NASCAR is a sport of rumors. Teams, drivers, and the sanctioning body somehow manage to fuel more speculation throughout the year than other sports, perhaps because in other sports, contract negotiations and schedule and rules changes take place almost exclusively in the offseason, with baseball’s trade deadline as the major exception to that rule. In NASCAR, the rumors and speculation go on mainly during the 10-month season, often heating up as summer comes to a close, though in recent years it seems to encompass more of the racing year.
It’s called Silly Season, and it’s more important now than ever before.
2011’s Silly Season has been fairly benign. Speculation raged about Carl Edwards’ future as the sport’s top free agent was first rumored to be headed to Joe Gibbs Racing only to elect, seemingly at the eleventh hour, to remain with Roush Fenway Racing, where he has spent his entire Cup career. The biggest signing to date has been of Indycar star Danica Patrick by JR Motorsports, while questions remain about the future of some of NASCAR’s own stars.
Like Brian Vickers, whose Team Red Bull operation announced earlier this year it will close its doors after 2011. Like Mark Martin, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires and whose seat will be taken over by Kasey Kahne next year. Or Joey Logano, whose ride at Joe Gibbs Racing is a bit more secure after Edwards declined to take it. And there;s David Ragan, who was hanging on by a thread at Roush Fenway before winning at Daytona in July, who still has the Nationwide Series points leader in Ricky Stenhouse Jr, breathing down his neck for his seat in the No. 6.
And that’s just the drivers. There are still sponsorship questions to be answered for several teams, including Roush Fenway. NASCAR continues to add fuel to the fire as well as speculation about rules changes and next years’ national touring schedules heat up. The wild card spot is creating a buzz, and something new always crops up, like the possible need for safety changes at Watkins Glen.
Who’s going where? Which teams might expand? Who’s job is in jeopardy if the performance doesn’t heat up? Which track will get a race, and which one could lose one? Which sponsors might jump ship, and to where? Will NASCAR change the rules?
All of these are questions on the minds of everyone in the sport, from the sanctioning body to racetracks, to race teams, drivers, media and fans. And that’s the best thing that could happen for the sport.
Silly Season, unique to NASCAR in part because of the sport’s unprecedented fan access through a variety of sources, adds drama to the season that is not contrived in the way than many of NASCAR’s recent changes are. The drama of Silly Season is, for the most part, real. Sure it gets played up in the media (that is, to an extent, our job: to report the news and even rumors in a fashion that will make fans choose to read our site instead of our competitors’), but it’s not fake. Drivers do become free agents, tracks close, crew chiefs get fired, rules get changed.
And race fans are intensely loyal. A single driver in limbo, like Edwards this year, has an effect on more than one group of fans. Sure, Edwards’ fans were watching proceedings closely, speculating about what’s best for their driver. But they weren’t the only ones. Joey Logano’s loyal followers were pulled in as well; after all this was _their_ man’s job Edwards was rumored to be considering!
Trevor Bayne’s fans were in it as well, hoping their guy would perhaps get the No. 99-also probably a fervent hope of the legions pulling for Brian Vickers, Logano, and Mark Martin, and an intriguing proposition to the fans of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who currently remains unsigned for 2012.
And then there are fans who are loyal to Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, wondering if Edwards might come over and how that would affect their drivers. Fans of Edwards closest championship competition, like Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick questioned the impact the negotiations might have on his title run and probably hoped it would be a negative one. That all adds up to a huge number of race fans caring about the sport, even if the race that week wasn’t memorable.
And _that_ is good for the sport. Silly Season has always been dramatic, and perhaps it has lost some luster in recent years (it wasn’t terribly long ago that fans could expect several announcements at the fall Charlotte event, close to home for most teams and therefore the ideal place for announcements upon announcements. Silly Season has become longer each year, which does dilute the excitement somewhat, but it is still there.
The rumors heated up again this week as, just a couple weeks after the announcement that Nashville Superspeedway will not host the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series in 2012, Rockingham Speedway, a track which has been a symbol to fans of NASCAR’s unwanted changes, announced that they will add SAFER barriers beginning as soon as next month, to be completed by December. To the hopeful observer, that looks like more than a mere coincidence. ARCA, which currently races at Rockingham, does not currently mandate that tracks install SAFER technology. NASCAR does, and NASCAR has race dates ripe for the picking.
Fans and even drivers are excited about the possibility of racing at the Rock, and again, that speculation is good for the sport. It has fans talking about going to the track. To some extent, it reawakens something in the old fans, a link to the good old days, and it’s making them talk. (And this is one rumor NASCAR would be wise to follow up on and make happen; it could go a long way to soothe old wounds.)
No matter what the old saying might have you believe, talk isn’t cheap. Silly Season inspires talk about NASCAR, even when the racing alone doesn’t. It brings drama that’s not made up. Silly Season is important to the sport because, in a nutshell, it plays on the things fans really care about; their drivers, their racetracks, their teams and manufacturers. The racing itself is, of course a cornerstone of all that, but if it was just about cars racing in a circle, they could get that without caring about NASCAR. It’s because of the drivers in the race, the track the race is run on, and the teams that create the machines that fans follow NASCAR’s national touring series. And as long as those things are in the news, the sport is in the news, and the fans are paying attention. It’s called Silly Season-but there is nothing silly about its vital role in NASCAR.
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