_Editor’s Note: Matt is off this week. Look for him to return next Thursday with another great column for your enjoyment._
Greetings race fans, and let me say that I once again have the honor of filling in for the inimitable and cantankerous wiseacre Matt McLaughlin this week. But since this still falls under the header of MPM2Nite, you can send all the complaints to him.
Anyway, I was scanning through several NASCAR articles on Jayski this week, and the impression that I’m getting is that NASCAR is still attempting to make fixes to a sport that I think even they would admit by now has veered off course in the past decade.
After reading about the “wide open” coverage of the Daytona night race coming this weekend from TNT, I got to thinking about how long NASCAR has been wrestling with the problem of too much live action being missed to all-too-frequent commercial breaks. At least, I like to think NASCAR has been wrestling with the problem. And I hope they don’t get mad at my using “NASCAR” and “wrestling” in the same sentence.
And it dawned on me, that this audience-shrinking mechanism of overwhelming obscene profit breaks, like many of the issues that have driven many devoted NASCAR fans away, could be mostly solved with a determined overhaul of the schedule, with a focus on tracks that are less than a mile in length.
That’s not to say the problem of commercial frequency would be completely solved; some networks (one of them begins with “FOX”) will run a break every ten laps no matter how little time ten laps takes. NASCAR need to address that, and one way is to put it in the contract, even if it means taking a few million less for it.
But at races like Bristol or Richmond, with the tight quarters bringing about harder racing and more cautions, there’s more of an opportunity to sell butt paste without depriving fans of green flag action. Yes, ESPN screwed it up royally last year at Dover coming back from a break with 6 to go, but in fact that is (and should be) a fairly rare occurrence.
And a schedule that focuses on more Martinsvilles and less Chicagos would address a few other problems too:
*Lack of Rivalries and Colorful Drivers:* Almost every week these days, the second one driver gives another a little shove, the words “have at it” come out of the announcers’ mouths at least twice. It’s as if Robin Pemberton addressed the whole issue of lack of driver feuds with just three words, and he wasn’t even talking about drivers pushing and shoving as much as they want.
But what’s the big rivalry these days? Montoya and Newman? Gordon and Truex? Does anyone consider Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be a rivalry at the level of Waltrip-Earnhardt?
Rivalries are great for a sport’s bottom line, even if some fans take them far too seriously. NASCAR’s champion for the last five seasons is among the most gentlemanly drivers in the sport, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m willing to bet that if Chicago, Kansas, and Fontana were replaced with Rockingham, North Wilkesboro and Milwaukee, Bruton Smith would be more likely to get his wish of Jimmie Johnson finally taking a swing at someone.
And any two drivers that may genuinely have a dislike for each other, like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, would be finding themselves racing each other a lot more often when there’s only a half mile of space to race on.
*Ratings:* Fans who have gotten away from planting themselves in front of the television every Sunday afternoon have done so for several reasons; but overabundant commercials and lack of driver personality (along with the Chase) are nearly at the top of the list almost every time.
Tony Stewart’s doing everything he can to generate some interest in who’s going to punt who this week, but you can only do so much in Michigan. Far better for fans to be annoyed because another driver wrecked their hero than to feel cheated because their driver lost a race to the type of “debris caution” that always seems to come when someone is running away with the lead.
And if the sport’s #1 ratings machine, Dale Earnhardt Jr., really is as good as his fan base still believes—and truth be told, he has been showing signs of improvement with Steve Letarte on the pit box—then NASCAR would do well to give him every opportunity to prove it without being buckled down by aero setup. Last year, Junior had just six finishes of 7th or better, and three of them were Bristol, Loudon and Martinsville. Only once did he finish in the top ten at a non-plate speedway. In 2009 Junior had just five top ten finishes; two of them were at Bristol and Martinsville.
And if he comes through, the ratings probably soar.
*Attendance:* Of course the spreadsheet says Martinsville is too small and doesn’t hold enough people, and Kansas has space for plenty of seats and could bring in many more millions.
