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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: As The Cookie Cutter Crumbles – NASCAR’s Intermediate Track Boom Turned Bust

So many are disgusted with the racing that went on Saturday night at Chicagoland. But to understand the present, we need to take a look at the past, reminding ourselves of the story how tracks like the much-maligned 1.5-mile oval ever came to be in the first place.

It was the mid-1990s, and NASCAR couldn’t be healthier. With then-Wonder Boy Jeff Gordon winning his first championship at age 24, the sport was enjoying his budding rivalry with seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. Other veterans like Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd were still in the prime of their careers, doing battle with up and comers like the Burton Brothers, Bobby Labonte and a suddenly successful Dale Jarrett.

But the drivers weren’t the only backbone of this rapidly blossoming sport. A healthy mix of short-track racing left fans asking for more without getting too much, guaranteeing some beating and banging in between places like Darlington, Daytona and the newly-minted Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis that offered fans a plethora of different styles. In particular, an Autumn swing through two of the circuit’s smallest tracks – North Wilkesboro and Martinsville – was crucial in setting the stage for the sport’s championship battle. It was at Wilkesboro in ’89 where Rudd and Earnhardt made contact on the final lap, spinning out for the lead while Wallace sped by with the points he’d need to win the title. Seven years later, Gordon swept through the short-track duet as part of a late-season charge that left him within a whisker of capturing Terry Labonte for the Cup.

But as you might expect, just as the sport was enjoying top-level competition the big brass down in Daytona saw a nice little side effect to the Cup racing’s growth: money in the pocketbook. And as fans filled the seats, NASCAR-controlled ISC, Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc., and even Roger Penske (California’s first track owner) began to see the issues with these half-mile ovals: their profit margin. You see, short tracks could only fit so many fans in the stands, a far cry from the nearly 300,000 that packed Indianapolis’s 2.5-mile oval during the Indy 500. And tracks less than half a mile in length couldn’t balance stock car racing with the number one form of motorsports at the time: IndyCar. Even in the first year of the CART/IRL split, the open-wheel drivers still were the bigger draw, and tracks like North Wilkesboro were too small to stage a race for cars that drove faster and needed more room to battle on the racetrack.

With those thoughts in mind, suddenly everyone in a corporate suit had the perfect answer to capitalize on racing’s growing fan base: the “Cookie Cutter.” Beginning with the introduction of Texas’ 1.5-mile oval in 1997, new “intermediate tracks” began to sprout up all across the country. California, Chicago, Homestead, Kansas City, Las Vegas: they were all part of a five-year national expansion plan that brought NASCAR’s schedule to 36 events by the end of 2001. Promoting “bigger and better” racing, these tracks were “all-in-one” gold mines where track promoters could eventually sell upwards of 100,000 seats for multiple races per year – while getting some open-wheel money on the side. The building blocks to a brighter future had been built.

Or so they thought.

Nine years into the sport’s grand plan, the intermediate track “boom” has busted rather quickly. NASCAR’s race at Chicagoland failed to sell out on Saturday night, with an announced attendance of 70,000 leaving them at least 5,000 short of capacity (depending on whether you believe that figure – or your eyesight). The racing itself had just 10 lead changes, tied for the fewest this season of any track that’s gone the full distance (Daytona’s rain-shortened 500 has just nine).

Yet for a track jointly owned by both the ISC and IndyCar’s IMS group, believe it or not stock car fans weren’t supposed to be their primary concern. There’s still an IndyCar race to be run in September, a race that had double the lead changes and far more side-by-side racing on a track that’s tailor-made for their success. In fact, of the expansion tracks listed above only California and Las Vegas are currently without major open-wheel events, although all have been able to host either the former Champ Car series or IndyCar at some point. However, their ugly split has left these series mere remnants of their former selves, with a fan base so small and the fields so weak their influence pales in comparison to the only game left in town.

That leaves these promoters stuck with tracks struggling with stock cars, leaving small consolation to a rapidly failing experiment of whether both series can co-exist in the same place. And just like IndyCar struggles to get around NASCAR’s best tracks – the ¾-mile at Richmond caused drivers to issue public apologies last month – places where the IRL succeeds mean nothing to NASCAR fans. As a result, they’ve seen their favorite drivers as part of a 43-car single-file parade at these 1.5-mile ovals, with the promise that “wear and tear” on the surface will eventually lead to multiple grooves and better racing. Yet even with greater parity and a higher level of overall competition, that’s never happened. Old car, new car, red car, blue car, the fields at these speedways spread out so quickly it makes it impossible for drivers to race side-by-side for long. Instead, a dreaded aero push leads to a push to stay single-file sooner rather than later, high speeds leaving drivers too close to a handling nightmare to worry about mixing it up for the fans up front.

And while these tracks have never been suited for your fancy, their presence has slowly eliminated traditional venues where fabulous finishes were the norm, not the exception. North Wilkesboro was the first to go, the .625-mile oval hosting its last race at the end of that 1996 season. Rockingham was next on the list, its last race producing a finish closer than any of its replacements has ever provided: an .010 second victory for Matt Kenseth in a thrilling battle to the finish line over Kasey Kahne. It’s amazing some fans never got a chance to see races here, the hotbed of where white-knuckle racing was born.

But what’s sadder is they’ll never get a chance to see them again.

Now, it’d be one thing if these speedways that replaced them were few and far between; but instead, the glutton of overexpansion has left these tracks the meat and potatoes of the current Sprint Cup schedule. The number of intermediate tracks has more than doubled, now totaling 14 events while making up five of the 10 venues deciding NASCAR’s champion. It’s like adding the generic brands at the cost of tossing the most popular ones right out of the store: it may save you money, but in the end, you’re probably going to want the brand you like the most at some point.

And that’s where the sport is seeing its fan rebellion now. People are tired of wading through too many of these snoozefests every year, excuses in the form of petty debris cautions to bunch up the field no longer able to hold their attention. Even in the rare case of a photo finish, like Kyle Busch’s win over Jimmie Johnson at Chicagoland in 2008, it’s merely two laps and five minutes of racing excitement as opposed to three hours. Fans have woken up to that reality – and the TV ratings back up their intelligence.

Of course, the old short tracks still remain, empty and crumbling at their lack of use. In a perfect world, it would take just a few million in investments and the right owners to build them up for the Big Boys again. It’s just the corporate suits are too proud to admit their mistake, while deep down desperately searching for the money to build new one to replace them. It’s just that it’s far too late; the investment money is gone, the economy has tanked, and ISC and SMI’s reserves are depleted on tracks that never delivered to fans’ expectations. Considering those who run our sport are people with business degrees and entrepreneurial spirit, they should have known better to hedge their bets on a multi-purpose race track instead of ones keeping their own foundation strong. And now, just like the housing bubble, their cookie-cutter ideas have come to leave the sport’s landscape losing value by the second.

NASCAR Schedule Breakdown: 1996
Short-Track Races (1 mile ovals or less): 14
Road-Course Races: 2
Restrictor-Plate Races: 4
Intermediate Races (1.5-2 mile ovals): 6
Other Configurations: 5
Total Races: 31
NASCAR Schedule Breakdown: 2009
Short-Track Races (1 mile ovals or less): 12
Road-Course Races: 2
Restrictor-Plate Races: 4
Intermediate Races (1.5-2 mile ovals): 14
Other Configurations: 4
Total Races: 36

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