NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – Chopping off the roots of the Nationwide Series

From the drop of the green flag on the Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series and the Kroger 200 during the 1982 inaugural season until the checkered flag fell on the 2011 Kroger 200 Benefitting Riley Hospital for Children, Raceway Park in Indianapolis hosted a national touring series race for NASCAR. As the green flies over the unsponsored Nationwide Indy 250 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 30 years of support for NASCAR’s second tier series at the 0.686-mile oval on the west side of Indianapolis will officially be cast aside for the almighty dollar. Consistently great racing and large crowds for 13 years before the Cup series came to town followed by 17 years of support races was rewarded by the dates being ripped away from the track with no option to keep them. This Saturday we’ll find out if the decision was brilliance or folly.

What is now the Nationwide Series was founded as a development series in 1982 and has evolved into a support series that simply runs on the same tracks the day before the Cup series. Of the tracks on that initial 1982 schedule, there are a total of six race tracks that still host Nationwide races. Richmond and Bristol are the only two that are less than a mile in length. The inaugural schedule had a total of 23 races that took place on tracks less than a mile in length, and of the 29 races competed during the first year of the series, just 14 of them were contested on tracks that hosted Cup races. Martinsville races, all three of them, were held on weekends different from their Cup weekends. Rockingham Speedway also hosted the Nationwide boys on a June weekend which was nowhere near their Cup races at the time, and one of Richmond’s three races was on a May weekend while the Cup series was at Talladega. That means only nine of the 29 races were held as companion events.

Fast forward to 2012 and you’ll find a total of six races that take place in the Nationwide series at tracks away from the Cup series. Two races at Iowa, a visit to Elkhart Lake and Montreal are all on tracks where the Cup boys do not visit. That leaves two races, a run at Kentucky while the Cup teams are racing at Loudon during the Chase and this past weekend’s visit to Chicago while the Cup series was off. Just over 18% of the schedule was held away from the Cup series while the inaugural season saw 69% stand alone events. Not only is the schedule basically a mirror of the Cup schedule, it is also equally devoid of short track races. A grand total of six races are taking place on tracks that are less than a mile in length. That is a full 17 races less than the first year while the schedule itself is four races longer. The series, quite similarly to the Cup series that it has so obviously been mated to, has all but completely abandoned its short track roots for the sake of chasing the big money that is offered by the bigger tracks. That abandonment of the smaller venues has most certainly played a role in the drop off of the attendance at Nationwide races.

Interestingly, the Truck Series is also absent from Raceway Park this weekend. The venue chose not to have the trucks return as a stand alone event, quite to the disappointment of fans. In the all-too-familiar fashion that NASCAR has displayed with the Cup and Nationwide series, the Trucks have also left their short track roots, which is even more of a shame considering the fact that the basic “mission statement” of the Trucks, when they debuted in 1995 was to bring NASCAR national touring racing back to its short track roots. The 20-race schedule was competed on two road courses, three one-mile tracks and 15 short tracks. 2012 sees a 22 race schedule with zero road courses and a whopping five races on tracks that are less than a mile in length. Goodbye short tracks, hello money grabs at tracks where the big boys are racing.

Short tracks have smaller grandstands. They have fewer amenities and the infields and pits can be a rather difficult situation for multi-million dollar race haulers. As a result, the ticket revenues and advertising dollars are lower than they can be at bigger venues. Short tracks are also generally run by families or smaller companies rather than the billion-dollar corporations that run the vast majority of the race tracks on the current national touring series’ schedules. As a result, they have been priced out of the big-time racing business. Sanctioning fees that are closer to a million dollars than zero can make it difficult to put on a race when the stands have 30,000 people in them and the sanctioning body expects the tracks to foot a large part of the purse for races. In fact, the amount of money that the tracks have to pay just for the privilege of putting on the races combined with the money they have to pay out for the purses results in difficult times for tracks to make money on the races.

Martinsville Speedway no longer hosts a Nationwide race. They have politely declined over the last few years because they simply can’t make any money because of the sanctioning fees. 2012 saw Darlington Raceway pass on a Truck race, again due to the fact that the track cannot make money after the costs associated with just putting on the race. The continuously underlying theme in this entire story is that NASCAR has abandoned their short track roots while chasing the big money.

Raceway Park in Clermont, Indiana will be dark on Saturday night for the first time in 31 years on a midsummer night that has hosted the best racing in any national touring series over that time. Instead, the Nationwide Series will be trying to drum up the excitement about the first time one of their own has just finished kissing the bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The question for now is, how many fans will be there to watch it–and will anyone outside of the sport or the stands really care?

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