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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Martinsville or Dover in Danger – More Potential Bullet Holes in NASCAR’s Feet

Picture yourself watching NASCAR in the 2011 season. In April, the first event at Kansas comes on television. Your first thought is how great the racing at Martinsville was before one of its races was moved to a new venue, a track where the most memorable event to date has been a race that ended under caution in darkness, with a questionable winner.

Then in October, the first Cup race at Kentucky appears on your television set. The announcers from ABC – sorry, ESPN – breathe fire about how great the track is and how exciting the racing is there and how great it is that NASCAR gave Kentucky Speedway a Cup date. Then the race starts and you wonder what’s different about Kentucky that distinguishes it from Las Vegas. And why the Chase now features six intermediate tracks, and whether the 2011 champion will even need to get near another car on the track to win the title.

I’m under the impression that Bruton Smith, who owns the speedway in Kentucky, would have to give up a date from one of his tracks on the schedule rather than receive a date taken from an independently owned track like Dover. In that case, Atlanta would be the most likely candidate to lose a race date. But I do know that Mr. Smith would happily buy out a track to move one or both of its dates, and I don’t think Dover Motorsports would be opposed to such a sale. And with Martinsville being owned by ISC and the France family, moving a date from the paperclip to Kansas is very possible.

Anyone who thinks we in the motorsports press are causing NASCAR to decline in popularity needs to ask himself how much influence we really have. After all, if the motorsports journalists were calling any of the shots, Labor Day would still be at Darlington. There wouldn’t likely be restrictor plates. The current car would be indefinitely sent back to the engineering room for more work. Auto Club Speedway would host, at most, one race a season. Were it up to me, the word “Chase” would be completely and unceremoniously removed from any document that resembled a NASCAR schedule.

For all of the power we in the press wield over you, the not gullible enough fans, one wonders if NASCAR is going to listen to folks who would strongly urge NASCAR not to move a date from Martinsville or Dover to yet another 1.5-mile speedway like Kansas or Kentucky, or if the powers that be will concern themselves with bottom line numbers only instead. If past schedule alterations are any indication, we can reliably count on the latter. When quality racing and storied history is up against more potential revenue, revenue wins every time.

Many fans are vocal that there are too many tracks like Kansas and Kentucky on the schedule as it is, and there aren’t enough like Dover and Martinsville. Replacing Martinsville Speedway with Kansas Speedway would be like replacing PNC Park in Pittsburgh with the old Three Rivers Stadium. There would still be events, and people would still go, but the sheer endearment of the venue itself would be utterly gone. You could be taken into Kansas Speedway and if there were no signs around you could easily convince yourself you were in Chicagoland – or Kentucky, for that matter. But there is no “sister” track of the paperclip.

At least Kentucky Speedway is in the south. But no one watching on TV is going to care about that. Fans of NASCAR are seeing races today at Texas and Fontana and still thinking about how we could be watching races at North Wilkesboro or Darlington. And in 2011, most likely we’ll be watching another leader pull away at Kansas and thinking, I’ll turn it back on when he comes up on lapped traffic… which would happen in about 15 laps at Dover.

McTrack after McTrack is added to the NASCAR schedule, and unique track after unique track gets kicked off of it. And more and more as a result, engineering, aero package and track position overtake driver skill in importance. It’s already to the point where the best drivers anywhere else cannot compete with Hendrick engineers, especially in a Chase with five intermediate-track events. Who wins the championships these days? Is it the driver who learns how to roll through the corners or gently nudge a competitor out of the way, or is it the driver with the engineer who knows how to squeak every aero millimeter out of the box given to them in the specs for the car? What team was it again that was sternly warned for being very close to spec rule violations last season? Ah yes… I remember now. It was the team that placed the top-three drivers in the standings.

Hey, great as those three drivers are, more power to Hendrick Motorsports for figuring that out. But Hendrick’s dominance might not be so prevalent if we had at least one event each year at North Wilkesboro, Nashville, Rockingham and Gateway replacing Fontana, Texas, Michigan and Charlotte. That might even help Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s cause a little bit. He’s a better driver than his recent results show. (At least NASCAR isn’t saturating the schedule with tracks where Junior is strong… but my guess is that it’s only because they haven’t thought of that.)

NASCAR continues to make decisions that kill the excitement of racing, and then scratch their heads at the frequent lament that the races are boring. From drivers to officials to commentators, insiders throughout the sport insist that the racing is really exciting after all and what the heck is wrong with you? Well, racing is always exciting at Dover and Martinsville. That sounds simple enough.

NASCAR even secretly agrees. Bet that if one or both of these tracks loses a Cup date, they will still be marketed by NASCAR as “close quarters, fender banging racing the way it was meant to be!” Has NASCAR stopped hyping the Lady in Black now that they’ve deemed Texas a better venue?

NASCAR’s ratings and attendance have been dropping for the past four years, and Darby and Co. keep asking what’s wrong. It is patently obvious to the commentators, those that some have taken to blaming lately, what is wrong. Look at any of the articles critical of NASCAR these days and see how many times you find comments like “When are they gonna lose a race at Dover already?” or “Why on earth are we still racing at Martinsville?” I can vouch for every NASCAR fan I know, and tell you that just about all of them would rather see the restrictor plate, the Chase or Digger gone permanently before races at Martinsville or Dover.

It’s the other elephant in the room, next to the one that says “a playoff doesn’t work in racing” in huge letters on its rear end. You’d think they’d have learned from all of those columnists griping about Labor Day being in California and chasing away fans with their negativity. But I guess it gives old cranks like me something to write about.

Very often, once a two-date track loses a date, it isn’t long before they lose the other one. Witness Rockingham. I don’t see Darlington sticking around for ten more years. And if Bruton and Brian will delete Martinsville and Dover, who’s to say it won’t happen to Bristol down the road? Bristol had a lot more trouble selling out its events in 2009 than it had in years past. Thunder Valley used to be the Lambeau Field of NASCAR, but no longer… and will it continue to fill up if the economy remains stagnant and more and more short-track fans look for another series to get their beatin’ and bangin’ fix? We know no track is sacred, with great racing rarely, if ever, a factor.

Bruton Smith already owns Bristol Motor Speedway and can move its dates if he so desires. If it sounds inconceivable that Bristol could lose its night race to Las Vegas less than 10 years from now, imagine what fans’ reaction in 1994 would have been to the idea of the Labor Day race being moved from South Carolina to southern California. Even since, I think some fans still can’t believe that actually happened.

The worst part is that neither Dover nor Martinsville has attendance problems that overshadow those at Fontana or Atlanta, even with NASCAR propping up Atlanta and Fontana as much as possible with prime race dates. Yes, they have been drawing fewer fans, just like every track has been drawing fewer fans. But these venues aren’t designed to maximize revenue. They were designed to offer great racing for people who don’t demand creature comforts instead. I’m not saying it’s wrong to add casinos or malls, but none of that matters on television, the biggest revenue stream.

And if the racing on TV becomes an occasional short track or road course sprinkled in with 25 intermediate-track races that offer nothing in the way of distinction in the racing, NASCAR had better hope that Earnhardt Jr.’s engineers get the aero package figured out. And that he never retires.