The first night race of the 2009 Cup season offered fans a rare Sunday off. I hope most of you were able to enjoy the same beautiful weather that we had here in the Northeast, as Spring finally made its long overdue arrival. My plans for Sunday were pretty simple; I slept in a bit. I rode the Harley. I did a little (very little, I assure you) yardwork, then cracked a beer and sat down to enjoy the ARCA race from Rockingham.
Because I can’t always follow the ARCA series the way I’d like, I’d circled Sunday’s date on the calendar in red. Yeah, before anyone else points it out, I am a huge fan of Rockingham and still mourn the loss of the two Cup dates at one of NASCAR’s most historic and competitive tracks. Next to Darlington, the Rock was always my favorite racetrack. You can call Rockingham many things, (and many drivers have called it some pretty awful things as they slid around on badly worn tires trying to stay out of the wall) but nobody has ever called it a “cookie cutter” track. When they built Rockingham… they threw away the mold.
Saturday night’s Cup race at Phoenix didn’t earn a red circle on the calendar, but the Rockingham race was must-see TV. Phoenix was just another “must do” event, because that’s my job. Truth be told, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the eagerness and anticipation that used to begin five minutes after one Cup race ended while waiting for the next to begin.
For fans newer to the sport that may never have even seen a Cup race at Rockingham, what made the track unique was its surface. Nestled in the Sand Hills of North Carolina, that track surface was notoriously abrasive. Even after as little as five green-flag laps at Rockingham, drivers would be hollering they wanted to pit for four fresh tires. Based on the drop-off in lap times as those tires wore, rarely did a team make two-tire stops during the race.
With that said, I’m not going to try to convince you that Sunday’s ARCA event from the Rock was perfect. The crowd was notably sparse. Old-school fans, myself included, had better start voting with our wallets and attending races at Rockingham if we don’t want to lose her all over again. There was a troubling amount of cars at Rockingham that lacked sponsorship decals – that’s always been a problem in the ARCA Series, but in these gloomy economic times the problem seems to have mushroomed. There were a lot of drivers and teams I remember from ARCA races last year who weren’t on hand, as well as a whole lot of drivers I’d never even heard of before. And yes, Ken Schrader pretty much dominated the show. Over the course of his career, Schrader has probably turned more laps at Rockingham than some of his competitors have logged in any sort of racecar at any racetrack anywhere.
Yeah, Schrader was putting on a clinic for some fast young drivers in the ways of the Rock. Anyone can look like a hero for five laps on fresh tires at Rockingham; but after they abuse and use up their Hoosiers, they’ll drop through the pack like they’re dragging a parachute behind them. ARCA teams were limited to four sets of tires at the speedway, including the set they started the race on. Tire management was going to be crucial to a good result, and Schrader ran just hard enough during the race to maintain the lead, while seeing to it he had good rubber underneath him for the later part of each stint.
More than once younger, bolder drivers lacking in experience made a run at Schrader; and that’s when something amazing happened. Schrader didn’t just roll over and play dead; he actually ran those drivers who challenged him hard, even in the earlier stages of the race. He’d run with them side-by-side, lap after lap, taking the preferred upper groove that is less abusive on tires and forcing them to use their stuff up grinding away in the low lane. And after a few laps, each challenger would fade. I have no doubt Mr. Schrader was grinning inside his helmet watching the young pups run themselves ragged into the prickle-berry bushes, but I am equally sure that he too was counting the laps until he could get fresh rubber as well.
The early stages of the race featured some added intensity because there was rain in the area and, a few times, sprinkles did visit the track. Based on weather forecasts, some drivers and teams were running as if the race would end shortly beyond the halfway point. That’s gambling against the odds, as no race at Rockingham has been shortened due to rain. Indeed, using up an extra set of tires early came back to haunt some teams – because something extraordinary did happen. Rain didn’t shorten the race, but the race went almost 85 laps at the end without a caution period, forcing teams to stay out even on badly worn tires with some question as to whether they had enough fuel in the tank to go the distance.
At least one of them did not. Schrader ran out of gas with three laps left, handing the lead and the win to a startled Sean Caisse. Patrick Sheltra, who’d given a good accounting of himself most of the afternoon, finished second. Watching the most experienced driver with one of the better teams in the series run themselves out of gas was an “out of left field” surprising moment that used to be a highlight of stock car racing.
Meanwhile, the SPEED TV coverage of the race couldn’t have been much different than FOX’s infuriating attempts at cramming as many commercials and sponsor mentions into a short span of time. Yes, SPEED’s coverage was notably more amateurish. There were no cartoon rodents. There were no trick camera angles. There weren’t carefully choreographed, pre-taped segments of drivers making jackasses out of themselves that the producer felt obliged to insert somehow even during green-flag racing. Hell, there wasn’t even a pre-race show. That’s right. When SPEED came on the air Sunday, the cars were already rolling and, in fact, heading towards the green flag. Having endured way too many seemingly endless Hollywood Hotel Comedy-Less Hours posing as a pre-race show… I was delighted. Yes, SPEED probably did plan some sort of pre-race opening, no matter how bland, but with threatening weather in the area they skipped it and moved up the start of the race. There’s a lesson that FOX, ESPN and TNT should take to heart here. Fans tune in to see a race… not a jabbering bunch of jackasses spout off their highly prejudiced opinions. And yes, somehow a race can be held without the aid of an animated rodent.
