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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: NASCAR’s Summer of Discontent

In my mind I’ve always divided the Cup season into three segments. The first, the Spring Segment, runs from the season opening Daytona 500 to the Coca-Cola 600 (i.e., World 600) over Memorial Day weekend. During this opening segment we start sorting the contenders from the pretenders as drivers and teams jockey to assert themselves as potential champions. Well, OK with the silly Chase format these days — they’re actually jockeying for one of those safe top 10 spots for the Chase.

The second segment, which I call the Summer Stretch runs from Dover until the Labor Day weekend race which is at Atlanta this year rather than at Darlington as it shoulda oughta be. Yes, I am aware meteorological summer doesn’t start until June 21st. But if you grew up as I did Memorial Day weekend kicked off the summer season at the Jersey Shore, (not beach…it’s a Jersey thing) and that’s where the fondest memories of my childhood and adolescence were forged running bopping down the beach down by the tilt-a-whirl. It is during this portion of the season that some drivers who started the year slowly will emerge as potential contenders while others who started the season strong will see their chances fall apart.

The final segment is the Fall Finale. In this era of the Chase that includes the 26th event of the season, the Richmond night race which cements the twelve potential champions and the ten races that decide who that champion is. For a lot of fans that mean’s it’s time to channel surf between the race and the regional NFL game.

Right now it’s shaping up to be a real long summer that’s going to have NASCAR shedding fans like a shaking retriever puppy fresh out of the bath sheds water.

Whatever momentum NASCAR had going after a dramatic championship battle last year and the surprise Monday night time slot for the Daytona 500 (featuring an exploding jet dryer) has long since been squandered – and then some. Using the various forms of electronic communications available to them fans are expressing extreme amounts of discontent and frustration with a sport that was once a cornerstone of their weekends.

They say the races have become boring and sanitized. They rue the lack of side by side fender banging action, the lack of passes for the lead, and the top 10 often running separated by polite several second intervals. They’re disheartened by the lack of displays of genuine human emotion on the part of the drivers, though as Kurt Busch discovered (again) while we want to see a little emotion and drama we don’t need to see someone make an ass of himself. Interest in the sport is waning and if Brian France thinks the great and wonderful Danica is going to reignite the flame, his vision is clearly clouded to the point that he needs a seeing-eye dog. (Sorry, service-animal.)

When they came up with the current Cup schedule it was almost as if NASCAR took dead aim and shot themselves in the foot. Over the last few year’s the tracks scheduled during the Summer Stretch have featured lackluster droning parades with the outcomes too often decided by fuel mileage. So what tracks are part of the Summer Stretch? They’ll race at Dover, Pocono (twice) Michigan (twice), Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Bristol and Atlanta.

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“And the crowd goes mild!” This scene from Michigan following a Tuesday rain-delayed 2007 race might be a bit exaggerated. However, there’s a reason why they removed a large swath of grandstands last year.

I don’t see an AKC Blue Ribbon winner anywhere in that litter.

Despite my cynicism I remain at heart an eternal optimist. I’ve been following racing long enough to realize that on any given Sunday at any given track there could be a classic race that everyone will be talking about for months afterwards. The Kansas track may have produced some of the worst races I’ve ever endured, but I still remember a magical afternoon back in 2004 when Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd went at it hammer and tongs for a win, decided by less than a tenth of a second.

A lot of folks don’t like Pocono but most of them will recall a Monday afternoon there in 2000 when Jeremy Mayfield rattled the Intimidator’s cage out of the final corner to take the win, even though Earnhardt has now been eleven years in his grave. While I don’t like road course races (and they are usually amongst the lowest rated TV races all season), I will admit both last years races with right turns featured some incredible action.

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500 grueling miles used to have drivers, teams, and fans alike screaming “Poc-Oh No!” Mercifully, the distance has been reduced to 400 miles for 2012.

There are also some stories I’m anxious to see play out this summer. Bruton Smith is spending a ton of money trying to bring back the old “bullring” at Bristol. (Frankly I’m afraid he’s wasting his money. I think the problem at Bristol is how the drivers points race these days not the track surface.) Both Pocono and Michigan have been repaved which ought to shuffle the deck some the first time out. In addition the two Pocono events have been shortened from 500 miles to 400.

