Last week, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. commented that the length of the season is too great, the first thought that entered my mind, was “Shut up and drive.” But then, I really thought about it.
The more I thought, the more I realized… maybe Junior was right.
The argument you usually hear about the 38-week season (including two exhibition races) is that it’s hard on race teams, keeping drivers and crew members away from their families for too much of the year. There is really no time off at all for most teams, as the month and a half after the season ends is spent getting ready for Daytona testing in mid-January, and after that, Speedweeks is just around the corner, and it’s crunch time.
I never bought that one. I do understand the long, long hours involved for the crew members, and I am all for an extra off-week or two in the season to give them a break. But, to be blunt, if someone doesn’t want to do it anymore because it’s too demanding-well, there are 50 people who would love that job.
But what about the fans?
Expanding the schedule from 29 races in 1990 to the 36-race schedule of today didn’t happen all at once, just a race or two a year, as NASCAR grew and fans clamored for more races in more markets. NASCAR responded, adding several new tracks in the 1990s and 2000s to bloat the schedule to what it is today. Maybe it is too much.
Earnhardt Jr. comments thus on the matter: “We have saturated the market with race after race after race. The NFL, they do such a great job. I hate to keep comparing to them and using them as examples, but they do the best job. They give you just enough to keep you wanting more. The season ends before you want it to. You get just enough to get excited and then it’s all over and there’s such a long wait. The model works.”
Junior is completely correct. Sometimes less really is more, and that is becoming more and more evident as television ratings plummet. Between a contrived, shallow, too-long “playoff” system and a regular season that has become 26 weeks of hype over the endless, needless Chase, NASCAR has reached the zenith-and started rolling down the other side. Perhaps leaving fans wanting more – not wondering if it’s ever going to end – would bring back some of the excitement and passion that used to buzz through the season like so much raw electricity.
But, sadly, Earnhardt Jr. also recognizes the driving force behind the changes, which, more than the fans, boils down to avarice. “We’re driven by the ability to go make another dollar and make more money and there’s no way we would ever trim it down.” While he’s probably right on that count, I do wonder if eventually the slowing attendance at some tracks will turn on NASCAR and the track owners who jockeyed for more dates, more races. Consider this: at some point, it is going to become more costly than profitable for a track owner to host two races a year which attract half to two-thirds of the facility’s capacity. The cost of electricity and water and personnel for a race weekend is astronomical. Why not cut back to one race at some tracks, fill all the seats (and this would be likely given the human tendency to suddenly want something they can no longer easily have) and only pay the overhead once? At some point, the scenario of profit no longer justifying expense is bound to happen.
Junior hits the nail on the head when he says, “When we were a 28-race schedule, the sport was giving you just enough to get really get excited about the next season. When we were racing at 12 o’clock, people were racing home from church to get to see the start of the race. We’ve just made it too easy and too much. We sort of lost a lot of the substance that we really had before and the character of the sport I think has waned a little bit, but its part of the times, too.”
Part of the times, maybe. But Earnhardt Jr. is very, very perceptive. It’s kind of like being cut loose in a candy store on an all-you-can-eat spree. At first, it’s pretty darn cool, but after a while, you feel sort of sick and wish you hadn’t scarfed the 14th Squirrel Nut Zipper. Your eyes are glazed and your teeth are stuck together, and frankly, it’s not as much fun as you thought an hour ago. Even the Atomic Fireballs lose their zip after you’ve eaten enough to numb your tongue.
NASCAR has lost substance and excitement. It started out innocently enough – a second race here, a new track there; start at 1 in the afternoon and then 2 or later. Suddenly, it’s all just so much. And being given too much of anything eventually makes you appreciate having it less and less.
I’m not suggesting cutting back to 29 races – that’s too many to cut out and still touch the number of markets that NASCAR does. But even a cut to about 33, and dropping the now-obsolete Bud Shootout would serve a purpose. Cut races from tracks that aren’t filling the stands – California, Atlanta, and either Texas or Michigan. That might be tough on those with season tickets, but the fans who are split between two races during the year would now flock to one. The stands would be fuller, and that’s a good thing all around. Cut the Chase to eight races instead of 10, giving those drivers less time to close a huge points deficit and thereby forcing them to stop playing it safe.
Eventually, even the most passionate fans are going to get a little sick on all the candy, and NASCAR would be wise to address the situation before dwindling interest and attendance force them to. It should be about making them leave wanting more, building excitement, not tedium, and making it all count. Less is more, and there’s just too much candy right now.