The fact race fans want to see racing wasn’t lost on the SPEED crew. The boys in the booth talked about the race the fans were seeing… not the Cup show from the day before. And when the action was tepid at the front of the pack, the cameras focused further back where better, hardcore racing was going on. Knowing a lot of the drivers would be unfamiliar to viewers, there were occasional mentions of who those drivers were, what the season ahead held for them, and what they had accomplished in other racing series to date. No, we didn’t learn what their favorite pizza toppings were, how they felt about Phil Parsons’s hair or what they drove to the prom. (To be fair, some of those drivers looked like they weren’t old enough to have gone to the prom yet.)
We certainly never “got to know” some of those drivers in pre-recorded clips that were aired instead of green flag racing. For race fans, it was a treat to finally have some race broadcaster and a producer focus on the race itself – the race we had, in fact, tuned in to see. It’s a respect issue that had been sorely lacking in the fan-broadcaster relationship for too long. Don’t try to sell us on auto racing like it was some new brand of laundry detergent. If we weren’t race fans, we’d be watching something else or be out in the driveway waxing the Trans Am. And the odd thing is an actual race, albeit not a classic one, was entertaining once again. Somehow, entertainment programming with a race as the backdrop, as pioneered by FOX, has never been much fun to watch. In fact, lately it’s been like getting a root canal from a sadistic dentist with no Novocain.
The two-hour length of the race seemed about perfect, too. It was enough time for an educated fan to watch the race develop and play out, without the usual hourlong segment where it seemed the drivers had set their cars on cruise control just waiting for the final 20 laps. Now, don’t get me wrong here; I’ve always liked 500-mile races. If they were to hold a 24 Hours of Darlington Cup race, I’d be hanging onto the catchfence screaming the whole time as long as the drivers actually raced for the entire 24 hours. Maybe it’s a lack of patience, or maybe I’ve got too much more to do with less years left to do it… but I’m beginning to think that three hours is the upper limit of length I can entirely devote my attention to anything that doesn’t have breasts or an engine.
To risk straying off the trail (and I’ve never done that before, have I friends and neighbors?) after my second trip out on the scoot, I caught the end of the IRL race as well. They may have a new name for it, but they still show the race itself in a split box during commercial breaks so fans can actually watch what’s going on. And, no, oddly enough, they don’t lock the camera on the car of the sponsor presenting the current ads. Carl Edwards and Subway would have been enraged – but I really wish somehow, some way Cup telecasts could pick up this feature.
In the end, after Sunday’s ARCA race I actually felt better about the sport of auto racing. If, as I’ve been predicting for several years now, NASCAR eventually implodes under its own weight and ceases to be… that’s OK. Maybe it’s even preferable. The sport of stock car racing is so inherently fascinating to people like me and so ingrained in our American culture, stock car racing will survive without being run under the NASCAR banner. If the crowds are smaller again, that means it will be easier and cheaper to get a ticket, and the post-race traffic won’t be so bad. I’ve never felt the need to be one of those mindless sheep relentlessly searching out what’s new and hip as part of the herd. I was a stock car racing fan back when it wasn’t cool to be a racing fan. If a lot of the big-dollar sponsors pack up their bags and go home, well… they have too much influence over the sport as it is. There will be still be drivers and team owners who will race on more limited budgets for less money. If it takes a while to learn all those driver’s names – that’s OK, too. Eventually, the remaining fans will latch on to their favorites as they always have. If the big networks decide they want out and stock car racing goes back to a cable TV sport, well, hell… I get over 500 channels of programming, and I live out here in the sticks about a quarter-mile from the end of the Earth. And if some of the new cookie-cutter tracks get shuttered and turned into shopping malls while races are held at places like Rockingham, Darlington and North Wilkesboro again… I’m down with that. If the cars look more like actual production cars, cost a lot less money and feature a lot less flash-paint, I can’t see that as a bad thing. The series currently known as the Cup Series originally competed as the “Strictly Stock” division, after all.
So stock car racing will survive, even in this economy, just the same way Christmas came and went. It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! It came without DW, it came without Hammond, it came without the Toyota Top Performers or a cartoon rodent running amuck in Alabama.
Yes, there will always be Christmas, and there will always be stock car racing. Sunday’s ARCA race might just have given stock car racing fans a glimpse of their future. If it wasn’t your cup of tea… the exit doors are now unlocked. But if you dug it like I did, I’ll see you there.