The spreadsheet also says that Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay is more comfortable, seats more people, and is easier to get to than Fenway Park in Boston.
Unlike many of the issues NASCAR attempts to explain away with the economic downturn, lowered attendance at places like Martinsville is much more likely rooted in economic factors. There is a smaller local audience to draw from, and the prices of gas would be a seriously prohibitive factor in making a long trip to a remote track, especially in an RV. Then figure in hotel costs, especially in a place whose biggest tourism draw is a racetrack.
So what’s my point? If Chicagoland were a short track, might it not create a few memorable moments forever associated with it? How about Kansas, or Charlotte especially? In times like these, fans in large markets would have a terrific venue not very far away to witness a NASCAR event. Such moments would create an exciting buzz around the sport and sell more tickets. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that another Bristol-type track done right in a Chicago-sized market could easily generate a lengthy sellout streak.
And it would be a heck of a lot easier to sell out 70,000 seats than 140,000…even if you charged twice as much. Ask any Red Sox or Rays fan.
*Recognition of Driver Over Engineer Skill:* One of NASCAR’s stated goals with the “Car of Tomorrow” was to put success more in the hands of the driver than with the engineers in the shop that give an advantage to a well-funded team. A noble goal, perhaps, but it hasn’t worked out very well; nor will it until aero setup is not the huge factor for success that it is at the bigger tracks (and especially at plate tracks).
At Martinsville you can get a fender knocked off and still win the race. At Bristol you can have your rear bumper removed and actually have an advantage, because it makes it much tougher to push you around. I’ve seen seriously beat up machines win races at short tracks, and not many things prove a driver’s mettle more than maneuvering a mangled machine into victory lane.
When a driver wins at Talladega, he is usually lucky. When a driver wins at Charlotte, he generally has a better setup than most other cars and was skilled enough to win without wrecking. When a driver wins at Infineon, he has skills worthy of respect. And when a driver wins at Bristol, he has skill, guts, and exceptional car and emotional control.
Want to help the little guy? Nothing levels the playing field like a good bull ring. And that leads me to…
*Buschwhackers:* Not only would the full-time Nationwide drivers have a better shot at taking down and possibly embarrassing the numerous Cup drivers that invade the series and are accustomed to steamrolling the competition in lesser equipment, Cup drivers might also be a little reluctant to tackle two races every weekend if they knew they were going to be battling hungry up-and-comers for every inch throughout both events.
I don’t know if participating in Nationwide events ultimately hurts guys like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards—it doesn’t seem to—but I’m betting it would after three straight weekends of being banged around by someone looking to catch a Cup owner’s eye.
*The Chase:* The Chase has long been a ratings-killer for NASCAR like no playoff in any other sport is. Why they continue to stick with this meatball of an innovation in the face of the palpable disgust of the remaining fans that continue to dislike it, I do not know.
But if you took Chicago, Homestead, and Texas out of it and replaced them with Bristol, Rockingham and Iowa—or something similar to those three—there might be a little bit of excitement generated by the fact that people are going to see drivers going for it instead of trying to get out into “clean air”.
Too many wild cards for you in a ten-race Chase? That’s simple to fix; lose the Chase and come up with a new way to crown a champion.
Okay, so maybe putting more short tracks on the schedule won’t fix the problem of making the first 26 races meaningless. But hey, I gotta give it the old college try.
So there you have it; major problems NASCAR faces that could be addressed with a not very complex fix. I’m not going to suggest that NASCAR return to North Wilkesboro or Rockingham, it shouldn’t if the market can’t or won’t support it. But it’s long been time to start looking at the configuration of a track before awarding a race there, and largely for the reasons that I’ve listed here.
There are ways to do it without a lot of pain. Existing tracks like Charlotte could be reconfigured. Tracks that are being built in future markets could be remodeled if they haven’t been.
It might not be as easy or quick as it is to change the points system again or redesign the car so that manufacturers have an identity, but it would be far more successful as a long term fix.
Even with today’s big money athletics, less is still more.
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