Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Action & Inaction Both Breeding NASCAR Dissatisfaction

On Wednesday, it was confirmed that one of the worst ideas ever was coming to fruition. No, not the specter of taxpayers being on the hook for another $1 trillion, this time covering the vig for student loan debts (but take heart, that’s just around the corner), but rather Bruton Smith moving forward with ruining yet another perfectly good NASCAR racetrack in the hopes of – wait for it – improving racing.

Good God, where have we heard this before? Oh I know, right after the race at Kansas on Sunday.

Despite the pleas from drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards – who declared he would lay down in front of the bulldozers – the Kansas track is going to be resurfaced. While there are some large gaps in the track that need to be sealed, as well as a chunk of pavement that came up in turn 1 on Saturday, it was not as if the track was in need of a complete overhaul. How many times has Chicago been reconfigured and it still sucks? (Editor’s Note: Chicagoland Speedway has actually never been reconfigured.)

Repaving a track does not make for improved racing; if anything, it delays the time required for the pavement to settle, racing grooves to be established and ultimately for the track to develop its own character and idiosyncrasies.

There’s a reason why the biggest story the last few weeks was the return to racing at Rockingham – and that was just the Truck Series. As much as everybody is pumped for a rare short-track race at Richmond this weekend followed by the following week’s first trip to Talladega, many more still are waiting for the Southern 500 ran over Mother’s Day weekend. It’s shaped like an egg and gets repaved once every 20 years because its surface gets naturally sandblasted and destroys anything that comes in contact with it short of an M1 Abrams tank tread. Besides, how many track layouts these days are determined by minnow ponds?

In 2005, Charlotte Motor Speedway attempted a resurfacing of the track, which more less ruined the character and uniqueness of what ironically was the track that served as the inspiration for all of the cookie-cutter tracks constructed during the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

What resulted was the best track in the world reduced to a shadow of its former self. Kind of like that blond chick in the movie Sucker Punch who receives an unsolicited lobotomy and goes from a vibrant, dynamic heroine, into a vapid, empty shell. A few days of grinding left what had been the ultimate showplace in the heart of NASCAR country without bumps and without character.

As Mark Martin put it at the time, “They took the greatest racetrack in the world and ruined it.”

Sadly, it appears that same thing is now going to happen at Bristol Motor Speedway, simply because there isn’t any wrecking, which allegedly is keeping fans away. Never mind the obscenely high price of a race weekend with unemployment tickling 10% and gas nudging north of $4 a gallon – sometimes food and paying the electric bill take precedence over “Racin’ The Way it Oughta Be” – or at least used to be.

As the changes were explained during the press conference, a grinding machine was fired up and hard at work tearing up the top groove of the track. The goal is to remove the progressive banking and make running three-wide less attainable – while making contact inevitable.

The days of running multiple lines and door to door have been short-lived; instead, Bristol is now going to be a one and a half groove track where to get around somebody, you have to pop them in the back in the middle of a corner, in hopes of bringing back the dumbest thing to enter the sports lexicon since the term Young Gun was shoved down our throats 10 years ago: The Bump and Run.

Oh wow, what skill that takes. There’s a reason that Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are considered among the best drivers on the planet. They don’t have to run into each other to execute a pass.

Yeah, I know F1-bashers… they have to do it on the start or in the pits. Sorry, but I just don’t get too excited over celebrating the accomplishments of a guy not slowing down in the middle of a corner to hit another car to pass them. I could spend $10 to see that at Berlin Raceway – except there they race cleaner there and with more respect.

Here’s an easier solution to Bristol’s alleged woes: have Goodyear show up with a tire that wears out after 30 laps. As I’ve said before, these aren’t Assureatreds with a 70,000-mile warranty. Want some cautions? Erect a gigantic fan to blow trash all over the track, which apparently they have in Fontana at Auto Club Speedway. I thought that place was built on a foundry, not a landfill. Every time there’s a race there, I have to check the Drudge Report to make sure there isn’t a tickertape parade we’re holding for returning heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We didn’t want to create a trainwreck here in what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We’re modifying what we have. We think it will be a lot better than it was. It will be exciting.”

If watching 100 laps under caution at $109 a seat the last week of summer is “exciting,” then maybe things will turn out OK and my Mayan doomsday scenario will be avoided.

“We think we’ll win all these race fans over to our side on this. They’re going to love it. Chances are we’ll have a complete sellout in August.”

True. But there’s also a chance it will be a colossal disaster. Then again, there’s also a chance that it won’t matter. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s there to see it… does it pay to have it cut down in the first place?

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With NASCAR’s continued popularity issue and lack of sponsorship, there is another side effect at hand here that is affecting fans on a weekly basis: a dearth of new commercials.

Unless you’re really into 5-hour Energy, NAPA parts or shopping at Lowe’s, you’ve pretty much seen every ad that in the rotation by the time the F/A-18s fly over. One recent addition however that caught my attention is the spot for the Dodge Charger touting American Innovation.

Uh, really?

The Dodge Charger, whose basic structure has been with us since 2005, is built on the leftovers of a 10-year old Mercedes E and S-Class platform, using a transmission of similar vintage mated to an updated version of a decade-old pushrod truck engine that’s made in Mexico – with everything later assembled in Canada. Big shocker why it’s halftime in America and we’re down points; the auto industry is based in Detroit, yet the powertrain is driven right past the Motor City and put together in Ontario.

If you opt for the Challenger, a Charger in a coupe costume, you get the same basic package, unless you opt for the manual transmission in the R/T and SRT8 models – which is ultimately a derivative of a 20-year-old transmission. Don’t get me wrong, this is perfectly fine and preferred in a muscle car, using bulletproof, sorted out, proven components – except for one small detail.

You can’t do anything with them.

Chrysler has seen fit to not assist the performance community with its iconic pair of Mopar muscle twins, which rely heavily on their lore and successes from 40 years ago to market their mainstream NASCAR-approved boulevard bruisers. Starting in 2011, the two feature an engine control computer with a rolling encryption code, much like a garage-door opener, making it impossible to improve performance – unless Chrysler offers their assistance – which to date they have declined.

This sort of basic modern-day hot rodding is key to the billion-dollar Ford aftermarket business for the Mustang, as well as cursory Camaro tinkering, both the key to the continued survival and relevancy of these storied marquees. Ford has a technology transfer program with a number of vendors, tuners and performance shops, as well as General Motors, who markets Nurburgring-approved Cadillacs and will put a supercharger or turbo on anything these days.

Chrysler however seems content to talk a good game – yet contradict itself in the process.

The natives however, are growing restless. Peruse any of the enthusiast forums for the Dodge Charger and Challenger, and there is a near mutiny afoot, with threats of defecting from Dodge to Ford or even worse – the dark side for the Pentastar proud – Chevrolet. It would be wise for Chrysler to heed the warning signs, otherwise they may find the general public pulling a Penske, and exploring options from both the Blue Oval and Bowtie brigades to better, ahem, “benchmark” their machines.

If they refuse and turn a deaf ear to those pleading their case, their may be one less commercial – and brand – to watch during a race weekend.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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