NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Summer Doldrums

…’Cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues…

This isn’t an easy time of the year to be a stock car racing fan. For one thing, it’s so danged nice out it seems a shame to spend an entire Sunday afternoon cooped up in your house. There are back roads to ride on your motorcycle, near constant car shows, crystal blue lakes full of fish, the Jersey shore, backyard barbecues, family gatherings, girls in their summer clothes and countless other pleasant diversions available to everyone during the summer.

Secondly, the lineup of races during June, July and August are less than scintillating. Chicago and Indy were both borefests that could only have appealed to masochists. Look at the rest of the lineup. It includes such tracks as Michigan, Loudon, Watkins Glen and Sonoma, all joints with a classics to clinkers race ratio bad enough to send a major leaguer to an AA franchise and some fans straight to AA. Sure, there’s the Bristol night race, the Redneck High Holy Days (calm down, I count myself among the congregants) next month – and that’s worth looking forward to even if some fans feel the new Bristol is “Bristol Lite” due to the reduced carnage. But overall, if NASCAR had designed the summer stretch of races to purposely turn off fans tempted to get outdoors, they could hardly have picked a sorrier slate of events.

A few years ago, I took the summer off this job… and it was one of the best summers of my life since my teens. This year, I’m already fed up. I’ve decided to take the back-to-back weekends of Watkins Glen and Michigan off so I can spend some time with my family and the Harley undistracted. And this year, it’s going to be different. I vow to genuinely skip those races entirely, not sneak off to some back bedroom to check them out. (Oh, I might watch the last half hour of the races in the background with the sound muted… old habits die hard.) You’re going to have to trust me. If there’s one thing harder than watching bad races, it’s finding something interesting to write about them on a deadline.

The Chase has also deadened interest in the upcoming summer stretch. By this point, we pretty much know who’s going to be in the playoffs and who’s not. (Two drivers in the latter category of note have their names rhyme with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick.) The last real item most fans are watching is whether mercurial Kyle Busch will make the Chase or not after a strong start to the season followed by a recent meltdown of Three Mile Island proportions.

My guess is that if Kyle misses the cut at Richmond this fall, the cheering will be louder than if Earnhardt Jr. passes Jeff Gordon on the last lap and crosses the start/finish line upside down and on fire while AMP Energy rains down sacks of fifties onto the crowd. But other than that, people just aren’t interested into anything the sport has to offer this summer.

So, what can NASCAR and the networks do to increase interest? Here’s one thought. During the summer, most network programming is either reruns or less than entertaining reality fare. Also during the summers, the most enjoyable alternatives to races occur on the weekend once you get past the 12th grade. So, let’s stage some of these races under the lights on Wednesday night. By the midpoint of the workweek most hard-working folks (folks who go to work, not the office) are getting bushed anyway. Schedule the races so a succinct 15-minute pre-race show comes on at 6:45 ET and the race itself starts at 7. Put together race distances along with that which have the events ending by 10 and the post-race wrapping up by 10:30, leaving fans the option of retiring early (by my standards, at least… I don’t have chickens to milk in the morning) or watch the local news to see who’s shooting who in the local metropolis. That frees up fans’ weekends during the busy summer social season.

What about ticket sales for a Wednesday night event? Truly devoted fans, the sort that actually still go to races, will schedule their vacations to encompass the date and still have a free weekend on either end to hang out. Besides, attendance at Saturday and Sunday races hasn’t been anything to write home about lately anyway. And running against reruns of Everyone Hates Seinfeld and His Friends sitcoms could only improve those struggling TV ratings.

While we’re at it, let’s make one of those Wednesday night “Hump Day” specials a dirt track. The Cup schedule needs at least one dirt track event more than it needs two road course races. These drivers are supposed to be the best in the world, right? Let’s see how they do when the track gets a little rutted or greasy. The greatest names in the sport – right up and including Dale Earnhardt Sr. – ran regularly on the dirt. These “Cars of Tomorrow” are supposed to be so tough, right? Let’s see how they fare when the bamming and framming reaches “Come to Jesus” levels. I’m sure Tony Stewart would welcome a Cup date at Eldora, with another option the dirt track outside of the big track at Charlotte. I don’t know if there’s enough left of the Hillsborough Speedway to salvage, but it was one great track… and let’s not forget, we could always dig up the deteriorated asphalt at North Wilkesboro and return it to a dirt track. Hell, why have one dirt track event? Let’s run all of July in the dust. I’d be watching.

Here’s another off the wall thought. Folks tend to complain the summer races at Pocono and Michigan seem to drag on forever. The middle stages of the races seem particularly mindless and devoid of any entertainment value. To fix that, we’ll make these two races “Two-fer Sundays.” We’ll stage two 200-mile events (or possibly even 100-mile events) on the same day. After the first event, full points will be awarded. The cars will be given 20 minutes to cool down, time where the crews can make protracted adjustments and the drivers can get a cool drink. Then, we’ll line them all up in the reverse order of how they finished (with anyone who DNFs the first race at the back of the pack in their backup cars) and do it all over again with another event that pays full points. That would shake up the standings. Hell, if I had a vote they’d do the two-fer at every track every weekend. If your favorite driver didn’t win the first race, you’d have a chance to see him try again in the second.

Finally, the issue of starting times should be addressed. Every race should have taken the green flag by one o’clock at the latest. Noon would be better. The way God and Benny Parsons intended this sport to run, by 4:00 ET at the latest the merriment should be over. That would give fans on the east coast a chance to attend Sunday Services, come home to a leisurely family breakfast with the kin, then tune into the race. If the race was over by four, there’d still be time for a barbecue, a nice ride or just sitting and relaxing on the porch with the usual suspects over a cold one. And as for fans on the left coast? I can’t tell you how many of them used to tell me they felt blessed to be able to watch the races and still have almost a full afternoon ahead of them to enjoy other pursuits.

Those are my ideas. I invite yours. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: stock car racing’s summer stretch has gotten to be more of a trial than a triumph. Something has to change if NASCAR expects anyone to still give a flying fig by the time the Chase rolls around.

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