I’m anxious to see if that helps eliminate the long boring stretches during the middle of the race where the drivers set it on cruise control. A valid argument could be made that 400 miles is still too long and 300 miles would be better still. In fact I’ll go ahead and say every race with the exception of the Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500 ought to have their distances slashed in half as the worst part of most races is the middle. If drivers are only going to race the last fifteen laps in the Firecracker 400, how about we make the races 25 laps long and get out of there in under an hour.

Some races I’m pretty much resigned to being terrible. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of road courses or plate racing. There have been some memorable winners at the Brickyard, but not a single memorable NASCAR race I can recall. I keep a DVD of recent Michigan races handy for nights that I have trouble falling asleep. Using a DVD of any New Hampshire race for the same purpose would just be self abuse. Atlanta is just one of those tracks where either the race is terrible or its outstanding with few falling in between. My favorite Dover race was run awhile back featuring Bill Elliott in Junior Johnson’s Bud Ford against Ricky Rudd in the Tide car. Had Elliott won that race he would have in fact been the 1992 Cup champion.

Let’s look at the bright side. After Dover, DW and the FOX crew will pack their things and boogity, boogity, boogity out of town for another yearm leaving a wake of aural torture, misguided notions, unsold Digger t-shirts, swimsuit pictures of Danica, and lame single car and wreck footage. Truthfully, I never thought FOX could get any worse, but this year they’ve been relentlessly putrid. I feel that their coverage or lack thereof is one of the reasons fans have adopted a mindset the racing is awful.

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McLaughlin has never been a fan of road course racing at Infineon Raceway or Watkins Glen. Apparently nothing interesting ever happens there.

In my opinion no network, not even ESPN in its glory days back when, can make an awful race seem like a good one. No network, not even FOX at the extremes of their ineptitude, can make a great race seem like a bad one. But in their day, Parsons, Jarrett and Jenkins could make a decent race a pleasure to watch, while FOX’s coverage of such an event makes it intolerable. Most fans I interact with think the brief weeks of the season that TNT covers are the best race broadcasts, even if they’re not necessarily the best races of the year. Then ESPN takes the reins, though their only interest in NASCAR lately seems to be using it as a platform to promote upcoming and even concurrent college football games.

My guess is that they’ll be a lot less voices complaining about racing this summer not because most of the races won’t suck but because they’ll be dramatically fewer former fans following the sport. Come on, folks, it is after all sweet, sweet, summertime, summertime (or it’s about to be and frankly in these parts its often felt like summer time even in February this year.) It’s time for a carnival life down the shore in Jersey and the beach in the other coastal states. It’s time for neighborhood barbecues and tossing horseshoes with your friends, ’till cold beer renders you unable to even hit the pit.

For folks of my ilk, it’s time for long rides in the saddle of a V-twin motorcycle, the sun on your back and the pipes singing a staccato opera. For others its afternoons on the boat in open water and trying to land that big old bass that got away last year. It’s time for amusement parks (rising bold and stark), clambakes and county fairs featuring country singers I won’t put a name to, because you’re all bored of the joke and I’m afraid of getting sued. It’s time for car shows. It’s time for girls in their summer clothes and the intriguing possibilities they present though like those bass they usually get away.

It’s time for hot summer nights on the front porch counting the fireflies and smelling the tiger lilies hoping for a breeze as Orion chases the Pleiades sisters in a violet sky above. It’s time for carefully polished old fire engines and Shriners on monkey bikes in the Fourth of July parades and dazzling fireworks displays to celebrate our great fortune to be Americans. It’s time to stomp open the four barrels of an old muscle car riding home from the fireworks with _Sandy_* blasting as loud as that old 8-track can manage.

I don’t mind a stock car race on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It passes the time. But for most of us when the mercury rises, the sun is shining and living is easy it just seems a shame to waste four hours of your life watching a race that likely will leave you frustrated and angry not excited and sated. As one of my readers, DKAP, wrote in the comments section under Monday’s recap “It’s getting to the point where a person can’t drink enough beer to make this ‘racing’ interesting.”

* Yes, I know it’s actually _Fourth of July, Asbury Park_, but you don’t know my lifetime ago girlfriend Sandy.