As the 2011 season has turned three weeks old, feel-good stories have abounded: 20-year-old Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 in just his second start, and for the storied Wood Brothers at that; Jeff Gordon breaking a 66-race winless streak in dramatic fashion after a side-by-side duel with Kyle Busch; the resurgence of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Daytona provided an exciting race marked by everything that makes a restrictor plate race, including a multi-car crash that took out, among others, the series champion; close racing; the draft (though in a slightly different form); and an unexpected winner. Phoenix provided action typical of a 1-mile flat track, with hard-fought battles throughout the field. Ratings are up, optimism is creeping in around the edges.
And then came Las Vegas. Ratings were still up, but the race was hardly a thriller, producing little on-track competition for the lead. The best racing was on restarts, and tires, not strategy, dictated much of the game plan. It was an okay race, certainly nothing to write home about, about on par for a 1.5-mile track.
And herein lies the problem.
At the heart of NASCAR’s modest upswing this year has been very good racing which has, in turn, produced some top-notch storylines. To continue the upswing, it would follow that NASCAR needs to continue to produce an exciting product. The problem is, the 1.5-mile tri- or quad-oval tracks don’t generally provide that.
There are a few notable exceptions, of course. Atlanta has certainly provided some excellent finishes, none finer than Kevin Harvick’s win by inches over Jeff Gordon just weeks after taking the seat left too soon by Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Charlotte has produced some memorable first wins, though the races themselves often haven’t been as compelling. But overall, the cookie-cutter tracks are to racing what the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums of the 1960’s were to baseball-practical because they can be used for more than one thing, but boring and uninspiring to a sport steeped in tradition.
Note to NASCAR: those awful round baseball stadiums are all but gone, replaced, in many cases, by ballparks inspired by tradition and looking like they could have been a part of an earlier, golden era.
To keep the great storylines and the unpredictability strong, NASCAR needs to consider a move away from the 1.5-milers being the core of the sport’s three national touring series. The regional series-K&N Pro East and West, as well as the Modifieds, run a variety of tracks, mostly less than a mile, and the races are great. They have multiple winners, exciting races, compelling stories.
It’s not that NASCAR should become a short-track series at its highest levels-there needs to be a variety of tracks to challenge the greatest stock car drivers in the world. And that isn’t the case right now. The 1.5-milers dominate the landscape to the point where the schedule plays right into the hands of a few select drivers who have been blessed with both the talent and the perfect setups required to win on these tracks. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting it right and winning races, that’s the point of it, after all. But it would be nice to see more of the tracks like Phoenix, Dover, Loudon, and the short tracks which present a much bigger challenge to the drivers because the car’s setup is secondary to a driver’s skill. The car still counts, but a real wheelman is what’s needed at these tracks. At the bigger tracks, handling and horsepower sometimes overshadow grit, passion and skill. Couple that with large margins of victory, and what you get is rarely memorable.
It wouldn’t have to happen overnight-in fact, it likely couldn’t. Several tracks aren’t ready for it. A track like Rockingham, should present management even wish to pursue NASCAR sanctioning, could easily support a truck race now, perhaps even a Nationwide event, but it would need massive renovation before being ready to host a Cup event. Still, it could be done.
Iowa Speedway already hosts some good truck and NNS racing-why not encourage the track to add the necessary seats and amenities by promising a future Cup date? Darlington already hosts a Cup race, and should most definitely receive another. Tracks like South Boston have hosted the Nationwide Series and could again. By giving existing tracks incentive to upgrade, NASCAR could also buy time to inform track owners that many of the 1.5-mile tracks will be reduced to a single date in the not-so distant future. Charlotte, perhaps should keep the second race because of the proximity to the teams.
The others? As a more raceable track comes along, phase them out. Darlington in Cup for 2012 perhaps, along with the Milwaukee Mile (that is reportedly now under new, stable management) and South Boston for Nationwide and trucks. The next step could be a truck race for Rockingham or even North Wilkesboro in 2013, an Iowa Cup stop in 2014-a slow and steady return to NASCAR’s roots in the form of old venues and new.
It would be easy to inform track owners and promoters that no new 1.5-mile tracks will be awarded race dates, thereby forcing their hand and making new builds produce more varied and creative racetracks. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a slow return to some old favorites, particularly in the Nationwide or truck series. The Cup schedule is trickier, but a slow turnover could happen over several years.
While it’s not a quick fix, bringing better racing to NASCAR is imperative for the health of the sport as a whole. While feel-good stories will fade over time, as fans can’t expect them each week, great racing will produce more of them. Maybe not every week, but more often than we get now, racing on the same type of racetrack for the vast majority of the year. NASCAR is racing, plain and simple-the product is what will keep the fans interested. A good product will naturally produce the great stories.
A commitment by NASCAR to pay homage to its roots and to the racing itself by giving fans a better product week in and week out would be the greatest story the sport could write.
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