthfully, it’s been a while.

Some other “highlights” of the summer stretch include both of NASCAR’s Cup Series road races. I’ll have to admit, I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for Cup cars taking to the road courses. I have nothing against road-course racing per se, even in full-fendered cars; in fact, the Trans Am series of the late ’60s and early ’70s provided some of the most intense racing action I’ve ever witnessed. But those cars were specially designed for road-course racing (while keeping some semblance of their street counterparts) and the heroes who drove them like they hated them were accomplished road-course aces. There’s a few NASCAR drivers who are quite good on the road courses, but there’s also a great many who just go out there and make themselves look silly at the helm of cars that were, by and large, designed to go fast and turn left. Passing is at a premium and side-by-side action is rare. All too often these races are decided on fuel mileage, too; a pet peeve of mine. Yes, I am aware there are fans out there who really love the road-course races. I hear from them every time I call for the road-course races to be eliminated. Their opinion is no less valid than mine; but the fairest of those fans will admit they are in the minority. Traditionally, the road-course races draw some of the worst ratings of the season. In the good old days, NASCAR actually had to pair TV rights for the road-course races with more popular events just to get them televised.

There are also fans that seem to think that the Brickyard 400 is as big a deal as NASCAR officials try to pretend it is. To me, the Brickyard is all sizzle and no steak – a case of worshiping in somebody else’s church. I am well aware of the rich heritage and lofty position the Brickyard holds in the pantheon of auto-racing circuits, but Cup cars are too large and ill-handling to race very well around the relatively flat and sharp corners at Indy. Add in the new car factor, and my guess is this year’s Brickyard 400 will provide the SAFER barriers with their most severe test yet.

As for New Hampshire, the less said, the better. The track has provided some of the worst races in recent memory. Even the new owner, who shelled out a ton of change for the joint, is ready to level the place and start from scratch. Yes, I think fans in New England deserve a race; it’s just that they’ve been shelling out money for tickets to NHIS for over a decade, and they still haven’t gotten to see a good one. If I were Bruton Smith, I know where I’d get my new dates for Las Vegas and Kentucky.

It pains me to see the quality of racing at Michigan today because in the ’80s the track used to host some of the most exciting races on the schedule – thundering side-by-side packs of cars drafting and sling-shotting on the final lap looking for the checkers. But nowadays, Michigan is about mpg, not mph, and there’s something Shakespearian about the Midsummer’s Dream that fans in attendance catch during their naps. The fact this track will host two dates this summer makes me consider the second race, “This – Again?” Note to Brian France: One of these dates could be moved to Rockingham to general fanfare.

Some fans really seem to like the plate races, but there are others like me who considered them dangerously contrived excitement. I’ve never warmed to the idea of moving the race from an early Saturday start to beat the thunderstorms to a night race.

That leaves a place called Joliet, the insipid little asterisk on the schedule at a venue reputed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago. This joint was doomed from the start, designed as a dual use stock car/open wheel racetrack in an era where folks in the region felt open-wheel racing was great even while the rest of the country lost interest in the whole soap opera of CART and the IRL. I know of one lone false prophet who routinely writes Joliet deserves a second race, and he has to – he works for the owners. I know of many more fans from the area who used to attend the Joliet races, but tell me they wouldn’t go back even if track management agreed to have Heather Locklear chaperone them there in a limo and then sit in their laps in a luxury suite during the race.

Yes, this is stock car racing, and you just never know what’s next. Any one of the tracks not noted for great racing could serve up an instant classic this summer… and I truly hope they do. If writing something interesting about a good race is difficult, there’s nothing worse than trying to write something interesting about a really terrible race once you get beyond the purple-faced histrionics in the first sentence. Experience tells me that the ratio of classics to clinkers this summer will be such it will drive more fans from the sport rather than swell our ranks. I understand why some will find other pursuits to fill their Sunday afternoons this summer; I once took a summer off from writing about racing and I may do so again next year. There’s too many country roads to be ridden, old cars that need fixing and young ladies that need wooing to spend Labor Day weekend looking back at a summer spent dog-earing the Thesaurus on the pages that notes synonyms for “tedious” and “disappointing.” So, why don’t I take this summer off? Quite frankly, I need the coin. Willy G ain’t giving his scoots away, you know?

Adding to the malaise this summer is the Car of Horror, the Winged Blunder that nobody in NASCAR officialdom will admit yet is the biggest design blunder since the Pontiac Aztek. It’s turned even once competitive racetracks into no-passing zones, so one can only imagine how bad those cars will be at tracks where passing was already at a premium. Post-race quotes by drivers, public and private, after the recent Pocono test aren’t encouraging. Eventually, someone in Daytona Beach is going to have the gumption to admit this new dog won’t hunt, but I doubt it will be this summer.

Then, of course, there is the upcoming Chase. As the summer wears on, drivers who are already in the top 12 are going to adopt increasingly conservative strategies to maintain those positions. That keeps them from going all out to put on a show for the fans – and we’re discussing a group of drivers many fans consider their favorites. You can’t blame those drivers, though. Their sponsors want to see their boys in the Chase, and they aren’t going to be appeased if their driver led the most laps at Bristol, but wrecked out gunning for a win on the last lap. It’s a harsh truth… but it’s reality.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that come Labor Day weekend, I’m sitting here at this same keyboard banging out a column that compares this summer’s events favorably to racing in the good old days. I’ll gladly eat crow if that’s the case as, at heart, I remain an optimist. You have to be an optimist to ride a motorcycle here in Chester County with our booming populations of suicidal white tail deer and brain dead yuppies yapping on the cell phone at the wheel of their oversized leased luxury SUVs. (Truth be told, I’d prefer the deer drive the trucks and yuppies try to dash across the street in front of me).

So, let’s all hope together that this is finally the year the summer races shine and Santa finally brings up that pony – even if it does make us look a little foolish now that we’re wearing relaxed fit jeans rather than Dr. Denton’s. But meanwhile, if you see a guy who you think might be me aboard a black Harley stuck in pre-race traffic at Indy or Joliet… that’ll be somebody else.