NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: From “Impactful Changes” to Missed Opportunity for NASCAR

Color my naïve. Or call me a glutton for punishment.

I had fooled myself into believing the “impactful changes” Brian France trumpeted concerning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would right some scheduling wrongs.

I believed NASCAR realized it had a golden opportunity at its fingertips to freshen up and inject some much-needed adrenaline to its schedule — and particularly, its Chase. I allowed myself to be whisked away by some romantic notion that the major overhaul required to revitalize a fanbase was at hand.

I thought they were going to do it right this time.

I guess that’s what I get for showing a little faith, huh?

NASCAR tracks across the country conducted press conferences throughout the week, making announcements big and small. Kentucky finally got its Bruton-assured due; California is making the best of what can only be a swift, if not overdue, kick in the capris; The Royal Kansas Hotel and Gaming Speedway received its bottom-line driven second date. New Hampshire, Bristol, Martinsville, Texas and Infineon have all announced, in some form or fashion, how the “impactful changes” will affect their dates.

The problem is, nothing’s really changed. Not for the fans, anyway — and it’s their passion and involvement (not to mention money) that truly drives the sport. The only monumental difference centers on the Chase’s first date, formerly of Loudon fame. With Auto Club Speedway being stripped of its Chase event, a new track had to be inserted. And that track is… Chicago?

Yes, Chicagoland Speedway and the major media market that sits an hour and change to its northeast will now kick off this 10-week dog ‘n’ pony show with what I’m predicting will be a tremendous “thud.”

Not that New Hampshire provided much spark, but at least the track has personality. And I think that’s what many fans want to see more of out of a playoff lineup gone stale. Fans need a reason to watch for 10 straight weeks; they need excitement, they need character and they need the toughest and most entertaining venues NASCAR can line up to determine its champion.

Instead, fans get Chicago, followed by New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas. Oh, did I mention Martinsville and Talladega are swapping dates? Wait, when were those dates again? Talk about a letdown.

What’s impactful here? How is Chicago any different than California? I’ll tell you how: It’s not. California, though, has suffered from being the poster child for all things Old School Fan dislikes about New School NASCAR. Big city, cookie cutter, west coast… and of course the cardinal sin: It was given the most holy date on the NASCAR calendar: Darlington’s Labor Day weekend.

A little imagination and initiative would have gone a long, long way to bringing the sport back onto the front page of the sports section. Imagine the Bristol night race kicking off the Chase. Then take us up to Loudon, so those still-burning tempers can be put to good use in New Hampshire’s tight quarters. Hit your major media market then — Chicago — after the boys have had a couple weeks to make some splashy quotes after two brutally physical weekends.

From there, keep the momentum riding high with a stop in Dover for another media market pull. Head back south again if things are starting to cool off with a white-knuckle extravaganza at Talladega. Insert Kansas here because we have to, then take ‘em short trackin’ again to Martinsville. Give the west coaster one last look at the boys before next February with a date in Phoenix, bring them back to Darlington for a nasty-tough date with emotions running high, and then end it all back home in Charlotte, where a new king can be crowned in his hometown.

Brian France is going to hit you in the coming days with terms like, “action-packed,” “for the betterment of the sport” and “in the interest of competition.” Don’t allow yourself to be sucked in as I was. The changes, if you want to call them that, were made in the interest of ISC’s and SMI’s bottom line. This isn’t about delivering the best product to the fans and it wasn’t done in the “the spirit of competitiveness.” It’s about maximizing certain struggling racetracks’ dollar (i.e., Chicago).

The “impactful changes” that are to come won’t be in the form of a bold and improved slate of venues, but a re-worked playoff format designed to concoct a three-man, winner-take-all battle royale near the Florida Keys.

Color me disappointed.

Before I go, let’s hit a couple questions via Twitter this week. We’ll be back to a full-on questions column next week.

Q: Do you think #NashvilleSuperspeedway will ever get a Cup date in #NASCAR? — @Rtiongson

A: I got this in response to my tweet last week about attending the Truck race at Nashville Superspeedway. By the way, my wife’s first trip to a big track was a good one. I knew she wouldn’t be prepared for the feeling that overcomes your senses when those machines calmly round out of turn 4 and, suddenly and without mercy, scream to life down the frontstretch to take the green flag. The look on her face was priceless.

I think she’s ready to upgrade. Maybe a Nationwide race. Heck, maybe a Bristol or Talladega Cup race.

Back to the question, though, no I don’t think Nashville will ever get a Cup date. Those that think they are “in the know” around here (I live in Nashville), used to say it’s only a matter of time, but it’s not. It’s a matter of apathy. This city — its populace as well as its city leaders — doesn’t care about stock car racing. It’s not that they hate it, it’s just not high on the priority list. And in their defense, there is a lot to do around town on any given night of the week.

The city leaders gladly waved bye-bye to two Cup dates at the Fairgrounds in the ‘80s, are on the verge of closing that historic track for good to build condos, and the new 1.33-mile speedway can barely get 10,000 for a Nationwide race (let alone a Truck event — by my estimation, it had about 8,000 in the grandstands and no one in the infield).

‘Tis a shame, but that’s the makeup of this town. Only the diehards are willing to drive nearly an hour into the sticks to see a cookie-cutter race.

Q: What I want to know is how come a casino gets u a cup race. Makes no sense. Glad Fontana lost a race though. — @Matt_Kacar

A: A casino at Iowa Speedway wouldn’t command a Cup date, but Iowa isn’t owned by ISC — and Kansas is. This whole deal was well orchestrated by Lesa France Kennedy and brother Brian. ISC adds a casino/hotel to the speedway property and, theoretically, there’s a reason for more people to come. Therefore, it’s ISC’s duty to its shareholders to plant a second race there because it’s good for the company’s aforementioned bottom line.

Is it good for the sport’s overall health? Probably not, as Kansas has never evoked any sort of passion from the everyday race fan, but sadly, that’s not what the power’s that be are concerned with in this case.

Thanks for sticking around until the end. I’ve got some questions in R&D mode, so if I haven’t gotten to yours, just be patient and keep checking back. In the meantime, check out the video clip of the week, your prize for hanging tough.

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