Race Weekend Central

Give ‘Em What They Want?

Despite what we tell ourselves, sports are entertainment.

While the competitions we watch are often instilled with virtues like honor, sacrifice, and courage under pressure, the underlying factor is that these events are little more than diversionary exercises. Escapism is what we need given the demands of our day-to-day lives, and sports serve to allow such an escape in the guise of athletic endeavor. We may be cheering for our favorite team (no matter what the sport), but we are – in fact – cheering for the diversion the event provides.

I can’t jump to my feet and roar out with a primal scream while in my office, but I sure can when in the grandstands at a football game; the thrill of the sport provides me with an emotional release that feeds my animal nature and refreshes my soul. The same can be said for a piece of music, a movie, or a good book; the same goes for NASCAR racing.

As I (among others) have written, NASCAR provides an all-encompassing sensory experience to those in attendance. While watching a race on television is sometimes exciting (like the eight-car photo finish at Talladega’s Cup race last spring) or emotional (like Trevor Bayne’s Cinderella win in the 2011 Daytona 500), there’s nothing that can compare to seeing a race in person. Much of the difference stems from the fact that going at the track means living the event: being able to smell the rubber and the exhaust, feeling the ground shake as 43 cars take the green flag, hearing the roar of engines and the squeal of air guns – no home theater system of plasma screens and multiple speakers can replicate this kind of sensory overload.

No amount of surround sound speakers, subwoofers, or refresh rate can duplicate the sound, fury, and violence of being ground zero in the 200mph buzzsaw of a Talladega NASCAR race.

We go to the racetrack so we can “be” in the moment with our friends, our neighbors, and our heroes. The experience is a significant component of the fun, as any walk through an infield camping area will attest. As such, race fans expect to see a good race, and we’re often disappointed when the outcome of the day falls short of our expectations. Even if our favorite driver fails to win (or even finish), we want lasting memories of the exciting competition we saw; much of the diversion’s relevance comes from the memories created by the event. If I’m able to remember a breathtaking race, I’m more likely to forget my lousy job, the pile of bills on my desk, and the general feeling of stagnation in my everyday life.

Given this idea, the recent events surrounding complaints over the quality of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway strike me as antithetical to the nature of what NASCAR Nation expects from the sport it loves. Regardless of where a race takes place, one of the factors making stock car competition unique is the way that cars can run in close proximity to one another, going door-to-door at speed without fear of making contact. Contact is, however, a quality of NASCAR racing that tends to put fans in the stands – the bumping, beating, and banging that separates these types of cars from their open-wheeled brethren. The law of averages dictates that vehicles racing at high speed, in close proximity to each other for consecutive laps will inevitably touch one another, so the two factors combine to create much of what makes NASCAR so popular.

The problem with all this theory is that to experience one condition, you often have to encourage the other. To complicate matters even more, we have to consider the role of the track itself.

Following the running of the Food City 500 two weeks ago, the blogosphere of social media erupted with criticism of the “new” Bristol Motor Speedway and how the kinder-and-gentler race track had turned NASCAR into NICECAR. Going into the particulars of adding graduated banking and creating a second racing groove in 2007 would be overkill here, since NASCAR Nation knows what happened and how the competition at Bristol has changed. What’s more important to consider is how nostalgia for the “old” configuration has manifested itself in the form of fan-induced pressure on Speedway Motorsports Incorporated CEO Bruton Smith. In the aftermath of the Food City 500, the rapid dissemination of fan criticism led to an even-more-rapid decision to change the configuration of the track.

File this under “Power to the People.”

Smith, one of the most proficient showmen in professional sports, not only heard the grumbling of fans, he actually encouraged public feedback through comments posted on Bristol’s website. And what was the result? Comments from NASCAR fans showed that 75% of those willing to share their opinions/input wanted a return to the Bristol Motor Speedway of pre-2007. Side-by-side, multiple lane racing wasn’t aggressive enough to their liking; the majority of fans who shared their comments wanted nose-to-tail competition punctuated by pushing, shoving, wrecking, and the emotional outbursts that so often followed.

But while physical racing often makes for an exciting experience, it also makes for more work. Wrecking a stock car looks wild from the stands (and even from the living room sofa); however, the thrill of aggressive racing soon gives way to late nights at the race shop. Staying ahead with the preparation of the cars needed to run the regular schedule is laborious enough, but adding torn-up cars to a stable of race-ready ones is overkill. The usually-underpaid, often-overworked crew member who already logs long hours stooped over a chassis jig, or working in the fabrication shop, or painting cars in a spray booth can expect more of the same upon a return to the Bristol of old. Nights at home with the family give way to nights spent making up for the carnage of a weekend in Tennessee.

