These days in NASCAR, attendance is down, television ratings are hurting and fans often complain the racing is “boring.” Many point to the dominance of Jimmie Johnson as a reason for this current lack of interest. Others argue it is the new car that has put fans off. Still for others, the perception of “bad” racing has driven fans away.
Despite this decline in interest, one thing that continues to draw fans in is short-track racing. The hard-nosed beating and banging that goes on during these events strikes a chord with both long-time fans and newcomers alike. The close competition breeds frustration and tempers on the part of the drivers and the crews, just what most fans are looking for.
With NASCAR searching as to how to rekindle fan interest, is the answer building more short tracks? As of now, there are only three short tracks on the Sprint Cup Series schedule – Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Martinsville Speedway.
In years past, short tracks made up a large part of the NASCAR schedule. Drivers came through the ranks running on their local short tracks. This carried over into the Cup Series as stops were made at tracks such as North Wilkesboro, a 0.635-mile speedway. When NASCAR decided the sport needed to grow out of its southern roots, the schedule was realigned and North Wilkesboro – along with Rockingham Speedway (a 1-mile track also in North Carolina) – was left out.
Out were the long-time short tracks and in were the new cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half tracks. Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, even Atlanta Motor Speedway was redesigned with a dogleg to make it look similar to the others.
This expansion of the schedule and the move to mile-and-a-half tracks also saw an increase in seating capacity and a promotion of the sport. The sport boomed, fans filled the stands more than ever and NASCAR became a household name.
The boom has busted and now NASCAR is searching for answers. Perhaps what their looking for can be found in the sport’s oldest track – Martinsville.
“Certainly, I think short track racing has its place in the sport and I think when they’re considering building new racetracks that yes, they should build something other than a mile-and-a-half,” said Ned Jarrett. “Martinsville has been here forever. Bristol has been there for a long, long time. When they redid Richmond, I thought they did the right thing. It is amazing to me that more track operators and owners, when they build new tracks, don’t look at the success these three tracks have had and the interest shown by the fans.”
Addressing the media in Martinsville on Sunday, Jarrett said neither North Wilkesboro nor Rockingham need to be back on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Arguing his point, Jarrett explained at the time the schedule was realigned and those facilities lost their dates, 20% of the races in a season were held in North Carolina. He went on to say in order for the sport to grow, that had to change.
Has the time for more short track racing passed? With so many mile-and-a-halfs on the schedule now, the style of racing has changed. The technology and engineering that goes into making these new cars go fast has progressed so much that short track racing has become the exception to the rule, not the norm. For “Handsome” Harry Gant, that was always the case.
“Having the short tracks always meant, to me, that I could relax and get back to this [style of] racing,” said Gant. “I think a lot of the drivers now still look forward to coming to the short tracks and running them.”
With 36 races on the current Sprint Cup schedule and the fight for a date on that schedule at such a high cost, it is unlikely more short tracks are going to show up anytime soon. The Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series run at short tracks such as Iowa and O’Reilly Raceway Park, but with Kansas Speedway looking for a second date and Kentucky Speedway pitching a fevered battle for a spot on the Cup schedule it is unlikely to see another short track in the near future.
“I think we have a good balance right now,” Buddy Baker said. “I’m not sure we need more races in the season. We go from February all the way to November. I think we have a good balance. I love Bristol, I love Martinsville, but the road courses we run (Watkins Glen and Sonoma), I don’t think we need to add road courses. I hope it just continues where we can have the quality of racing we have right now and not add a bunch of races in where it still has to mean something. More sometimes is less.”
Perhaps in this case, more track means less fans in the stands and less interest in the sport. Petty, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Jarrett, Baker and Gant – these legends made names for themselves on the short tracks around the country ,all while garnering more and more interest in the sport. At a time when interest is waning maybe the answer is to think short track for the long-term good.