NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Answer Man Rides to the Rescue… How to Fix NASCAR, Part II

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin returns with the second installment of his ten ways to fix NASCAR. Miss Part I? Don’t worry, we have you covered; feel free to catch up by clicking HERE. Agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below.

Step Six: Hold the Chamber of Commerce’s feet to the fire

Chambers of Commerce in areas blessed with a Cup date know the economic impact a NASCAR race date brings. Those chambers are made up of local merchants, the guys and gals that own the gas stations, the restaurants, bars and the like that profit so handsomely from the fans attending the race. But those small business owners are seeing their land rush companies threatened by the big bullies in the hospitality industry. When hotels and motels, by and large national chains these days, start doubling rates and making unrealistic minimum stay requirements during race weekends, they are raising the cost of attending a Cup event above what a lot of blue-collar racing fans consider affordable. Lower race ticket prices are commendable, but they represent only a fraction of the true cost of a race weekend for an out-of-town fan.

Hey, I understand supply and demand, free enterprise and all that stuff. But the situation during some race events amounts to a lumberyard tripling the price of plywood, hammers and generators as a hurricane approaches. It’s just gouging. And if some of the smaller motels and hotels offer more modest rates and are fully occupied during race weekends while the chain hotels have rooms vacant, eventually everyone is going to have to be more reasonable. Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to see some of these places string up signs that read “Welcome Race Fans!” You just have to study the fine print that reads, “Now drop your pants and grab your ankles. This isn’t going to hurt too much.”

On a final note, it’s the job of those Chambers of Commerce to get politicians on a local and state level to help alleviate the traffic mess around race tracks hosting Cup events. Yes, when that many people all try to exit the same arena, many of them from out of state and some of them driving RV’s, there’s going to be some congestion. But to a man and woman, every fan I know (and I’ve met a bunch of them over the years) finds the soul sapping post-race traffic the worst part of going to a race live. No less an authority than T. Wayne Robertson said shortly before his untimely death that traffic was the number one issue the tracks needed to address. Whatever combination of new slip ramps, new traffic patterns, working with online map services to show alternate routes, or if need be, new highways or added traffic lanes has to be considered to fix this mess.

Politicians need to be made aware of the huge boost to local and state economies a Cup race weekend provides. Even with today’s greatly diminished crowds, most Cup races host more fans than the damned Super Bowl, and you see the lengths the politicos go to to try to bring the Super Bowl “in country.” Here’s an easy solution. Tell politicians running for office they can attend the race and be the Grand Marshal… if they drive to the event themselves and drive home afterwards.

Step Seven: Get rid of the start-and-parkers

The start-and-park types are the first vultures to reach the dying carcass of NASCAR racing. They’re just out there getting in the way, albeit briefly, and adding nothing to the show. There’s no need for a 43-car starting field anymore. 35 cars would be perfectly adequate to stage a good race, much more in keeping with the reality of the times. If in the future, the sport prospers again and more fully-funded and competitive teams wishing to run full races start showing up, we can always incrementally start increasing the size of the field again. Remember back in the dance hall days of the sport when folks tried to start teams with fans contributing to offset the cost of running races? I’m fully expecting some investment firm to start sending out prospectuses soon telling would-be investors, “Throw in $10,000 to help us buy us a couple cars, hire an over-the-hill driver and double your money annually as we collect last place checks for ‘competing’ five laps.”

Step Eight: Friday, Friday, Friday!

Remember back when qualifying on Friday used to mean something? Remember when Dale Earnhardt usually had to go out in second round qualifying on Saturday to try to get a better pit stall? With the Top-35 rule, what does Friday matter anymore? No wonder the “crowds” are down to a few hundred stalwarts camping at the track over the weekend with nothing better to do.

Let’s make this short and simple. The Top-35 cars (as noted above, the entire field) qualify on Friday. The fastest 35 cars compete on Sunday. I don’t care if you’re leading the points and have won four titles. If you mess up and you’re not one of the fastest 35 cars, pack up your rig and go home. Would some fans be disappointed if their favorite driver missed the race they had tickets to see? My guess is they would be. But this is stock car racing. If your favorite driver is eliminated in a first-lap wreck, you can’t leave early and get half your money back.

As a codicil, let me add that if a team presents a cheated up car for pre-qualifying inspection or the car is found to be illegal after qualifying but prior to the race, that team and its driver would get a nice jump on traffic – evicted immediately from the premises with instructions not to return for three weeks. I’m tired of trying to explain to non-race fans how an illegal car wins a race and the driver gets to keep the trophy.

Step Nine: Tear down the walls

Newer fans simply can’t understand how accessible the drivers used to be to fans. It is postulated that Richard Petty, once the face of stock car racing, has probably signed more autographs than anyone else on earth. Yeah, in those kinder, simpler days after a race, fans could wander down to the garage area, seek out their hero, get an autograph, a smile and a few words with the fellow. Hell, some of the drivers wandered out into the infield or parking lots to seek out fans, have a burger and brew with them or just hang out. That all changed when drivers started hanging out in their motorcoaches behind locked gates and the garage area was by and large shut down to fans during race weekends. The attitude seemed clear: the Racing Gods are on this side of the fence, and the riff-raff are on the other.

