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Voice of Vito: The NASCAR Stimulus Package – What Can Be Done to Jump Start Racing in America?

The economic downturn in America is affecting every sector of the country. You can’t turn on the television, pick up a newspaper, or log on the Internet without being constantly reminded that we’re all doomed as doomed can be. I mean, granted, there aren’t dustbowls in the Great Plains and a small European country isn’t engaged in a war bent on world domination – but things are pretty depressing, to say the least. Naturally, these grave conditions have also negatively impacted our favorite sport – one that thrives on the application of other people’s money.

There are a myriad of changes on the horizon for NASCAR as the 2009 season kicks off in grand fashion this week. All (or most) of them are aimed at cutting spiraling costs of competing at any of the three levels of America’s premier racing series. Considering this, I got to thinking… what would I put forth if I were president (or owner) of NASCAR for a day? What would be my racing stimulus package? Below are a list of my demands, decrees and edicts, all aimed at injecting a little bit more life into a sport that once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as “America’s Hottest Sport.”

Schedule Revision – Why does it seem NASCAR has put together its season schedule the same way that Archie and Jughead used to plan vacations? While they sure don’t act like it, somebody there has to have access to an atlas… I’m sure of it. What needs to be done here is two-fold: Get some variety built into the schedule, then arrange races that don’t require repeated trips around the country that would have frustrated even Moses.

Currently, the season starts off in Daytona – as it should – and then immediately travels across the country to California. After that, virtually every team drives back across North America while a separate team is en route to Las Vegas. Doesn’t this all seem a bit silly?

Note that there is no off week after Daytona as there once was. Why not start in Daytona, then head to Homestead the following week? Most everybody is in Daytona as it is. Or give the teams a week off after Daytona and then go to California — but hit another track in the Southeast the following week. I know NASCAR is hell bent on achieving success in a Los Angeles market that doesn’t even want an NFL team; but barring an earthquake, California isn’t going anywhere, and unless God unleashes his wrath upon Sin City, those dates can be adjusted accordingly.

Track Attack – Having said that, are there some tracks that need to be visited more than once a year? I know we get into this constantly, but there are three tracks that come to mind as not needing second dates: California, Loudon and Pocono. Some complain that the road courses are a waste, because they only race on them a total of two times a year. Well, why not run on them some more? If NASCAR wants to be the international success it can be, it needs a couple of more road courses mixed in among the other tracks that all look alike.

As for the ones we already have, something should be done for them as well. The Watkins Glen Grand Prix course would add a new twist to it, as would a return to the traditional carousel configuration at Infineon Raceway – you know, the one that had three passing zones within a half-mile?

Right about now, I know someone is going to bring up North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. North Wilkesboro is a weed farm (but can be fixed), while Rockingham has already been freshened up a bit – though that is one race that desperately needs to be staged in April or May. And while we’re at it, let’s give the Southern 500 back its right place on Labor Day Weekend. Darlington never disappoints.

Qualifying – This needs to change in a bad way. If there is any evidence that this is a procedure that has long outlived its usefulness, this year’s Daytona 500 is a prime example. On Thursday, there are essentially two transfer positions that teams will be fighting for. If that’s how it’s going to be, why bother even having the race? Blame this goofy Top-35 rule – a rule that guarantees points finishers from the previous season are automatically guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races.

Considering this is “The Great American Race,” there is nothing capitalistic or free market about it. It is protectionism at its core, and does nothing to inspire competition or new teams to attempt to make the race. There should be no less than 60 cars coming down to Daytona qualifying every year, and there should be some notable team sent packing – just like it used to be. I understand rewarding teams that run a full season, but why not reward those who actually run well and don’t just show up each week to pull a check just because they happen to have a sponsor?

A much more equitable arrangement would be slotting the top 25 with guaranteed starting spots and having a provisional for the most recent champion. No offense to Terry Labonte, but it isn’t saying much about the legitimacy of the past champion’s provisional when the past champion’s car lapped the track slower than a Z06 Corvette pace car last Saturday. Let’s be honest, the PCP was only instituted to help Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip make the field in their closing years – nothing more. So, the front row should be decided on qualifying day as it always has, Thursday should determine positions 3-30, while 31-42 are determined by speed, and if need be, the 43rd position for the most recent champion.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: SHOULD THE PAST CHAMP’S PROVISIONAL BE ABOLISHED?

Hey, you should get something besides a big trophy for being the best of the best, right?

For the other tracks, why not have two rounds of qualifying like we used to see? The networks are already on hand to jam each and every lap down our throats all weekend long, so they might as well make it meaningful. Friday qualifying should determine positions 1-32, while 10 spots will be up for grabs for the fastest second day qualifier on Saturday (with a provisional allotted for the most recent past champion not otherwise qualified). The up-for-grabs cars will get to run in the relatively same conditions as one another, meaning everybody has a fair shot at making the race – allowing speed to be rewarded with a starting spot, as opposed to a pat on the back and the opportunity to beat traffic out on a Friday night. And if it rains on Friday, you have ample time to qualify on Saturday morning.

Format Facelift – The buzzword in the auto industry as of late is hybrid. Well, why not arrange a hybrid weekend of sorts? Instead of running Trucks, Nationwide and Cup on a Friday/Saturday/Sunday format, why not run, say, the IndyCar Series on Saturday and the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday? Seems to me that it would work well, as they race – or have raced – at a few of the same tracks.

The Camping World Truck Series seriously needs some exposure, and Friday nights on a small cable outlet is not getting it done for what is far and away the best show on four wheels for your racing dollar. I always thought that since the Cup races didn’t start until 3:00 p.m. half of the time anyway (and the first hour on the air are those insipid pre-race shows that nobody really seems to want anything to do with) why not run the Truck races on Sunday morning as a true preliminary event? Most of them are short enough, and it would keep the Cup guys from stepping on the toes of the Truck Series competitors who are trying to make a name and a living for themselves.

The Nationwide Series, which has developed a bit of an identity crisis, will be switching to pony cars and their own version of the CoT next year – running the Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. This will give it a look all its own, and could help set the stage for a realignment of sorts as to just how much of a “junior” series it is to Sprint Cup. The new Nationwide formula may prove so popular that it won’t need the infiltration of Cup regulars to sustain its popularity that it has seen in recent years. It worked in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, when the SCCA Trans Am Series was every bit as popular as NASCAR because the cars were the stars. There wasn’t even a true driver’s championship – only a manufacturer’s crown.

I’m sure many of you have your own ideas as to how to fix the economy, and more still have an idea of what NASCAR needs to do to right the ship. Baseball and football continue to produce players who admit to steroid use or shooting up strip clubs, while NASCAR always succeeded on access to the drivers and the strength of the character (or characters) that make up the sport. The basic ingredients have always been there, and the recipe for success was down to a science up until a couple of years ago – before the advent of the ugliest car in racing (next the AMC Matador).

What changes would you make in order to help revive the sport to the rabid level of interest it generated just a decade ago? I’d like to hear them.

You never know who may be listening.

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