With the Sprint Cup Series off and the Nationwide Series at Gateway for a late Saturday Night Special, a trip to the local track was in order. Now my local short track is one of the most famous in the land, Hickory Motor Speedway in Hickory, N.C., a track where the winners’ list reads like a who’s who of NASCAR’s best and brightest. But these days, Hickory is all short track, and it’s a great place to spend a sultry Southern Saturday night. So I grabbed the cooler, a lawn chair and a few friends, and off we went.
We were not disappointed. Hickory never disappoints. Which made me wonder why racing on the bigger tracks so often does these days. Watching five divisions race, including one race where it took six tries to complete a single lap (caution laps don’t count) and another where on-track battles spilled over into the infield after one car got wrecked and another got parked, and a lot of great racing in between, I realized that we all have something to learn from short track racing- – and by we, I mean everyone – NASCAR, sponsors, drivers and race fans. There is so much we could take from Hickory and the other tracks like it, where racing is built on dreams instead of ivory towers, to make racing at the upper levels better for everyone. There are many lessons to be learned from Hickory.
Where to start? There is so much that NASCAR as a whole could take from looking at its lowest series, the Whelen All-American Series. The first is that the racing is the attraction. There are no souvenir haulers, no pre-race concerts or other fluff-just racing. It’s a one-day show, so it has to be a good one. And on the short tracks, it nearly always is. NASCAR should take this to heart and look at the schedule for the top-three series, adding more tracks that provide good racing, and not just location, market or anything else. That is particularly true of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, which used to run at places like South Boston, Va. and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Not only did the young drivers in those series learn from running those races, but the tracks provided some excitement in their tight turns and cramped garages. Those series, which badly need to redefine their own identity, should go back to better tracks and more stand-alone events. Even Cup races could stand more variety in the racetracks – there are far too many 1.5-2-mile tracks on the schedule these days, and I think that’s a big reason fans are losing interest. Adding tracks like Rockingham to the schedule would go a long way in reviving fan interest – we want great racing, not gimmicks to distract us from the lack of great racing.
Second, one reason that the short tracks thrive is that fans are actively involved in race day. Hickory boasts an on-track autograph session for one division each week, where all drivers are available for the fans to walk on track to meet and get autographs. Obviously, this would be nearly impossible at the upper levels with tens of thousands of fans, but NASCAR could do more to get the fans involved. Some tracks offer VIP packages where fans can ride a bus or trolley around the track for a lap or two. Why not make that available to any ticket holder? Sure, it would cost NASCAR to hire more busses and to run them nonstop on race morning, but to the average fan, it would be a really great experience. Also, at the local tracks I have attended, the track announcer walks among the fans before races, talking to them, inviting them to answer trivia questions or to tell where they have traveled from. With fans needing to arrive so early, why not do this with the fans in the stands for a few hours before the race. NASCAR should make fans feel like a part of the show, not just spectators separated by the catchfence and the class system. Race fans should be the reason for every move the sanctioning body makes, period.
At short tracks, sponsors are few and far between in many divisions, and most of them are local business. Many are in it to help an employee, a friend, a family member, and most won’t see a huge return on their investment. But those sponsors are loyal. Nothing irks me than seeing yet another sponsor in the Nationwide Series or CWTS bail on a series regular to put their logos on a Sprint Cup owner or driver’s car instead. Sponsors would do well to remember that loyalty is often repaid in unexpected ways. Personally, I try to avoid these sponsors’ products. If they’re too good for the driver or team that got them exposure in the first place, then they don’t need my business anyway. Sometimes, putting a name on a driver they believe in could help put that driver in the spotlight, and the loyalty they show as he comes up the ranks could make a lot of fans take notice. And sponsors who have been priced out of the Cup market in recent years should look at the lower series, right down to those local guys – in a few years, that kid might be the next Cup big shot and that gets previous sponsors noticed, even if they can’t afford to take the driver all the way to the top.
Short-track drivers are a couple of things. Polished is not usually one of them, but accessible and genuine are. They might forget to thank a sponsor in their post-race interview if they grabbed a top three, but their joy is so genuine that you look at the car again anyway, and there is that sponsor’s name. They don’t sound like they have rehearsed each possible question they might be asked, they might stumble on their words or let their overjoyed young children interrupt the interview. And that’s why they are likeable. They come out for autograph sessions and are still happy and grateful to be in a position where fans look up to them. Some seem slightly taken aback that fans would want their signature – they aren’t household names, after all. They are grateful to the fans, and don’t act like it should be the other way around, that the fans should be grateful to meet them. There are some drivers out there today that could stand to take that to heart – you get to drive a car fast for a very good living, and you owe that, in part, to the fans who watch you do it. Be grateful to them for their support – there are so many young drivers where being asked for an autograph is still a big deal. Getting back in touch with the fans should be a priority for today’s drivers, too many of whom do a short Q&A or very occasionally a signing for the corporate bigwigs in hospitality and feel that their obligation is over because that appearance was all they were paid for. It would be nice to see them interact with the average fan, and have fun doing it. No matter what level a driver is at, he must earn every fan he has – the big names in the big series often forget that on the way to the top, and it’s a real shame.
Every fan should go to the short track nearest them long before they go to a Sprint Cup race. This, race fans, is what it’s all about. Nobody’s going to make millions racing here – they do it because they love to race, plain and simple. It’s about passion, not the money and the sponsors and the fame. It’s about being grateful for being there, whether you’re a veteran who has made a racing career here or a young hotshoe going all the way to the top of the sport, it’s all the same. It’s kids playing with matchbox cars as the cars rumble on the track below, imagining that they are that driver there, or that one over there. And on a sultry summer night, it’s perfect; the song of the motors, the eager, earnest young drivers, the kids playing with Matchbox cars and eating cotton candy. It’s a return to racing’s roots, and it’s more than that because it’s so relatively unchanged that it’s a return to your own roots, too, to that first muggy night in those stands, to a simpler time. The engines sing, and it’s real racing, for the love of the race and nothing more. It’s easy to get caught up in the politics and posturing that is NASCAR’s upper levels, to sour on the quality of racing and the revenue first, fans second attitude. So, if you want to remember why you came, why you ever cared in the first place, go back to that little track in a small town, where everyone just wants to race and enjoy the night as it roars around them. It’s an experience built on rough concrete or rickety wooden grandstands, on barbeque and bologna burgers and popcorn, on cracked pavement. And on dreams.
If that doesn’t remind you why you watch in the first place, perhaps nothing will.