This past weekend’s race at Martinsville was a reminder of what NASCAR racing can be about. Side-by-side action, pit strategies, rebounds from mid-race spins… everything that fans love to see. The track is small, which allows everyone in the stands a great view of the action and allows the competitors to stay close if their car is anywhere near good. With the problems that NASCAR has been facing with attendance and viewership the last few years, they’d be wise to take a look at what happened in Virginia last weekend and try and duplicate it.
NASCAR was founded on racing at small bullring racetracks all over the country before it became the mega-corporate machine it is today. Local racers competed when the series came to town and the sanctioning body had to incent drivers to travel to all of the races. As the popularity took off and the corporate money started flowing into the sport, it got away from those roots and, for a while, continued to grow in favor with the fans. However, the last few years have seen that popularity wane and the sport must remember what made it popular then.
There’s no problem with races at big tracks and road courses, as long as they’re equally interspersed with short-track action. The biggest problem with the NASCAR schedules today is that the series is not running enough races on the small tracks that built it. When the Truck Series began, it was designed to get back to the little tracks that the big series had abandoned. For several years it worked, but like its big brothers, the series eventually left many of the smaller venues it was originally designed to serve. There’s no question it would require a major investment for track owners to change the tracks the series visit to get more short tracks back on the schedules, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
Newer NASCAR fans may not realize why there is a plethora of “cookie-cutter” racetracks on the schedule. In the early 1990s, as NASCAR was taking off, the open-wheel series were having their issues and when the IRL started looking for places to run on oval tracks, the primary track owners in the country – Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. – built tracks that not only held stock car races, but open-wheel Indy car-style races as well. The end result was the addition of 1.5- and 2-mile tracks like Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas, Las Vegas, California, Kentucky, Homestead and Nashville. As those tracks were added, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, Mansfield, Memphis, Evergreen, Chicago, Colorado, Mesa Marin, Nashville Fairgrounds, South Boston, Myrtle Beach and Pikes Peak fell off the NASCAR schedules.
Mind you, not all of these tracks’ races went away to have their dates moved to bigger facilities. Some succumbed to economic pressures while others were unable to make the capital expenditure to bring their infrastructure up to the standards necessary for a national touring series.
However, if NASCAR is serious about getting the fans back to the track and back in front of the television set, they are going to need to look at bringing these speedways back onto the schedule – and that may require the sanctioning body to make an investment in the speedways rather than expecting the track owners to do it. Putting SAFER barriers in place would not only allow the tracks to host national events, it would also make them safer for their weekly racing shows. Upgrading restrooms and concession stands would enhance the tracks for years to come, and the initial expenditure would be far outweighed by the increased attendance and the goodwill that would be generated as fans saw NASCAR actually putting some visible money back into the sport.
The other angle that could be taken is for the current facilities to be reconfigured to put a shorter racing surface into place. Remember that several of the tracks on the current schedules have been changed in their history. Richmond, Atlanta and Darlington all come to mind. Changing raceways like Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas or Vegas to 7/8th-mile ovals would certainly be a big undertaking, but the majority of the infrastructure around the track could stay where it is. Changing the first turn to a more dramatic turn leading to a back straight that is inside the current track and leading to a third turn which would then lead back onto the existing frontstretch would not be much more expensive than a repaving project. Building up banking and laying down pavement would be most of the expense, but the majority of the stands that are currently in place at these facilities would still work fine for a smaller track.
It is going to take a large investment by NASCAR to bring the fans back to racing like they were in the ’90s and early 2000s. Assuming the powers that be were watching this weekend, they have to know that short-track racing offers more excitement than racing on big, sweeping ovals. Richmond, Iowa and O’Reilly Raceway Park offer some of the best races year-in and year-out, and they provide plenty of speed as well as close racing. The key is NASCAR is going to have to want to make it happen and spend the money to bring it to fruition.