Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Keep On Truckin’ – How to Make NASCAR’s Truck Series Thrive Again

As I get older, I get confused more often. That’s not good, because I spent a lot of my younger life dazed and confused already. I swore there was supposed to a be a Truck race this weekend out in Phoenix. Didn’t they used to race the trucks out at Phoenix in the spring? (Actually, not since 2000, you crazy bastard-Ed.) I mean c’mon, trucks and Arizona, right? It’s sort of like Harley Davidsons and Milwaukee.

Since I’m a high-tech redneck, I was able to do a little Internet surfing to find out where the Truck Series actually competes next, since I knew it had been awhile since I’d watched a Truck race in the background while catching up on my email and smoking my pipe. (Well, OK, I skipped Nashville so I could go riding and because the KHI strategy at Martinsville was so offensive to me.) The last time the Trucks ran was April 2 at Nashville. The next time they run is May 2 at Kansas. An entire month layoff this early in the season? No wonder the series struggles to gain traction. (Well that, and the fact SPEED comes in the same cable package that includes the Ugandan Cannibal Cooking Channel).

Now hang on just one dang tooting moment there, you cranky old man, some of you are thinking right now as you prepare to scroll down to the comments box below this column and leave some hate mail. Aren’t you Matt Pat Mick, the same cantankerous, aging hippie who just last week cried and whined that the Cup schedule is too danged long and there needs to be more off weekends so you can go ride your dang motorcycle and hopefully get hit by a bus? Now you’re going to raise a fuss and you’re going to raise a holler that the seemingly random long bits of time between Truck races is too long? What, are you dropping acid again? (Editor’s Note: We’ve been wondering the same lately.)

Stick with me. Or don’t, I don’t care. You’ve heard of Goldilocks, right? (And I am so old, I dated her in high school before she left me for Baby Bear.) Well, you have three choices: too much, too little and just right. The Cup schedule is too much. The Truck schedule is too little. A once grand experiment, racing pickup trucks, seems to be falling by the wayside of the American Experience, and survives only at the whims of a purveyor of motorized hunting shacks that get about two miles per gallon.

Back when it started 15 years ago (honestly, has it been that long?) the Truck Series, then backed by the badass side of Sears, seemed like a good idea. After all, in that kinder, gentler era of cheap gas and green weenies rants confined to Internet blogs nobody read, the Ford F-150 was the top selling vehicle in America. Its main rival, the Chevy/GMC C/K pickup series, was a perpetual number two runner-up. Ford and GM were locked in a life-and-death struggle to outsell one another when it came to trucks, whether they were bought by farmers who had to haul a load of manure to the back forty or a corner office executive with a cowboy hat and a cheap hair weave who never hauled anything heavier than a Starbucks mucho-grande-creamy-overpriced Cup of Joe. Pickups were cool, and damn were they profitable for the big car makers. Sure, Dodge made pickups too, but I’ve never known anyone who drove a Dodge truck other than the Forest Service and the Walt Whitman Bridge cops. Toyota made trucks as well, but the less said about that the better.

So as sales went through the roof, was there a better way to market hairy mastodons of pickups than an oval-track series, wherein there were fast loud trucks that actually somewhat resembled their street counterparts: beating fenders, smoking tires, banging into walls, and knocking each other silly on the short tracks. Yeah, early Truck races epitomized the word “tough.” Hard-scrabble, poorly spoken rednecks like Jack Sprague and Mike Skinner (the first Truck Series champ) drug their knuckles along the ground on pit road and had at it on the track. Sure, the point-headed liberal New York City media types were driven to paroxysms of laughter at the notion of a bunch of rednecks on short tracks racing huge horsepower pickup trucks, but in the heartland, when you hadn’t spoken to your former best friend since he traded in his Silverado for an F-150 and left the “family,” the series was embraced. Fortunately, for early adopters the truck racing was typically the best of any given race weekend: hard-nosed, hard-fought, physical and whiz your pants exciting. In that kinder, gentler era, back when dumpsters full of empty beer cans at the tracks had yet to be molten into the base stock of a Toyota Prius, all was sweetness and light.

I’m not sure what the original architects of the Truck Series envisioned for their baby back in the day, back when short tracks dominated the schedule. Maybe it was supposed to be the third rung of the ladder below the Cup and the Busch series, another way to reach the big leagues. (Which worked out pretty well for some folks like Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, but not so well for others like Ron Hornaday, Todd Bodine, Skinner and Sprague.) Maybe it was supposed to be an equal to the Busch Series races which were being moved increasingly from the short tracks to companion events at the Cup Series’ big tracks. Maybe it was supposed to be a sop to those short tracks that were losing Cup and Busch dates and still needed an annual event that bought paying customers through the turnstiles. But whatever the original intentions of the Truck Series founders was, the series has gone so far astray a pack of bloodhounds couldn’t find it.

