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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: It’s About Time – NASCAR Reverting Back to Sane Start Times for 2010

After much speculation, an announcement was made Wednesday confirming that in 2010, NASCAR would enforce uniform starting times for Sprint Cup Series races throughout the 36-race schedule. Following years of carping, the voices of many NASCAR fans have finally been heard and their wishes heeded, with race start times achieving some form of consistency and starting at a more sane hour.

The race start times for NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2010 in the Eastern and Central time zones will begin at 1 p.m. ET, while west coast events will begin at 3 p.m. ET, and night races will begin at 7:30 p.m. ET. There will be one exception, the Coca-Cola 600, which will have the same 5:45 p.m. ET, so as not to interfere with the same-day running of the Indianapolis 500 – which looks to move their start time back an hour for 2010, to allow some of the bigger name drivers to “do the double,” racing both of these marquee events on the same day.

Following the invocation (how long until the ACLU gets a hold of this one…) and national anthem, the green flag will drop at approximately 15-20 minutes past the hour after each listed race start time. A total of 28 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2010 will be held at an earlier time compared to 2009, with 20 races moved to 1:00 p.m. ET, including the Daytona 500. Moving up the start of “The Great American Race” two-and-a-half hours will produce the earliest start time for the Daytona 500 since 2003, when the race started at 1:00 p.m. – and was called just past halfway due to a rainstorm, (and you thought they pulled the plug on it prematurely this year?) which cleared the way for Michael Waltrip to collect his second Daytona 500 win in three years.

My feelings on all of this? At the risk of sounding redundant and stating the obvious, it’s about damn time.

For a sport that has always prided and marketed itself as a fast-paced, no-time outs, go-for-broke, adrenaline-fueled, go-for-broke mass of barely controlled chaos, is there anything more agonizing than waiting through four or five hours of pre-race hype for an event that lasts a bit over three hours? Sure the idea behind the 3:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m. start times was a coordinated effort to help serve fans in the Pacific time zone, attract more viewers and help capture the pre-prime time audience who may be preparing to tune into their local or national news. But did it really ever accomplish that? One look at California Speedways attendance records – or the swaths of empty grandstands – will confirm that this has not been the case.

In the end, all that really succeeded was a jumbled mass of race times, interrupted family dinners and neglected lawns. The sight of me hurtling through my neighborhood on a truncated time table pizza procurement operation, upon discovering the start time was sooner than anticipated, will be a thing of the past, as now the same start times can be counted on week to week.

There is a side benefit to this as well, one that does not impair the safety of my neighbors walking down our street. How many times has a race been called or delayed by rain, that likely would have been completed had it started at an earlier hour? The 2009 Daytona 500 anyone? Not to sound crass either, but seeing as I live in Michigan, I have plenty to gripe about. Our weather sucks, the economy is sunk and the infrastructure resembles the bombed-out town where Owen Wilson was tip-toeing through that minefield in Behind Enemy Lines.

And don’t even get me started on the Detroit Tigers.

For those of us that do not live in a paradise where winter means coping with highs in the mid-70s or some of the most beautiful scenery that gave Ansel Adams something to take pictures of, there is a simple adjustment that would need to be made to catch NASCAR races that begin at 1:00 p.m.; get up at a decent hour. I am one of the degenerate few who look forward to waking up 6:00 a.m. to watch live Formula 1 races from far-flung locales that are nearly half a day in front of us. It helps me get my day started at an optimistic hour, and I feel like the beef and milk farmers that my family once were. Did I mention my uncle just sold his Harley to buy a bunch of cows? Seriously.

What is probably most refreshing, will be the Daytona 500 going off at the hour in which it was intended, the 1:00 p.m. start. I never really warmed up to the finishing the 500 at night under giant lamps, and this year’s race being called in the middle of the action due to a rain shower was all the more frustrating and anti-climatic. The lights should be used as a last resort to get the full distance in, as well as be the highlight of the July event or exhibition races like the Bud Shootout.

I still have the ticket stub from my first trip to Daytona, when I went there with my dad back in 1992. It clearly states, “12:15 p.m. Start – On CBS.” For the past few years, the only thing going on at 12:15 p.m. has been the erecting of a gigantic stage on the infield grass for an impromptu pre-race concert, that along with appearing ridiculous and contrived, was supposed to mimic the Super Bowl Half-Time show; after all, this is the Super Bowl of stock car racing. Aside from setting the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the most people rolling their eyes in unison, it made NASCAR for the first time appear as a copycat. It had lost it’s uniqueness in favor of appealing to the masses – a sure fire recipe for failure is trying to be something that you are not.

By fostering pre-race shows that serve as little more to allow for more sponsorship plugs in lieu of insightful post-race interviews, it has in part removed a big part of what made NASCAR so compelling. The ability to capture the emotion and reaction from the drivers after they climbed from their cars following 500 miles of competition, during the live broadcast was always the hallmark of old-school NASCAR telecasts. With this announcement of earlier start times, it would seem that NASCAR has finally given up on the notion that it is not in fact the NFL, and that trying to mimic stick-and-ball sports has done little more than cheapen the brand, alienating the core fan in the process.

Or have they?

By starting again at 1:00 p.m., NASCAR will be going head to head with the NFL, as The Chase races coincide with the start of the NFL season, with Eastern and Central time zone games starting at the same time the races being. By going back to the way things used to be, the green flag falling and kickoffs will be happenings simultaneously across the country next September.

Fantasy League dorks rejoice!

Now there will be even more programming on at the same time, with DVRs across the country operating at full capacity. All kidding aside (since I am one), it is encouraging to see NASCAR get back to its roots in some respect, reverting back to the time-tested and proven ways that allowed it to reach the level of popularity it did back in the mid-to-late 1990s. For a sport that has struggled so mightily in recent years, this could be the first step of a journey that will help get our sport back on the right track – and at a decent hour as well.

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