Say what you want to about crew members loving the sport, or the opportunity for a hard-working employee to earn some overtime pay, but adding unnecessary work to an already-necessary “to do” list seems oddly selfish.

So re-creating a form of NASCAR competition that creates more work for race teams is deemed worthy of track changes that will exceed one million dollars in costs? Even if the idea has merit, one has to wonder about whom, eventually, will absorb the expenses for the changes. It might be Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated at first, but won’t these added costs ultimately be passed on to race fans? Is nostalgia for “the good ol’ days” of Bristol Motor Speedway worth the likely-increased price of going to the races? If this expense is what 75% of those who shared input with Smith via the track’s web site wanted, will a reconfigured track guarantee a much-needed increase in attendance? Should we assume that NASCAR fans want the old-style, one-groove, move-or-be-moved form of racing we used to see at Bristol?

This notion reflects the “bread and circuses” aspect of today’s NASCAR: the Ancient Roman philosophy that giving fans what they want to appease their demands is in the best interests of the sport. Such is the way that diversions operate; the satisfaction of the audience is seen as more important than the event or experience itself. But how many other professional sports enterprises allow fans to directly influence basic infrastructure-type decisions? If I’m upset about boring baseball games at Fenway Park, can I post a comment on the ballpark’s web site and demand that the Green Monster in left field be brought in to allow for more home runs? While sounding like an ideal option in this age of Facebook and Twitter, it’s also impossible to fathom.

Do the opinions of general fans carry as much authority as the power wielded by a sanctioning body or track owner?

Et tu, Bruton? CEO Smith in a move to appease fan reaction has given the thumbs up to returning Bristol back to a one-groove Thunderdome. Are you not entertained?!

We saw something akin to changes in infrastructure back when Tiger Woods became a presence on the PGA Tour. It’s not just that Woods (pre-scandal) was a superior player, but that the overall nature of professional golf was changing; improved equipment and player conditioning made longer tee shots more common, and this new style of play rendered older course layouts inadequate. Changing the length of old courses was driven by a need to meet the demands of the modern game.

The same might be said for NASCAR as both cars and drivers have become better in terms of closer and more consistent competition in recent years; the slam-and-bang of “old school” NASCAR has given way to a more polished-and-precise kind of racing that encourages increased strategy at all levels. Contact is still a factor, to be sure, but more of a premium has been placed on precision and position. This is where the “new” Bristol seems to fill a necessary need.

Above all, change is inevitable. Styles of cars, styles of driving, styles of pit stops, and styles of racetracks are all susceptible to innovation and revision. Even the “old” Bristol Motor Speedway, as celebrated as it is by today’s fans was, at one time, a form of “new” Bristol in its own right. The original configuration of the track circa 1961 was changed in 1969 to feature high-banked corners which affected the kind of racing going on there given a new era in stock cars. Thinking in this way, we need to consider if changing a speedway in order to capture the spirit of days-gone-by is realistic.

Racetracks are always changing, and not just in that existential sense of “you never fish the same river twice” – usage, weather conditions, and other variables alter the make-up of a racing surface, as does adjustments brought about through new attitudes toward the sport. There’s a reason why so many tracks widened aprons, modified pit roads, opened up garage areas, and added seating during the heyday of the 1990s. Ironically, those earlier changes are why so many tracks are seeking to adapt more closely to current decreases in-and-around the sport. To quote Merle Haggard: “Are the good times really over for good?”

Empty grandstands at tracks all around the series suggest at least a temporary slowdown, but conditions seem as though they might be improving a bit.

Staying ahead of the aging curve is essential for racetracks, as is keeping current with developments in safety. When Watkins Glen changed its configuration after the death of J.D. McDuffie there in 1991, the move was motivated by the need to reduce a driver’s chance of injury. The creation of SAFER barriers has led tracks to rethink their overall structural makeup as better surfaces give way to the need for better retaining walls. NASCAR stalwarts like Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway will see new pavement, while Charlotte Motor Speedway will undergo some improvements as well in 2012.

Sports, inevitably, evolve, and track changes are just part of that process. Will new asphalt, new structures, and new attitudes make for a new approach to competition? The greater hope is that staying current with what fans want will correspond with increased ticket sales and event attendance. So can you go forwards by going backwards?

We’re about to find out. Might a return to the “old” Bristol Motor Speedway mean a return to standing-room only grandstands and rabid demand for the hottest ticket in NASCAR? Bruton Smith can only hedge his bets and hope so. Only one thing is for certain: a return to pre-2007 Bristol will be proof positive that the “bread and circuses” philosophy of Ancient Rome has found new life within NASCAR Nation.

In the end, it’s all about the show…

“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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