The first nail in the coffin was when the traditional racing networks like ESPN and TNT seemed to abandon the series. Maybe the television rights were too expensive, maybe the ratings weren’t there for the Trucks, or maybe cheaper programming like World’s Worst Car Chases, the X Games, and lumber sports were just more economically feasible. Somehow, by 2003 the Truck Series ended up on SPEED, the land of low-rent broadcasting talent, constant commercials, poor production values and awkward time slots. SPEED TV: just another good idea that has been poorly executed and has alienated fans as it grew.

Certainly, the move from the short tracks that were its traditional cradle to companion events for the Cup series hurt the trucks. NASCAR saw fans were buying tickets for the truck races in smaller markets, and lusted after the bucks that might be generated at bigger tracks with more seats to fill. As such, the series lost its purity and its identity. The move to bigger tracks also bought in Cup team owners who dominated against the smaller teams with their mega-budgets and driver development programs. It was no longer the toughest drivers, but the best financed that were running up front.

The series original sponsor, Craftsman Tools, the darlings of blue collar Do-It-Your-Selfer sorts left after the 2008 season, taking with it a lot of the credibility and promotion the Truck series once enjoyed. To be honest, maybe it was a mercy killing. Sears, once the leading purveyor of high-quality goods for the working class as epitomized by their Craftsman brand, had become just another purveyor of Chinese-built, low quality crap to compete against Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

I don’t use my half-inch drive socket wrench all that often, and I still have the one I spent my hard-earned money on in high school three decades ago. It still has the feeling in my hand of a quality tool. I’ve brought back about two dozen broken 3/8th-inch ratchet wrenches to Sears in the intervening years (to increasing attitudes from sales associates who note the wrenches are all greasy and gross) before deciding last summer to bite the bullet and get a Snap-On replacement. The busted knuckles, pimply-faced teenagers’ attitudes and the downtime on projects were no longer worth it. I haven’t walked into a Sears store since. Lord willing, the only time I will is if the hearse carrying by mortal remains crashes into one.

Sears’s departure left NASCAR with a prolonged and embarrassing search for a new title sponsor for their third-tier touring series. In the end, the best they could come up with was Camping World, a purveyor of motor homes and accessories just as gas began inching towards four dollars a gallon. Camping World’s promotion of the series has either resulted only in some embarrassingly bad advertisements, or I’m not shopping at the right mobile home park. I’m sorry, but if my last name was “Lemonis” I wouldn’t be appearing in my own ads anymore than a Dentist named “Dr. Payne” would take out billboards.

My lifestyle, chock full of automotive swap meets, hunting, snowmobile trips and car races, has left me with an impression of the typical quality of an RV. They seem to be assembled by drunken blind men during a blizzard waving their propane torches, wire snips and big hammers to and fro as they look for their next drink. Campers are like boats: everyone seems to want one at sometime in their life but once they actually acquire one, they rarely use it and spend more time fixing it than they actually do enjoying it. The two happiest days of a camper or boat owner are the day they buy it and the day they sell it.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. My main RV experience includes swapping a rebuilt 727 tranny into a 40-foot Champion in the breakdown lane of a Montana Interstate in snowy weather conditions that redefined the word “brutal.” (I had to. Nobody else wanted to fix it, and I had places to be….)

Anyways, to sum up, I feel the Truck Series has lost its way and is irretrievably broken. You may feel otherwise. I’m here to invite debate, not pronounce oracles. My second proposition is the notion of racing pickup trucks is valid given the competitive nature of that market, that short track racing is good, and NASCAR needs a new feeder series to channel talent to the top. So let’s start over again.

I envision a new Truck Series that runs from shortly before Memorial Day and wraps up before the NFL regular season. The Trucks feature spec bodies specific to each make and identical to their street counterparts right down to the door handles. Those bodies in white are available cheap, because they’re going to get bent up a lot as we return the series to mainly short track events at places fans today might never have heard of. Under the hood, you’ll find spec crate engines specific to each manufacturer. Our target goal is about 350 horsepower, easily attained by modern crate engines with enough durability that they’re sealed and need to be run for at least four events without a rebuild. The target price is around $3,500, carb to oil pan, balancer to flywheel. We need to make the entries cheap because we’re playing in smaller venues with less ticket revenue and thus, purse money is more modest. A good running team ought to be able to make a modest profit or at least sustain itself with perhaps some bucks thrown in by local sponsors for each event, be it a family-owned restaurant, wrecking yard or auto parts house (the way it used to be.)

