As we all know, or at least most of us do, change is not well received by NASCAR fans. This is especially true when it comes to where the circuit holds its events.
But nothing stands still forever. Foolish though it may have been to move the Labor Day race out of Darlington, the market couldn’t support two races anymore. It may not make sense to saturate the schedule with tracks that are virtually identical, but it isn’t practical to saturate the schedule with tracks in markets where folks can’t or won’t show up either. You could say this as a reason both for NASCAR to move out of the South or back there; either choice is going to make someone unhappy.
Now that the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule has been released, it’s worthy of some analysis from the fans and critics. And while there have been some improvements worthy of mention, some pitfalls have also been created by it.
Most of you know the nuts of it. Kentucky has been awarded a Cup race; Kansas has been awarded a second race; Fontana and Atlanta have both lost events. The Chase will start at Chicagoland this year. Other than that, there isn’t a lot of movement.
Some of this is an improvement. Auto Club Speedway is almost a whipping boy for displaced NASCAR fans, even though the racing there isn’t noticeably worse than it is at Michigan or any other intermediate. As I said, it was foolish to move the Labor Day race there. Through no fault of their own, Fontana suffered for that — the Labor Day race became the poster child for NASCAR moving from classic venues to tamer ones. Perhaps as a result, Fontana didn’t draw big crowds, but whatever the reason, there was no justification for two events a season there.
The loss of an Atlanta race is different but no less justifiable. It’s difficult to explain the borderline pathetic attendance at the track that has produced some of the greatest races in the sport’s history. It can be argued that Atlanta is just a lousy sports market — Braves’ playoff games don’t even sell out — but this is a city with all four major sports represented, so it can’t be all that bad. Again, there may not be a solid explanation, but the place wasn’t selling tickets.
Starting the Chase at Chicagoland isn’t a bad idea either. Chicagoland is a track without much history, it’s a speedway where few drivers are taken out by simple bad luck, and it’s not an event most drivers would attach mythical importance to winning. The Chase was supposed to add some excitement (that’s worked out really well, eh?) so it’s best started at a place that doesn’t arouse much interest on its own.
In theory, this could be an improvement over the 2010 schedule. But the sport punted on some problems that needed to be addressed and created some problems they may have to face in the future. There are a lot of logistics involved in changing a schedule, so this is understandable, but sooner or later things will have to be fixed.
First, the early season grind is still very much there. Following the buildup and the exhausting preparation for the Daytona 500, just one week later the entire circus goes across the continent to Phoenix, which isn’t a heck of a lot closer than Fontana was to Charlotte. Then one week later everyone goes out to Las Vegas again. I’m not personally griping about this, but it’s rough on a lot of people. NASCAR did put a much-needed week off after Las Vegas, so that is an improvement, but following Daytona with Phoenix and Las Vegas is still a lot of traveling in a short time.
There are also no off-weeks during the Chase — in fact, there are no off-weeks from Indianapolis on July 31 until the season ends on November 20. This is crazy. That’s almost four months straight of teams and crews being away from their families and not having a moment to chill, and it’s in the second half of the season when it is needed most. Before the Chase starts would be a great time to have an off-week.
Why won’t NASCAR move the Labor Day race back to Darlington? They’re obviously aware of the distress that moving that race caused plenty of fans; if they weren’t, the Labor Day race wouldn’t have been moved to a Southern venue and the May race at the Lady in Black wouldn’t now be called the Southern 500. There’s no reason not to bring the tradition back. We’ve already established that Atlanta doesn’t draw — that’s why they lost an event. This was an opportunity to right a wrong and NASCAR missed it.
Finally, the new schedule creates a bigger problem for the future, that being that NASCAR should try to get away from cookie-cutters, and moving races from Fontana and Atlanta to Kansas and Kentucky is only going to make that more difficult down the road. The speedways are a bigger problem for NASCAR than the concrete doughnuts were for baseball — however unappealing those big stadiums were, they didn’t affect the product on the field much. Speedway racetracks change the game of auto racing to one of fewer passes, fewer on-track battles and aero dependency. Most fans will see the majority of races on TV, and no one watching on TV cares if there’s a casino at the track.
This problem has grown to the point where people are noticing it. In 1990 there were six events on the schedule at 1.5-2 mile racetracks. In 2000 there were 10. In 2010 there are 14. The intermediate speedways that produce the least passing and fewest lead changes and clean-air dependency have gone from being about a fifth of the Cup schedule to almost half of it. This is a good part of the reason the perception of the sport has changed — they just don’t beat and bang like they used to. Of course, there aren’t as many post-race fisticuffs. And NASCAR has made this tougher to fix, especially with Bruton Smith wanting another Vegas date.
Just because we can’t go back to North Wilkesboro doesn’t mean we can’t go to someplace like it.
Overall there are some improvements in next season’s schedule, even if they aren’t all that “impactful,” to borrow a term from the Brian France Lexicon. But sooner or later, NASCAR should address its venue problem, and it’s not happening in 2011.
- Jeff Gordon is providing input to the design of a track that will likely be built in the Niagara Falls area of Canada, and from what I’ve been reading he gets what I’m talking about. Rusty Wallace certainly did with Iowa Speedway. Incredibly, it’s very rare that drivers are consulted on track design.
- It’s a great relief to see ESPN’s Danicamania has subsided. There were a few camera shots on her in last week’s Michigan race, to be sure, which was to be expected, but it’s nice to not get an update every lap on a driver four laps down.
- Brian France was asked whether there would be a Chase in the Nationwide Series, in case he wasn’t happy with what it has done to the Cup ratings. He answered in the negative, saying that there are something like 10 fewer Nationwide races in a season. 10?
- Denny Hamlin suggested that the No. 11 team wasn’t good enough to win the Sprint Cup after finishing second at Michigan. Well, I guess he’s got a point.