Drivers like Tony Stewart said they were getting claustrophobic with so many fans in the garage area and they couldn’t do their jobs. Lo and behold, there’s now a lot less fans coming to the races, and the riff-raff that isn’t coming any more are buying less of your sponsor’s product and lowering TV ratings by not watching you compete. So, Mr. Stewart, have any trouble finding sponsorship dollars to fund your teams next year? Close call, wasn’t it? Maybe in 2011 you ought to run out in the parking lot and do a free Mobil 1 oil change on the cars of the first 25 fans who approach you to keep the sponsor happy. You do know which end of a wrench to grab, right?

It’s time for NASCAR drivers to leave their wine cellars, palatial estates, private helicopters and jets, and the safe confines of their motorhomes to reconnect with what fans the sport has left. To help the process along, NASCAR should eliminate the motorcoach lots. If a driver needs to bring along his million-dollar Prevost coach for the weekend he can park it amongst the fans’ campers in the infield. If that’s not acceptable, he can book a nearby hotel room and eat at the same restaurants as the fans. And if that’s not acceptable, either perhaps he can find a cloistered monastery that offers residents a few million dollars a year to reside in quiet privacy.

Oh, wait. That’s right. You’re too good to spend a long weekend dealing with the fans. You know what? Petty was a hell of a lot better racecar driver than you, and he dealt with it for a whole lot less money than you make.

Step 10: TV repair shop

Given the nature of the sport, somewhere around 95% of folks who watch a race watch it on TV, not from the grandstands. Thus it doesn’t matter if the new NASCAR I am proposing is putting on thrilling races with good-looking stock cars from palatable race venues week after week if the TV networks’ race broadcasts are disjointed, constantly interrupted by commercial plugs and boring.

Step number one, and this change is going to cause some heads to roll to make it work, is a massive meeting of all those involved in the race broadcasts. You folks there, the money men who are paid to sell advertisements and generate other sources of revenue to make this venture profitable, you put on these currency green t-shirts. The rest of you, the on-air talent, the producers, the camera operators, etc. put on these virginal white t-shirts symbolizing the purity of broadcasting. Team Green, sit on one side of the table. White Knights, sit on the other side. Reach across the table and shake hands with one another… because this moment’s the last time the two teams are ever going to speak to one another. The separation between the two is going to be like the separation of church and state… never the twain shall meet. Unless they elect Christine O’Donnell president.

Team Green, you have your 12-15 minutes an hour to air commercials. Let your advertisers know they’ll want to view their ads in slightly reduced size, because we’re adding IRL style “Side by Side” ads. Remember, ours is a sport that doesn’t have any inherent time outs or scheduled stoppages of play.

Team Green, when the racing broadcast per se returns, you’re on the sidelines. No more of these Toyota Top Performers, Goodyear blimp history factoids or pit-road reporters hollering about drivers getting “four fresh Goodyears and a full tank of Sunoco.” Hell, if they were getting Michelins and Exxon gas they’d have to leave the racetrack, right? Plugs for business entities belong in the commercials, not the race broadcasts. We can’t stop drivers from mentioning their sponsors in interviews, but I’m tired of watching in car footage from the No. 88 car while he runs 32nd just because AMP energy is the title sponsor of the race.

Race broadcasters, you are there to tell the story of the race through pictures and words. A special note to race broadcasters… if the pictures are telling the story… shut up! We don’t need to be told the No. 24 car is passing the No. 5 car. We can see that well enough. Let us know why Martin is fading while Gordon is making up spots. Visuals will speak for themselves. (You’ve heard Deanna Carter sing “Strawberry Wine” on the radio and you’ve seen the video. Which do you recall more clearly?) As the race unfolds, explain to us viewers what we’re missing based on your years of experience, all those eyes you have scattered around the track and ears monitoring scanner frequencies. When the action is compelling and self-explanatory enough, just shut up and let the pictures tell the story. Don’t talk down to us. We understand the sport. We don’t need Tim Brewer showing us the difference between a tire and a wheel even if some of your pit bunnies still do.

Let it be written in granite; if a race broadcaster has a business relationship with an entity or if a close family member does, in no instance is that broadcaster to use the name of that entity during a broadcast. Sorry, DW, no more Toyota plugs. Sorry DJ, you can’t say UPS anymore. Nor is it ever time for you or your colleagues to discuss your past achievements in the sport. Even a first-time viewer is going to understand you bought some credentials to the table to get that job. I don’t want to hear how many times DW won at Bristol unless you’re going to mention how many races he failed to qualify for during his ill-considered venture as a driver/owner.

We’re here today to watch a race together, you and the fans. We want to see it as a good race, not as a fraction of the championship drive. There’s time enough to discuss the ramifications of that individual race after the conclusion and after the season. Focus on the now. Don’t arrive at the race with a preset agenda of the stories you want to discuss. Let the story come to you as it happens, then explain it to us. And stop turning these four hour races into four hours worth of commercials occasionally interrupted by commercials.

Remember always; church and state. When is the last time you watched a football game where an announcer hollered, “Demarcos made an incredible turn downfield there aided by the Nike athletic shoes he’s wearing and the Gatorade he’s been drinking on the sidelines!” or “And the punting team comes off the field to wipe away their sweat with ultra-soft new Canon facial towels provided by Wal-Mart straight off a steamer from Red China!”

The White Knights tell the story of the race. Team Green sells ads. They’re never on the field at the same time. If Team Green can’t make money doing it that way, it’s time to renegotiate the terms of the broadcasting contract with NASCAR downwards to have it make financial sense. I’d guess given recent TV ratings, there won’t be a shark-feeding frenzy like there was back in 2000 to get broadcast rights to part of the Cup season. My guess is the way things are going, we all might end up watching races on YouTube before the end of the next decade.

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