Because travel is such a huge expense we’ll run a west coast and east coast series. To further limit expenses, races will be of modest enough length (thus more excitement) that either no pit stops or one stop are needed. Only three men can go over the wall on pit stops: a fuel man and two tire changers carrying their own rubber and guns. Race lengths will be no more than 150 miles, and often less. Both divisions will run ten to twelve events a season. They’ll be broadcast on what network or networks chooses to be a partner in developing the new series during re-run season, where fresh programming is at a premium on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Races will end by 9 p.m. local time and average about 90 minutes to two hours, including the pre-race and post-race coverage. The main promotion for the series will be on an internet site, with driver blogs and tweets, video highlights of each event, and the like. If YouTube can make stars of self promoting teenagers… so can we.

Most of the races will be short tracks with seating capacity: that means we don’t need RV driving loyalists to travel coast to coast. Instead, enough curious locals will show up to fill our seats. The price of tickets will be cheap, so much so that a fellow can bring his wife and kids to the track at the cost of a night out at a first run movie with a fast food dinner afterward. Admission to the race will also include free access to the infield for anyone over the age of 14, so fans can meet and get to know the drivers and teams on a personal level. We’re also going to get the Big Three back involved in racing in what they build, so each week one lucky-paying fan will win a brand new half-ton pickup from the manufacturer of their choice. (Oh, did I mention, Toyota gets the boot? A foreign manufacturer’s dominance is one of the reasons that the Truck Series has lost its luster.)

I’m open to and eager for a few dirt track races on each schedule.

The top 6-10 drivers at end of the east and west coast seasons (and our points system rewards winning heavily over consistency) then go into a four-race playoff for a championship. How? NASCAR pays those teams trailering money to show up enough to make it worth their while. I’d envision those four playoff races being held at Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Hillborough if the locals are successful in reopening that storied track. The championship races are Friday night under the lights, with a seven o’clock green-flag time. Race lengths would be 75 miles at Hillsborough, 100 miles at North Wilkes and Rockingham and 200 miles at Darlington, the Daytona 500 of our new series and perhaps the last race of the year. Can we make it work by Labor Day weekend?

Hell yeah, even if it means running two dates a week at tracks in close proximity a couple times a season. Ideally, the respective manufacturers would provide each team with a free new engine and body going into the playoffs. 500 points to win, 200 to finish second, 100 to the third-place finisher, 50 for fourth and 20 for fifth. Everyone else gets a lovely parting gift, including a box full of worn out RV parts and dinner for the team at the Golden Corral or Waffle House. The series payoff for the champion is a cool million bucks (that ought to keep them up on the wheel) and guaranteed entry into the playoffs for the following three years, as long as they compete full-time that year in either coast’s series and win one race. Call it a modified form of franchising that you keep your key players in the public eye as we grow our series.

Who are our series’ best sponsors, willing to accept a modest return for backing us going to be? Hopefully BF Goodrich or Firestone, because I am sick to death of Goodyear’s shoddy products and the other tire makers being excluded. And let’s not forget about the car manufacturers, of course. For coverage, let’s grab newer TV networks looking to make a name for themselves without growing broke, as long as they are already part of a basic cable plan. Wal-Mart? This is, after all, a blue-collar division. (Let the teams camp at the local Wal-Mart the night before and after the race as long as they sign autographs.) A fast food company? We’re throwing it out there for corporate America to get involved at a fraction of their annual marketing budgets. Only they get to splash their corporate logos out there on the “next new thing” without dictating how the racing is conducted. As far as rules of engagement when it comes to on-track activity, if you didn’t maim or kill anyone to make a pass, you’re alright. This ain’t lawn tennis. Wrongs will be avenged next week, God willing, live in front of rabid fans and on TV.

Have I lost my mind? Perhaps. But I want to sit down for a couple hours on a work night and be entertained by old school racing, not a four hour endurance test of commercials occasionally interrupted by commercials. I want to set the Way-Back machine to somewhere around 1958, when a young driver named Richard Petty made his first Cup (well, actually Grand National at the time) start in a 33-mile race in Toronto and got booted into the wall by his Daddy Lee en route to a $575 payday. (Of course, in today’s dollars that would have to be at least $5,750, but you get the idea.) Think it won’t work? Remember, America has embraced shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Dumbest Suspects on COPS on FOX during the summertime….

Yeah, we’re going to create the newest batch of minor-league stars, the best drivers who work a cotton mill or drive a tow truck during the week but never had a chance to drive in NASCAR racing because they’re too ugly or poorly spoken for corporate America. We’re going to give every hard-nosed racecar driver regardless of their upbringing, color, creed or gender a chance to win a million bucks if they don’t play nicely with others. We’re going back grassroots to the fertile mountain soil of the Carolina mountains that germinated the sport of stock car racing with the moonshiners, and we’re going to make current Cup racing look like a night at the local production company’s opera. We’re going to sell us some damned pickup trucks.

You in? Let’s roll.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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